The second scribe

Jo Ellen Jacobs argues that Harriet Taylor was the co-author of On Liberty.

Harriet Taylor Mill

Harriet Taylor Mill

Who wrote On Liberty? Nearly everyone with a college education could tell you – well – should be able to tell you that the author is John Stuart Mill. But not so fast…

Scholars have debated the role of Harriet Taylor Mill in the composition of On Liberty almost continuously since the text appeared. Some commentators say she didn’t have anything to do with it, others that she did – and that explains why the book is not very good. Only a very few of us argue that her contribution was both significant and positive. A contemporary Mill scholar, Alan Ryan, suggests that “it would be more foolish to exaggerate Harriet’s role than to deny it.” Perhaps I am an exaggerating fool. I’ve been called worse.

Harriet Taylor Mill was a Victorian radical, a feminist economist, a philosopher, and the author of “The Enfranchisement of Women”, an influential article published in The Westminster Review. For twenty years she worked and travelled with John Stuart Mill, before marrying him in 1851. Harriet has been labelled many things: “a philosopher in petticoats”; “one of the meanest and dullest ladies in literary history, a monument of nasty self-regard, as lacking in charm as in grandeur”; a “tempestuous” “shrew”; “a female autocrat”; a “domineering, . . . perverse and selfish, invalid woman”; a “vain and vituperative, proud and petulant” masochist; and “a very clever, imaginative, passionate, intense, imperious, paranoid, unpleasant woman.” Harriet has been branded everything short of Wicked Witch of the West by John’s biographers and historians of philosophy.

Accompanying such personal invective, many historians insist that however Harriet “helped” John in his intellectual work, her effort did not, did not, did not, amount to co-authorship.

The definition of authorship has evolved gradually and resulted in the view of the individual self as the “knower”, or, as Margaret Atwood describes it, “a kind of spider, spinning out his entire work from within. This view depends on a solipsism, the idea that we are all self-enclosed monads, with an inside and an outside, and that nothing from the outside ever gets in.” Yet not every text has the kind of author Atwood describes. Think about an advertisement for The Philosophers’ Magazine, an article in that periodical, a contract for the sale of a house, an Associated Press news release, a poem, and instructions for your new iPhone. Only some of these written pieces have Atwoodian authors. How do we determine the difference between collaboration, influence, inspiration, and co-authorship? Three sources of evidence suggest themselves: textual evidence, testimony of others, and testimony of those involved. None of these is foolproof.

One kind of textual evidence would look for correlations between previous work and the text in question. When this is done, it is clear that the ideas found in On Liberty can be found in both Harriet’s work, much of it written in the 1830s, and in John’s previous writings. Examples of the parallels between Harriet’s writing and On Liberty abound (and can be found in detail in The Voice of Harriet Taylor Mill), but here I offer three that are central.

Liberty is “the chief value of life” according to Harriet, but how can it be developed when “almost all educationists seem to think [their goal is] filling the mind with an undigested mass from the minds of others”? We need a new kind of education that encourages “the desire, power, and habit of using the person’s own mind.” Or as they say in On Liberty, students who “have never thrown themselves into the mental position of those who think differently from them, and considered what such persons may have to say … do not, in any proper sense of the word, know the doctrine which they themselves profess.”

We also need “experiments” in living – those willing to try to live apart from their husbands, those willing to have a convention arguing for women’s rights, those willing to risk entering careers that are socially unacceptable. For example, during the period Harriet and John worked on the manuscript of On Liberty, her daughter Helen became a professional actress. In a letter that later echoes in their joint manuscript, Harriet says, “Try your experimental life, & as far as I can judge at present this seems to me the best.” People deemed “odd” should be reconsidered. “Eccentricity should be prima facie evidence for the existence of principle,” Harriet writes, while in On Liberty they proclaim, “Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage it contains.”

And what is the use of education that enlivens the mind and the freedom to use that mind to think, discuss, publish and live experimentally? These activities are central to human development. Further, the development of human capacity must be supported, according to Harriet, by “good laws, laws which pay … regard to human liberty.” Specifically, “No government has a right to interfere with the personal freedom. . . which does not interfere with the happiness of some other.” This anticipates, of course, the “very simple principle” at the heart of On Liberty: “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

Were John and Harriet the only ones thinking about liberty and its importance? Hardly. But studying Harriet’s work makes it easier to acknowledge that many of the ideas in On Liberty were Harriet’s as well as John’s.

