Radical Psychology
Winter 2005

What was Mill's problem really?

 Mill's 'mental crisis' and posthumous psychological diagnosis

Scott Stewart

Abstract -- In this paper, I shall employ some of the philosopher Ian Hacking's insights into what I shall call 'posthumous psychological diagnosis', i.e., the practice of providing a psychological diagnosis to a person who is now deceased. As a case study of such a practice, I shall discuss the 'mental crisis' from which twenty-year-old John Stuart Mill suffered beginning in 1826, and the attendant writings on that crisis. My aim is to see whether engaging in such diagnoses is at all fruitful. I shall suggest that posthumous psychological diagnoses typically reveal nothing particularly interesting about historical figures and their behaviour; rather, if they tell us anything at all, they tell us something (perhaps) interesting about ourselves and of current trends in contemporary psychological classification.

Keywords -- John Stuart Mill, history of psychiatry, labeling theory, diagnosis, Ian Hacking, social construction, neurasthemia


In a fascinating body of work over the past two decades, philosopher Ian Hacking has articulated a theory regarding the constructedness of psychological classifications, most prominently in Rewriting the Soul ( 1995 ), his book-long treatment of multiple personality disorder ( also see: Hacking, 1986, 1991a, 1991b, 1994, 1999a, 1999b ). Very briefly, Hacking argues that psychological classifications are both real and constructed. His thesis stems from his belief that a complex relationship exists between behaviour, psychological classification, and psychotherapists. This relationship will be discussed in some detail below; essentially, however, Hacking claims not only that behaviour can be altered by being classified in particular ways (as labeling theory suggests), but classification can also be altered on the basis of how people behave. Moreover, he suggests that there exists a triadic relationship between classification, classifier, and classified that can have effects not only on the behaviour of those classified with a particular ailment, but also on the description of the ailment itself. In this paper, I shall employ Hacking's insights into what I shall call 'posthumous psychological diagnosis', i.e., the practice of providing a psychological diagnosis to a person who is now deceased. As a case study of such a practice, I shall discuss the 'mental crisis' from which twenty-year-old John Stuart Mill suffered beginning in 1826, and the attendant writings on that crisis. My aim is to see whether engaging in such diagnoses is at all fruitful. I shall suggest that posthumous psychological diagnoses typically reveal nothing particularly interesting about the historical figure and their behaviour; rather, if they tell us anything at all, they tell us something (perhaps) interesting about ourselves and of current trends in contemporary psychological classification.

Posthumous Classification and Interactive Kinds

Realism offers one way to understand psychological ailments and their classification. According to such a view, a psychological ailment, such as depression or neurasthenia, exists as a 'natural' 'kind' waiting first to be discovered and then to be applied properly in the diagnoses of particular people. Whether realism in general 'of whatever form' is true is not within the scope of this discussion. For even if it is, there are good reasons to be skeptical that psychological classifications are natural kinds. Natural or 'indifferent' kinds, Hacking suggests, are unaffected by classification. Hence, for example, microbes don't alter their behaviour based upon how we classify them or indeed whether we classify them. In contrast, however, humans do care how they are classified and hence psychological classifications are best thought of in nominalist rather than realist terms and that they constitute what Hacking calls 'human' or 'interactive' kinds rather than natural ones. Interactive kinds are always constructed rather than discovered. One way in which to think of them is in terms already established empirically in psychology under the rubric of "labeling theory" where, it is claimed, people begin to act in accordance with the way in which they are classified. Hence, for example, if someone is labeled as depressed, they will begin to act in a depressed fashion. Interactive kinds takes labeling theory one step further. Think, for example, of homosexuality and the way the psychological classification of this behaviour has changed over the past 100 years. In 1904, homosexuality was classified as a mental disease in need of psychotherapeutic treatment. Given this, many homosexuals would have perceived themselves as 'sick', perhaps also keeping that 'sickness' a secret: some certainly sought therapy to help 'correct' their feelings and/or altered their behaviour in an attempt to become 'normal' and/or 'well'. Through a complex process that Hacking calls a "looping effect," however, those classified as homosexuals were able over time to have their classification altered by the group of professional psychological classifiers to the point where homosexuality is no longer seen as a psychological malady (see Davidson, 1990). Hence, in 2004, a homosexual is unlikely to be hiding in the closet anymore: s/he is far more likely to be 'out' and indeed celebrating her/his 'nature' in events such as (the significantly phrased) gay pride parades.

