Chapter 16. "Art as Intrinsic Personal Feeling" by John Stuart Mill

Table of Contents
Ideas of Interest from "Thoughts on Poetry and Its Varieties"
The Reading Selection "Thoughts on Poetry and Its Varieties"
Related Ideas
Topics Worth Investigating

John Stuart Mill, (adapted) Library of Congress

About the author …

As detailed in his widely read Autobiography, John Stuart Mill was the subject of a remarkable and rigorous education under the direction of his father and Jeremy Bentham. His studies were exclusively academic with few opportunities for friendship and normal emotional development. In his Autobiography, Mill wrote, "From this neglect both in theory and in practice of the cultivation of feeling, naturally resulted, among other things, an under-valuing of poetry, and of Imagination generally, as an element of human nature."[1] Soon after he turned 20, he suffered a profound depression from which he sought recovery through the friendship of Harriet Taylor and by immersion in Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Goethe. Mill's major subsequent influence is, however, not in Šsthetics, but in logic and political philosophy: his magnum opus is generally considered to be the System of Logic. He is notable for his advocation of women's rights as part of his argued views on liberty and gender equality.

About the work …

In his "Thoughts on Poetry and Its Varieties,"[2] Mill regards the poet and the artist, whether by nature or cultivation, as one who individually expresses the intuitive truth of thoughts which embody feelings. Mill's Šsthetics are of interest since they stand in contrast to the dominant view of nineteenth-century Šsthetics that the ideal of art is the expression of the typology of divine nature itself. Indeed, most of the writers on Šsthetics in the nineteenth century were nonphilosophers who viewed art from a moral and religious point of view. For Mill, poetry is an intrinsic expression of feeling, not a means of communication as is eloquent speech. While poetry expresses feeling as an end-in-itself, fiction communicates feeling through incident and plot. In this sense, poetry is similar to other arts such as sculpture, painting, and music: their beauty is in soliloquy rather than dramatic effect. Even though the value of poetry is intrinsic, Mill believes poetry is, as well, culturally significant.

Ideas of Interest from "Thoughts on Poetry and Its Varieties"

  1. How does Mill distinguish poetry from non-poetry? What is his distinction between a novel and a poem?

  2. What, according to Mill, is a good definition of poetry?

  3. How does Mill contrast science and poetry? Does his contrast depend upon the different faculties of sensibility and understanding?

  4. How does Mill characterize the difference between the born poet and the cultivated poet? How is this difference illustrated in his discussion of the poetry of Wordsworth and Shelley?

  5. What, according to Mill, is a sufficient condition for the presence of poetry? Why does he think the critic has difficulty recognizing the presence of poetry?

  6. Describe Mill's discussion of the relation between poetry and philosophy. On Mill's view, why is a philosopher becoming a poet less likely than a poet becomming a philosopher?



John Stuart Mill. Autobiography. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1971. Chapter IV.


John Stuart Mill. Dissertations and Discussions. London: Parker. 1859.