Another kind of textual evidence for authorship is in the essay’s rhetoric. The text flaunts a passionate commitment to the critical examination of ideas, to the insistence on a full-throated dialogue in the search for the truth. The words live because they were born in the lives of their authors. On Liberty celebrates a collaborative theory of knowing exemplified in the way Harriet and John worked together.

They believed fervently in the power of individuals struggling together to grasp the truth – including both the “idealistic” belief that there is truth as opposed to mere subjective opinion, and a deep scepticism about the beliefs accepted by the majority. They argued that the tyranny of the majority was to become the greatest danger of the future.

It is a future we find ourselves in now – with a majority willing to accept a definition of liberty that equates freedom with the ability to select between the ephemera of farting noises or koi ponds applications for an iPhone or 50 different varieties of breakfast cereal, while we are unconcerned that media has been reduced to the mouthpiece for half a dozen owners whose views seep into every sleepy eye and ear. The implicit orthodoxy is that anyone who questions this definition of freedom seeks a freedom that is unattainable, dangerous or both.

Further, many in the academic establishment have slouched into a cynical postmodern nihilism that rejects the mere mention of truth. The Mills resisted this future: liberty was required for self-development. We need freedom not to buy one object rather than another, but freedom to struggle with each other as we search for truth, however elusive. They lived this prickly and invigorating relationship and they wrote about it when they assert, for example, “truth has no chance but in proportion as every side of it, every opinion which embodies any fraction of the truth, not only finds advocates, but is so advocated as to be listened to.”

In addition to textual evidence, the testimony of others can help define authorship, although one must always be suspicious of the motives of witnesses – and especially in this case. The nasty comments about Harriet mentioned above and those of contemporary commentators point to a misogyny that cannot be ignored. Listen to just one of many I could cite: Jack Stillinger comments, “It is reasonably clear in fact that Harriet was no originator of ideas, however much she may have aided Mill by ordinary wifely discussion and debate. … It is unfortunate that Mill did not simply thank his wife for encouragement, perhaps also for transcribing a manuscript or making an index, and let it go at that.” (Emphasis added.) Uppity women cannot be acknowledged as co-authors in our history of philosophy.

Yet the testimony of those closest to Harriet and John – Harriet’s daughter Helen and John’s colleague and collaborator, Alexander Bain – both confirm Harriet’s contribution to this philosophical work. Helen verified Harriet’s role in On Liberty when she told Kate Amberley that “in ‘Liberty’ [Kate] should see [Harriet’s] mind & thoughts for they were mostly hers.” Alexander Bain, a vocal critic of Harriet, admitted in his biography of John that “the Liberty was the chief production of his married life: and in it, [Harriet] bore a considerable part.”

Finally, authorship can be established on the testimony of those involved in the collaboration. Many feminists have discovered the unacknowledged contributions to male texts. But here, John quite openly announces Harriet’s various roles, and does not thank Harriet merely for vague moral support or inspiration. He specifically thanks her for her contribution to the ideas and the writing published in his name alone. John makes it clear that the writing was actually the result of “the fusion of two” minds working together.

According to John, Harriet’s ideas are most evident in On Liberty. As early as the summer of 1853, John indicates in a letter to Harriet that the next book they plan to write will be their best: “But I shall never be satisfied unless you allow our best book, the book which is to come, to have our two names in the title page. … [T]he book which will contain our best thoughts, if it has only one name to it, that should be yours. I should like every one to know that I am the Dumont & you the originating mind, the Bentham, bless her!”

Like Dumont who made Bentham’s ideas intelligible to the public, so John hoped to present a coherent text that would combine Harriet’s insights. Both in his public autobiography and in private letters he attributes co-authorship of On Liberty to Harriet. “The Liberty,” he wrote, “was more directly and literally our joint production than anything else which bears my name, for there was not a sentence of it that was not several times gone through by us together, turned over in many ways, and carefully weeded of any faults, either in thought or expression, that we detected in it. It is in consequence of this that, … it far surpasses, as a mere specimen of composition, anything which has proceeded from me either before or since. With regard to the thoughts, it is difficult to identify any particular part or element as being more hers than all the rest. The whole mode of thinking of which the book was the expression, was emphatically hers.”

