J. S. Mill’s Encounter with India. – Review

J. S. Mill’s Encounter with India. – Review – book review

A. Martin Wainwright

J. S. Mill’s Encounter with India. Edited by Martin I. Moir, Douglas M. Peers, and Lynn Zastoupil. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999. Pp. xii, 264. $60.00.)

From 1823 to 1858, John Stuart Mill served the East India Company administration in London. In this book, the authors explore the impact of this career on Mill’s ideas and his influence on the East India Company’s policies in India. The early chapters address Mill’s positions in relation to contemporary philosophical and political movements. F. Rosen and Allison Dube refer to Eric Stokes’s The British Utilitarians in India (1959), which relegated Mill to a minor role in the subcontinent’s administration, dominated in the 1820s and 1830s by exponents of utilitarian philosophy. Rosen argues that Stokes mistakenly assumed that utilitarianism supported autocracy, thus marginalizing Mill’s more democratic ideas. Dube, by contrast, questions the extent to which Mill’s ideas were utilitarian, not because they were democratic, but because they were imperialist–a characteristic that she demonstrates ran counter to the thinking of utilitarianism’s founding philosopher, Jeremy Bentham. Javed Majeed, however, asserts that Mill laid a greater emphasis than his father and colleague, James Mill, on the importance of understanding and adapting policies to the context of Indian cultures.

The rest of the book assesses the impact of India on Mill and vice versa mainly through his despatches and correspondence, which, Martin I. Moir asserts, reflected Mill’s ideas in spite of alterations from other administrators. Robin Moore declares that Mill’s “watchword in relations with the [princely] states was caution” (88). The portrayal of Mill as a pragmatist permeates the rest of the book and is often contrasted with his colleagues’ more ideological stances. Nancy Gardner Cassel relates how Mill opposed excessive intervention in religious matters but approved of company intervention in what he considered to be quasi-religious violations of universal human rights, such as sati (widow burning) and thagi (ritual murder). Similarly, Douglas M. Peers uses Mill’s defense of the company during the rebellion of 1857 to demonstrate the primary position of security considerations in his policy opinions. Penelope Carson argues that Mill’s opinions in favor of moderating the extent of Westernization evolved gradually and were internally consistent. These ideas fit well with S. Ambirajan’s portrayal of Mill as a company man, who naturally approached Indian issues pragmatically. Lynn Zastoupil’s chapter is particularly interesting. It points to the influence on Mill’s philosophy not simply of his career at India House, but of the elements of Indian culture that he encountered in the course of his professional activity.

The recent revival of scholarship on imperialism makes this book a timely addition to the literature. John Stuart Mill is so interesting, because, although he is often regarded as a champion of liberty and one of the greatest nineteenth-century Western philosophers, he spent most of his career serving an administration that exercised authoritarian rule over a culture that modern scholars might describe as the epitome of “the Other.” The authors of this series of thought-provoking essays avoid the temptation to condemn Mill simply for being a child of his times. Nevertheless, they employ modern methodologies to highlight the ways in which Mill’s long-distance encounter with India contributed to his uniqueness. This is an important book that should serve as a model for similar studies of prominent Westerners who encountered other cultures in an imperial context.

A. Martin Wainwright The University of Akron

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