Lecture Notes #19: Harriet Hardy Taylor Mill (1807-1858)

A. Web Resources

See KJW's web page at http://www.macalester.edu/~warren

B. Brief Biography

1. She was born in London in 1807, a middle child among seven children.

2. Little is known of Harriet's parents, except that her father was a successful surgeon and male midwife of the lower aristocracy who provided good education for all of his children" (Mary Ellen Waithe, (in A History of Women Philosophers, Vol. 3, 246).

3. At 18, she married 29 year old John Taylor, a wholesale druggist, and had two sons.

4. She probably met John Stuart Mill in 1830, four years after she married John Taylor. But they immediately became emotionally and intellectually involved (Kersey, Women Philosophers: A Bio-Critical Source Book, 156).

a. The deep commitment lasted over twenty years before they were married. During that time she lived apart from John Taylor.

b. Despite "considerable gossip," they met often, traveled together, and, after 1840, according to Mill, "collaborated on virtually all of his philosophical writings" (Kersey, 156).

c. Mill's posthumous Autobiography eulogizes Harriet Taylor Mill. Mill says she has "a vigour and truth of imagination, a delicacy of perception, an accuracy and nicety of observation, only equaled by her propounding of speculative thought, and by a practical judgment and discernment next to infallible."

d. According to Frederick Hayeck (John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor), if Mill is to be believed, "we should have to regard her as one of the most remarkable women who ever lived" (Hayeck, 13). Hayeck claims that, whatever her capacities as a philosopher, her influence on nurturing the rational (not the sentimental) strain in Mill's thought was as great as Mill claims (Hayeck, 17).

5. In Mill's (and Taylor's) The Principles of Political Economy (1848), they argued that individual and political liberty could not be realized or enjoyed at all without alleviating social ills.

a. As they saw the problem, the main issue was how to reconcile "diametrically opposed principles of individualism and socialism (as embodied in the systems of capitalism and socialism). It was a dilemma they could not resolve except to suggest that any eventual decision would probably depend on whichever system was consistent with the greatest amount of human liberty" (Kersey, 157).

b. Taylor substantially revised the first draft of Principles, and created many of the illustrative examples. She also added a chapter on the future of the ruling class (Waithe, 249).

6. On Liberty (1859) defends individual freedom from governmental interference except when failure to interfere would create sufficient harm to others (both private individuals and public institutions, and both behavior and opinions) to warrant restriction or coercion of individual freedoms.

a. They argued that liberty is the sole power that can avert "the tyranny of public opinion" and the mediocrity that "results from an ascendancy of the masses" (Kersey, 157).

b. They claimed that, although it is difficult to know where to draw the line between freedom (liberty) and social control, the presumption in favor of liberty must be favored. (Stated differently, the burden of proof always remains on those who would limit individual freedom.)

c. Waithe: "The full extent of Taylor’s contributions to On Liberty is unclear, although Michael Packe holds the view that it was an elaboration on Taylor's views initially expressed in her essays on marriage and divorce and on toleration of nonconformity" (250).

7. In addition to her (ghostwriting) with Mill, according to Hayeck, Taylor wrote philosophically as early as 1830. She was part of a circle of Unitarian radicals and Benthamite philosophers, social theorists, and literary writers.

a. The social and political views of members of these groups, including those of Harriet Taylor (probably as early as 1830), were published in the Unitarian journal, the Monthly Repository.

b. An early draft of an unpublished essay on the subject of marriage and divorce appeared in 1832. In it Taylor claims that once women have equal rights and access to education and employment, and enjoy the same political rights as men, a woman's decision to have children would imply a right and responsibility to provide for them (Waithe, 247).

c. Taylor wrote at least six poems and several book reviews. In addition to her other collaboration, Taylor collaborated with Mill on a series of newspaper articles, and a pamphlet primarily on domestic violence (Jacobs, in Presenting Women Philosophers, 155).

d. Many scholars claim that, during 1850-1851, Taylor wrote the essay Enfranchisement of Women in the July 1851 issue of the Utilitarian journal, Westminster Review. (Some argue that it was much too radical a piece to have been written by Taylor.) Apparently, Mill edited the work.

e. Taylor wrote a long article for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (Jacobs, 155).

8. John Taylor died of cancer in 1849. Taylor devoted herself to nursing him the last two months. She married Mill in 1851. They lived a quiet life, with Mill continuing as clerk and chief examiner of the India House (where he worked for 35 years until his retirement in 1858).

9. Although both in poor health, they traveled often. On a trip to southern France, Harriet died of lung congestion. She was buried in Avignon cemetery. Weeks later Mill bought a cottage nearby, where he lived with his stepdaughter, Helen, for the rest of his life, visiting Harriet's grave daily.

C. Harriet Taylor Mill as Philosopher: Jo Ellen Jacobs (in Presenting Women Philosophers, 155-166)

1. The love story between Taylor and Mill is interesting, "but their philosophical collaboration is even more interesting because it raises questions about the way we write, the way we conceive of authorship, and the way we do philosophy" (155).

