Chapter 28. "A Science of Human Nature" by John Stuart Mill

Table of Contents
Ideas of Interest from A System of Logic
The Reading Selection from A System of Logic
Related Ideas
Topics Worth Investigating

John Stuart Mill, Thoemmes

About the author…

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was entirely home-schooled by his father and was subjected to a remarkable education. His autobiography is recommended reading in large part because it shows the dangers of an intensely intellectual education which neglects the emotional aspects of life. His father secured for him a position in the East India Company which provided him the opportunity for continuing the utilitarian tradition begun by Jeremy Bentham. He spent his life advancing a logical and scientific approach to social and political problems. His Utilitarianism is generally considered the foundational statement on the nature of happiness for the individual and society. Partly as a result of reading Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America and partly from his discussions with Harriet Taylor, Mill feared the conformist attitude of the middle working class threated individual freedoms and authored On Liberty which remains a classic statement today. In his The Subjection of Women, Mill argues for equality of freedom of the sexes in spite of the 19th century's widespread bias that women were of a different nature than men.

About the work…

In our selection from A System of Logic,[1] his first significant book, Mill argues that a science of human nature is no different from any other kind of exact science. In astronomy, the movement of the planets can be predicted with certainty because the laws of motions and the antecedent circumstances can be, he thinks, known with certainty. The rise and fall of the tides, on the other hand, can only be imprecisely known because local antecedent conditions cannot be known or measured exactly. The study of human nature is similar to tidology because of the complexity of the factors in human action. Nevertheless, Mill argues that, in principle, both tidology and human nature can become exact sciences.

Ideas of Interest from A System of Logic

  1. According to Mill, what is the difference between astronomy and tidology? Does Mill think tidology will ever be an exact science?

  2. Do you think Mill believes any inexact science is only inexact because of the complexity of causes as applied in specific instances?

  3. When Mill writes, "Now if these minor causes are not so constantly accessible, or not accessible at all to accurate observation, the principal mass of the effect may still, as before, be accounted for, and even predicted…," is he arguing for the validity of a science based on probability theory?

  4. According to Mill, what is the ideal goal of a science (i.e., its perfection)?

  5. Does Mill think that the study of the ideas, feelings, and acts of human beings can, in principle, achieve the exactitude of a perfect science? If so, would such a science preclude the possibility of the freedom of the will?

  6. If human actions cannot be accurately predicted in specific instances because of the inexhaustible number of prior conditions, then would deterministic conditions still obviate the possibility of free choice? Explain your answer.



John Stuart Mill. A System of Logic: Ratiocinative and Inductive. New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1893, Bk. VI, Ch. IV.