From examples such as this, we can see clearly that human or interactive kinds are affected by words. To this idea, Hacking adds the claim, following the work of Elizabeth Anscombe and others, that all human behaviour is intentional and such intentional action must be "actions under a description" (Anscombe, Intention, cited in Hacking, 1986, p. 230). "This is," Hacking claims, "no mere lingualism, for descriptions are embedded in our practices and lives. But if a description is not there, then intentional actions under that description cannot be there either; that, apparently, is a fact of logic" (Hacking, 1986, p. 230). Because of this, the idea of us as human actors is "made up" and the person kinds we become changes over time as the descriptions under which our actions occur change. "We are not only what we are but what we might have been, and the possibilities for what we might have been are transformed" (Hacking, 1986, p. 230). As a result of this, in turn, we ought not think that "there was a kind of person who came increasingly to be recognized by bureaucrats or by students of human nature but rather that a kind of being came into being at the same time as the class itself was being invented. In some cases, that is, our classifications and our classes conspire to emerge hand in hand, each egging the other on" (Hacking, 1986, p. 228).

Hacking's thesis, then, is more radical than labeling theory because labeling theory is about individuals whereas Hacking's thesis about interactive kinds is a claim about individuals within a fluid, changing kind. One implication of Hacking's thesis is that psychological classifications are not at all stable since the description of the classification changes over time. And neither are the people who act under the descriptions that the classifications provide stable. Before the third edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM III, 1980) allowed adolescents to be depressed, it was false that we had "depressed adolescents" (see Stewart, 2001). Before Freud, no one suffered from an Oedipal complex. This is not to claim, of course, that throughout history there were no sad people between the ages of 10 and 20, or that no one suffered as a result of having complex and ambiguous feelings towards their mothers and fathers. It is to say, however, that they were not kinds of people: there was no way that they were supposed to behave as depressives or as Oedipals. Physical actions, such as excessive crying or antagonistic feelings towards one's father, are not sufficient, in and of themselves, to establish meaning. For example, the physical act of turning on a light switch is in itself indeterminate regarding meaning. It acquires a determinant meaning only when provided with a context which is supplied by a description of the situation: different descriptions could produce meanings as diverse as the desire to find food in the fridge or frightening a burglar to signaling one's lover across the street that 'the coast is clear' (Stewart & Dumouchel, 2002). In other words, meaning gets established in large part through context and psychological classification is one important way in which context is provided for human behaviour.

One aspect of Hacking's thesis that is centrally important to this investigation into posthumous psychological diagnosis is Hacking's claim that the past is inherently indeterminate. That is, he claims, there is no single determinate truth about the past. This claim follows, he believes, from the fact that actions are never context free, but are, rather, always actions under a particular description. Since descriptions of action can change over time as new descriptions become available and old descriptions fade away, the past is not determinate. In brief, 'retrospective re-descriptions' can actually change the past. Any "truth" about the human past will, then, be completely relative to the contextual framework of our descriptions.

Hacking's thesis about the indeterminacy of the past is the most radical aspect of his theory, and there are good reasons to be skeptical about at least some of its bolder claims, perhaps particularly his claim that present re-descriptions of the past can actually change the truth of the past. This leaves Hacking open to charges of historical revisionism. It also confuses an epistemological state with ontology. That is, the fact that we might be ignorant (an epistemological state) of something like a particular psychological disease tells us absolutely nothing about whether that disease is real or not (ontology) (See Stewart & Dumouchel, 2002). However, I won't pursue that issue any further here: I want instead to focus my attention on the link between behaviour and psychological diagnosis, and particularly on looping effects since what Hacking says about such effects can be true even if we separate them from Hacking's more radical claims about the indeterminacy of the past. For even if we can say now (but couldn't then) that Mill suffered from schizophrenia in 1826, the claim would be rather hollow because it would have no impact upon his behaviour at that time since schizophrenia did not exist as a way to be at that time. I'll discuss this in more detail below after I've discussed Mill's 'mental crisis' and considered some hypotheses put forward that suggest various ailments from which Mill might have suffered.

"A Crisis in My Mental History"

In the fall of 1826, when John Stuart Mill was just twenty years old, he fell into a "dull state of nerves" (Mill, 1873/1969, p. 80). He was in one of those moods to which everyone is more or less susceptible where "what is pleasure at other times becomes insipid or indifferent" (Mill, 1873/1969, p. 81). This mood led him, he said, to ask himself whether he would be happy if all the utilitarian projects on which he was working came to fruition.