2. What is coauthorship?

a. Coauthorship does not mean or require that a coauthor be a scribe (i.e., one who actually writes the words on the page) (156). And this is a view of coauthorship Mill explicitly denies.

b. Coauthorship can mean "contributing [key] ideas," in which case Taylor was a coauthor of several of Mill's works.

c. Drawing on her own experiences of coauthorship, Jacobs claims that, after editing, reediting, writing, and rewriting each other's work, "it becomes impossible to determine who contributed what idea or even who contributed more" (156).

d. Citing collaboration in the writing of documents in business, movies, and television, Jacobs claims that one may legitimately claim authorship of a work in which the bulk of the writing was done by someone else (157

e. "Without reasonable evidence to the contrary, it seems reasonable to believe that work is collaborative if the participants say it is so" (157).

3. Given the preceding, "there is much biographical and textual evidence" for the collaboration of Taylor and Mill on The Principles of Political Economy and, most evidently, on On Liberty, at least. The biographical evidence includes the open letters Taylor wrote her husband, John, in which she reports about her work on manuscripts with Mill, where she writes, for example, how "taken up with the Book which is near the last" (159).

4. Nor did Taylor fail to mention her own contributions to Mill's works in private.

5. Other historical and empirical evidence of their collaboration is found in the fact that she did pen some of the writing (in her own handwriting).

6. Finally, "the collaborative aspect of either writing is consistent with the socialism and feminism that they tried to live. They did not believe that philosophy, particularly in its political and ethical stands, was meant only for the classroom or the debate club. Rather, they both believed that the two most important issues of the age were "emancipation of women and cooperative production." Writing collaboratively about women’s issues was a perfect carrying out and living of their commitment to both of these issues, for they felt that no one person owns a text" (164).

D. Harriet Taylor Mill as Philosopher: Mary Ellen Waithe (in A History of Women Philosophers, Vol. 3, 246-251)

1. "Those who are amused by evidence that Harriet Taylor Mill coauthored philosophical texts with Mill, should note that she is nor mere student of his. An important difference is that Harriet Taylor's views on women’s rights to employment were strongly opposed to those maintained by Mill. This is alarming in a married couple, and neither appears to have been able to concise the other respecting this subject" (248).

2. Four decades after Taylor's essay on marriage and divorce, in the Subjection of Women, "Mill maintained that by marrying a woman gave up all right to independent employment. In Mill's view, once a woman married, her career consisted exclusively of that of wife, mother, and counterpart to her husband" (248).

3. Consistent with Mill's view "that a wife was the husband's "intelligent" helpmeet, Mill acknowledged Taylor's joint authorship everywhere except on the title pages. This was in deference to the written request of John Taylor, Harriet's husband, who was at that time dying of cancer" (248).

4. Hayeck claims that Taylor's essay on toleration of nonconformity appeared (unpublished) in 1832. If so, Taylor's essay anticipates On Liberty in its focus on the social and political pressures against dissenting opinions and for governmental coercion. On Taylor's account, "the effect of suppression of dissent is that an inversion of values occurs: the virtuous tolerance of dissent is called vice, and vicious intolerance is called virtue. The result is a muddled uniformity of opinion and values codified as complex rules of decorum covering every aspect of human social interaction. In such a society, etiquette masquerades as ethics" (249).

5. Discussions of Taylor's importance as a philosopher typically focus on the extent to which Mill accurately represents her contributions to works published under his name. Some think Mill is an unreliable witness; others do not.

a. Those who think Mill is unreliable sometimes describe Taylor as "a shrill, domineering, disloyal wife, who was callously insensitive to the effects on her long-suffering first husband of her public relationship with Mill" (250). On this account, Taylor was Mill's muse and copy-editor. Waithe thinks these accounts "make good press" but are inaccurate.

b. Those who think Mill is reliable describe Taylor as "a decent woman who was unfairly constrained in a loveless marriage to an equally decent man. On this view, we ought to accept as truthful Mill's repeated claims of Taylor's philosophic as well as editorial contributions to works publicly attributed to him" (250-251).

c. Waithe thinks that the position that Mill is reliable "has greater weight, in part because it is simpler and does not require us to concoct unkind psychological theories about both Mill and Taylor. The conclusion which I am drawn to is that Harriet Taylor was a competent libertarian feminist philosopher" (251). Taylor's independent and often conflicting views (with those of Mill) make her an important person in libertarian and feminist philosophy (251).

E. Harriet Taylor Mill as Philosopher: Ethel M. Kersey (Women Philosophers: A Bio-Critical Source Book, 156-158)

1. History had not "seem fit to fully believe Mill's panegyrics about his wife. But it is also difficult not to put some credence in the remarks of this most dispassionate and level-headed of philosophers" (156)

2. Kersey agrees with Hayeck that if we are to believe Mill that two of his major works, The Principles of Political Economy and On Liberty, were "joint productions" of Harriet and himself, Taylor's influence on Mills philosophy was great.

3. Why weren't they then published as coauthored? According to Kersey, "it should be kept in mind that as long as Harriet remained married to John Taylor, discretion was necessitated. He understandably even objected to having The Principles of Political Economy dedicated to her.

4. Kersey argues that Taylor and Mill disagreed about women being educated for their own sakes (not just so they would be fit mothers or fit companions for men).

a. Taylor wanted every career open to women regardless of whether they were wives or mothers.

b. Kersey claims that Mill wanted the same liberties for men and women, "but if a woman chose marriage and motherhood, he believed she should devote herself exclusively to that occupation" (Kersey, 157).