In a letter he wrote, “I can at least put in order for publication what had been already written in concert with her.” Written shortly after Harriet died, the dedication of On Liberty continues the recognition and was John’s first public proclamation of her contribution to their work. All J.S. Mill’s statements about their collaboration have been brushed aside by historians of philosophy as if it were sentimental blather, devoid of fact. The evidence of their collaboration is so persuasive, however, that it is impossible to ignore.

The reasons for claiming sole authorship when work is collaborative easily come to mind: fame, fortune, tenure, ego. Why someone would claim co-authorship when the work is solo is less obvious. Critics use the attacks on Harriet mentioned above to answer that question: Harriet clawed her way into John’s heart and then psychologically pistol-whipped him into claiming she was the co-author of some of his work. Furthermore, none of the manuscripts are in her handwriting, so that “proves” that she did not write the texts.

Collaboration is the result of verbal debates, suggestions, additions, creation, and editing that occur in private. There is no physical record of the musings and questions that lead to arguments that someone then writes into a text. No smoking guns reveal how half thoughts become whole during a conversation. In addition, because few academics are familiar with the first-hand experience of collaborative writing, they do not understand the futility of asking whose ideas are whose when an essay is jointly produced. A more trustworthy analysis of any common writing project comes from the participants themselves.

Despite the dedication to On Liberty and despite his claiming in 1853 that this book should either have both their names as authors, or if only one, hers, only John’s name originally appears on the book. Why? Does this mean that he did not think Harriet was co-author?

In addition to the predictable observation that a book by J.S. Mill would receive a fairer hearing by a philosophical audience than one by John and Harriet Mill, John may have also hesitated to place Harriet’s name on a text he feared would be seen as “an infidel book”. The tirade against Christianity in On Liberty and the questioning of the belief in God were the most stridently anti-religious writing yet published in Mill’s name. John was quite conscious of the sanctions an author might suffer for stating such unpopular beliefs. John may have wanted to shield her name from “a chorus of indignant protest.”

I am disappointed that Harriet’s name was not on the cover of On Liberty as John intended when they began to write the text. The decision to point to her contributions only in the dedication may have been the patronising protection of his dead wife’s legacy, or a desire to make sure the work received an unbiased reception. But all his other claims that Harriet is co-author cannot be overturned by the name missing on the title page.

One final feature complicates how we attribute authorship to this text: namely, its fame. Historians regularly misascribe co-authorship to The Subjection of Women, even though it was written two years after Harriet died – and it contains many ideas that Harriet would have despised. But that work is about women. And it’s not considered very important by most philosophers. So, it can be labelled co-authored without much ado. But On Liberty is important. Therefore, a) it cannot be co-authored and b) it cannot be by a woman. Women have historical and intellectual permission to deal with feminine topics, but it seems that permission is either not granted or revoked when they stray beyond those boundaries.

Harriet and John believed philosophy often required at least two parents. In letters, forewords, dedications, autobiographies, and drafts, they naturally refer to “our” ideas and the work “we” did. Throughout the history of philosophy, no one has quite believed what they were saying, and historians of philosophy have assumed a single-parent household for every philosophical child. However, the work of Harriet and John can serve as an example of an alternative model of philosophical production. Harriet and John’s cooperative production demonstrates how future philosophy might see philosophy as “plural work”. We philosophers need to consider what we have lost by writing alone and what we could gain by writing collaboratively.

On Liberty, written by a woman? Yes.

Just as it is time to recognize that Eli Whitney was hired to build a machine conceived by Mrs. Catharine Littlefield Greene, we also need to properly acknowledge Harriet’s co-authorship of On Liberty. Neither partner was a scribe for the other – instead they creatively exceeded the sum of their parts.

Jo Ellen Jacobs is professor of philosophy at Millikin University and the author of The Voice of Harriet Taylor Mill (Indiana University Press)

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