"[A]n irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, "No!" At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to be found in the continual pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live for" (Mill, 18731969, p. 81).

Thus began a period of mental torment in Mill's life which, he says, was relieved only years later under the influence of reading "particularly reading English Romantic poetry "and the discovery that he could 'feel again.' Mill's description of this phase in his life has also led to a sub-genre of Mill studies that focuses on his crisis. Some of these studies argue that the crisis in some way forced Mill to alter his utilitarianism away from the version of it promulgated by Bentham and his father (e.g., Greene, 1989; Nelson, 1985; Stewart, 1993). Although I believe that such interpretations are fundamentally correct, I want in this essay to turn my attention instead to studies that have focused more exclusively on his personal, and especially his psychological life (e.g., Durham, 1963; Levi, 1945). As a prelude to this, I need first to set out a bit of Mill's biography.

Mill's early academic history is really quite remarkable, no matter how many times it is recounted: he began to learn Ancient Greek at age three, Latin at eight, and history and mathematics, including differential calculus, by thirteen. Also remarkable is that this success was achieved entirely through 'home schooling' by Mill's father, James Mill, a former Presbyterian minister and famous advocate, along with Jeremy Bentham, of utilitarianism. Although there is some debate about how suitable a teacher James Mill was, it is safe to say, along with his good friend and benefactor, Jeremy Bentham, that he had a rather "domineering" personality along with an "oppressive and overbearing manner of speaking" (cited in Levi, 1945). Another friend, Francis Place, comments that, as a teacher, James Mill was "excessively severe. No fault, however trivial, escapes his notice; none goes without reprehension or punishment of some sort" (quoted in Packe, 1954, p. 45). Through a combination of this method and the intention of James Mill, stated in a letter to Bentham, to make the younger Mill "a successor worthy of [them] both" (Bain, 1882b, p. 135), John Stuart Mill became his father's son: dutiful, hardworking, and devoted to the utilitarian cause. Indeed, even as a young adolescent, he seemed not to know what to do with his 'free' time. On his first trip abroad, and freed from the rigorous educational demands placed upon him by his father, he was thrown into a state of near panic. "He was so bewildered by his lack of books that he began sleeping late, once not getting up until nine o'clock. One of (Samuel Bentham's) daughters pitying his plight gave him Legendre's Geometry. He dissected it eagerly ..." (quoted in Packe, 1954, p. 44).

In addition to his studies, John Stuart Mill began full-time work at India House in 1823 when he was seventeen. Around this time, he also began to write articles for several journals, prepare speeches for the Debating society, and a couple of years later, he began the arduous task of editing Jeremy Bentham's five volume Rationale of Judicial Evidence. In brief, Mill gives credence to de Tocqueville's remark that "there is in truth no adolescence. At the close of boyhood, he is a man" (quoted in Hine, 1999, p. 74). [1] It is little wonder, then, that Mill's friend and philosopher of mind (as well as the initial editor of the still extant and influential journal, Mind) Alexander Bain, said with complete confidence that "the dejection so feelingly depicted [in Mill's Autobiography] was due to physical causes, and that the chief of these causes was overworking of the brain" (Bain, 1882a, p. 38).

Although some academics from the twentieth century have concurred more or less with Bain's thesis (e.g., Ellery, 1964; Robson, 1968; Stephen, 1900) most have tended to be dismissive of it, thinking it both naive and simplistic. Hence, it has been pointed out that "Mill always managed a Herculean workload, most times with no ill effects whatsoever" (Martin, 1999, p. 272). Others have been more severe and dismissive of accounts such as Bain's: for example, writing in the 1940s one Freudian suggested derisively that "No one has ever suffered a nervous breakdown from mere overwork" (Levi, 1945, p. 94). Such commentators have opted instead for accounts which they believe are based upon a more sophisticated psychological understanding. I shall examine three of these accounts: (i) that Mill suffered from a particular form of Oedipal complex (Glassman, 1985; Kowalewski, 1979; Levi, 1945; Mazlish, 1975), (ii) that he had schizophrenia (Durham, 1963), and (iii) that he suffered from major depressive disorder (Martin, 1999).

Psychological Accounts: Oedipal Complex, Schizophrenia, or Depression?

