John Stuart Mill and Comte

John Stuart Mill and Comte

During his mental crisis, Mill also read the works of Auguste Comte, the French philosopher and student of Henri Saint-Simon . Comte espoused a general science of man. Political economy was to be subsumed under this general science, which Comte named sociology. Charging that political economy as a deductive science lacked empirical and historical relevance, Comte called for a new method as well as a new ordering of the social sciences. The new method was called positivism, by which Comte meant empiricism, or induction.

Mill reacted to these diverse criticisms by reconstructing the philosophical and methodological foundations of his own positions on political economy as a separate discipline. He was sympathetic to Comte's attempts to construct a general science of man, but he nevertheless defended economics as a separate science. He also moved closer to Comte's position on scientific method, but he consistently defended the Ricardian approach as inherently useful to a so­cial science.

According to Mill, in the social arena the empirical, or inductive, method could not be relied on solely, since causes of social phenomena are often com­plex and interwoven and effects are not easily distinguishable from one an­other. Mill viewed deduction as a desirable check on the errors of casual em­piricism. But deduction need not lead to dogmatic acceptance of ideas and theories that cannot be supported by fact. Thus facts are a desirable check to pure deduction. In short, Mill achieved a delicate balance between the inductive-deductive extremes in economic method.

The Structure of Mill's Inquiry into Economics

Reflecting this delicate balance, it is characteristic of Mill's Principles of Po­litical Economy that in matters of theory, he reaffirmed and enlarged the Ricardian framework, while simultaneously incorporating new ideas and new supportive evidence on numerous matters of political economy. Of all books on economics, Mill's Principles was one of the most widely read and widely employed. Used as a text for almost sixty years (until replaced by Marshall's), it was and is a complete treatise on classical economic theory, economic pol­icy, and social philosophy.

Character and Aim of the Principles

The character and aim of the work are best described by Mill himself:

For practical purposes, Political Economy is inseparably intertwined with many other branches of Social Philosophy. Except on matters of mere detail, there are perhaps no practical questions, even among those which approach nearest to the character of purely economical questions, which admit of being decided on econom­ical premises alone. And it is because Adam Smith never loses sight of this truth; because, in his applications of Political Economy, he perpetually appeals to other and often far larger considerations than pure Political Economy affords—that he gives that well-grounded feeling of command over the principles of the subject for purposes of practice___It appears to the present writer that a work similar in its object and general conception to that of Adam Smith, but adapted to the more ex­tended knowledge and improved ideas of the present age, is the kind of contribution which Political Economy at present requires (Principles, pp. xxvii-xxviii).

Thus the dual character of his work—theory and applications—was noted at the outset by Mill, and he clearly set out to summarize and synthesize all eco­nomic knowledge of the day.

Mill's methodological eclecticism gave the Principles a unique flavor. Through his contact with Comte and the Saint-Simonians, he came to assert the now famous dichotomy between economic laws of production and the so­cial laws of distribution. The former, according to Mill, are unchangeable; they are governed by natural laws. These laws, which had been so well described by Ricardo and his followers, are the proper province of economics in the nar­row sense—as a separate science. But the laws of distribution, Mill insisted, are not determined by economic forces alone. They are, instead, almost en­tirely a matter of human will and institutions, which themselves are the prod­uct of changing values, mores, social philosophies, and tastes. The laws of dis­tribution are therefore malleable, and their full explanation and understanding lie not merely in economic inquiry but in the historical laws that underlie eco­nomic progress.

Much of Comte's thought concerned the discovery of these historical laws. His celebrated view of history expressed in the "law of three stages" asserts that the human intellect, in progressing, passes through three separate and dis­tinct stages: (1) the theological stage, in which human behavior and other phe­nomena are attributed to a deity or to "magic"; (2) the metaphysical stage, in which the essence, or "nature," of a thing is substituted for divine personali­ties (e.g., natural law as an explanatory device); and finally (3) the positive stage, in which introspective knowledge is eliminated and the scientific method is employed in finding "truth." Comte attributed all social and eco­nomic progress to the perfection of the human intellect as it passes through these three stages.

While we do not wish to debate the logical adequacy of these historical laws here, the important thing, as far as Comte's influence on other writers is con­cerned—including Mill—is the idea of relativity. The five divisions, or books, of Mill's Principles amplify the distinction between the immutable laws of pro­duction and the relative laws of distribution. The economics of production, value, and exchange are generally confined to Books, I, II, and III of the Principles, whereas Mill's social views are aired in Book IV ("Influence of the Progress of Society on Production and Distribution") and Book V ("On the Influence of Government").