Mill's crisis began to find resolution when he read the Memoirs of a very minor and obscure French writer, Marmontel. Particularly affecting, according to Mill, was a passage dealing with the story's protagonist "which relates his father's death, the distressed position of his family, and the sudden inspiration which he, then a mere boy, felt and made them feel that he would be everything to them -- would supply the place of all they had lost" (Mill, The Early Draft of the Autobiography; quoted in Levi, 1945, pp. 95-96; Levi's emphasis). A.W. Levi focuses his attention on the content of the passage, disregarding Marmontel's style as amateurish. And in terms of its content:

The insight which this passage allows us to make is, I submit, clear and unmistakable. It is that John Stuart Mill's mental crisis -- both in its cause and its cure -- was bound up with the notion of his father's death and the necessity of himself taking the place which his father's death would leave vacant. ... The real cause were repressed death wishes against his father, the vague and unarticulated guilt feeling which he had in consequence, and the latent, though still present dread that never now should he be free of his father's domination (Levi, 1945, p. 98).

As a result of having such a domineering father who had trained him so completely in his system of beliefs, John Stuart Mill came to have difficulty perceiving himself as a separate entity with a will of his own. Thus, his only escape "one which he deeply and doggedly repressed, according to Levi "seemed to be through the death of his father. Hence we see in Mill's reaction to Marmontel's passage a paradigmatic example of "abreaction," described by A.A. Brille as "to re-act or work off something repressed, thereby unburdening oneself of unconscious, strangulated feeling" (quoted in Levi, 1945, p. 100). That Mill himself doesn't speak of this at all, and indeed that Mill continued to work under his father at the East India Company and edited his father's Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind very late in his life, decades after James Mill's death is only to be expected, according to Levi. This is because Mill's feelings were deeply repressed given that he lived in a "social milieu where ... the only acceptable attitude toward the father was one of love or, at the very least, respect. The existence of death wishes was taboo and could not honestly be admitted to the self, much less expressed" (Levi, 1945, p. 97).

Of course, Levi's thesis leaves us with lots of issues to explore further, something that I undertake now since some of what I shall say has relevance to other psychological analyses of Mill's crisis.

First, we should note in general that the primary evidence for all interpretations of Mill's crisis comes from Mill's Autobiography, and such writings can be unreliable. We must hence be careful not to privilege Mill's version of the events of his life, particularly given that that the Autobiography was written late in Mill's life and influenced strongly, and indeed was edited by, Harriet Taylor (Stillinger, 1961). Perhaps because of her (and his) feminist sympathies, Taylor was successful in having Mill remove almost all negative statements about his mother (see Stillinger's introduction to Mill, Autobiography), and this often leaves his father as the only available villain to explain whatever childhood difficulty John Stuart Mill might have had.

Second, we must examine Mill's education and his relation to his father very carefully. Jack Stillinger in particular encourages us to separate what he sees as fact from fiction with respect to James Mill's "education of fear." Recall that much of Levi's thesis depends upon James Mill being tyrannical both as a father and as John Stuart Mill's teacher. Stillinger maintains, however, that making this claim involves taking contemporary standards of what constitutes an oppressive father and teacher and applying them retrospectively to the early nineteenth century. Surely, this produces neither a fair nor an accurate picture of James Mill and of the situation in which John Stuart Mill found himself. Stillinger finds lots of evidence that besides being rather overbearing, James Mill also showed kindness to his eldest son and spent considerable time and effort on his education. This was highly unusual for a father of James Mill's station in the early nineteenth century (Stillinger, 1991). Hacking's thesis is intriguing with respect to both of these first two points because Hacking is adamant that we keep context, particularly historical context, firmly in mind when evaluating situations and attempting to determine meaning, even if, paradoxically, his claim about the indeterminacy of the past sometimes confuses this point.

Third, there is the fact that John Stuart Mill was given to excessive self-deprecation (Hayek, 1951; Stillinger, 1991), and at times this works itself out in ways that actually paint others in a bad light. For example, in his self condemnation for what he took as his own lack of will, some blame is collaterally placed upon his father: "To have been through childhood under the constant rule of a strong will certainly is not favourable to strength of will. I was so much accustomed to be told what to do either in the form of direct command or of rebuke for not doing it that I acquired a habit of leaving my responsibility as a moral agent to rest on my father and my conscience never speaking to me except by his voice" (Mill, 1873/1969, p. 31, n. 3 [The Early Draft in Autobiography]). We also know from sources outside of Mill's Autobiography, however, that Mill was not completely passive in his dealings with his father. They fought repeatedly, for example, over some of John's friends, and in those instances the son often stood up firmly for himself (see Packe, 1954).

I don't want to dwell excessively on these issues, however, nor do I want to take exception specifically only to Levi's particular psychological thesis since I shall argue below that there are other reasons why we ought to be wary of any posthumous psychological diagnosis. Let us then move forward to consider other psychological diagnoses that have been made of Mill.

Writing nearly two decades after Levi, John Durham foregoes an investigation of the father-son relationship at play here and instead concentrates on Mill's stated inability to engage emotionally in the world rather than specifically on his relationship to his father. He states:

"Psychologists have discovered in recent years that a child who grows up in an environment of which he is afraid develops the habit of passing all emotions through the analytic filter of his intelligence before expressing them, in order to see if they are "safe" emotions to exhibit under the current circumstances. Often the effect of such a procedure is the development of a personality characterized by a split between the emotions and the intelligence and a general, progressive loss of energy and interest in life: the schizoid personality" (Durham, 1963, p. 376).

Although Freudian psychoanalysis was still incredibly influential in 1963 when Durham wrote his article on Mill's crisis, there had of course been changes within the Freudian framework. Oedipal complexes had, so to speak, lost ground as a diagnosis to schizophrenia which was then becoming a very common diagnosis of mental disease: hence, it isn't completely startling that Durham should latch onto schizophrenia as a diagnosis for Mill. Moreover, just as there existed evidence, at least from a certain perspective, to support Levi's hypothesis, there is also evidence to support Durham's contention. For in his Autobiography, Mill did speak repeatedly of his tendency to excessive rationalization at the expense of feeling, for example: "My education had failed to create . . . feelings in sufficient strength to resist the dissolving influence of analysis, while the whole course of my intellectual cultivation had made precocious and premature analysis the inveterate habit of my mind" (Mill, 1873/1969, p. 84). Furthermore, Mill maintains that the resolution to his crisis began with the discovery that he could feel again, i.e., that he was not, as he once had been, a mere reasoning machine, cut off entirely from his emotions.

Just as it was not surprising that in the 1960s Durham looked to schizophrenia as a proper model under which to analyze Mill's crisis, so it is not unexpected that a researcher today (e.g., Martin, 1999) would suggest that Mill suffered from some sort of clinical depression, since it is one of the most widely diagnosed mental ailments at present. For example, in the late 1990s it was estimated that 17,000,000 Americans alone were taking a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI) such as Prozac for the treatment of depression representing a $US 6 billion/year industry (Kingwell, 1998). Diagnoses of depression for adolescence, the age Mill was just completing when he was struck by his crisis, has gone through an even more staggering increase in the last third of the twentieth century. In 1970, however, adolescent depression was rarely heard of. In the main, this was because Freudian psychoanalysts, who still controlled what was contained in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), kept the diagnosis out of the DSM because they thought adolescents lacked the superego development necessary for a true melancholia (Nercombe, 1994). But, in North America at least, Freudian psychoanalysis lost much of its previous popularity and power during the 1970s. This was brought home forcefully in 1980 with the publication of the third edition of DSM in 1980 which had a distinctly non- or even anti-psychoanalytic bent (Stewart, 2001). Under the classification of the current DSM IV, however, it is estimated that as many as 15-25% of adolescents suffer from depression (Hendricks et al., 1999; Navarette, 1999; Reynolds, 1990). Thus, as I've indicated already, it would not be at all surprising for a contemporary researcher to suggest, looking back on Mill, that he suffered from major depressive disorder.

I should state at the outset that Mike Martin's Depression: Illness, Insight, and Identity (1999) presents us with a complex argument that maintains (correctly, I think) that we must, in Mill's case at least, seek for a way to combine psychological and moral/philosophical interpretations of his crisis and hence put an end to a morality-therapy dichotomy. That having been said, however, he does present a case for diagnosing Mill as depressed. Once again, there are some good reasons for thinking that this is true.

According to DSM IV (1994), major depressive disorder (MDD) requires that five or more of the following nine symptoms are present every day for at least two weeks: "(1) a depressed mood (e.g., feeling sad or empty), (2) markedly reduced interest and pleasure in most activities, (3) loss or increase in appetite and weight, (4) insomnia or excessive sleep, (5) psychomotor agitation or retardation, (6) fatigue, (7) feelings of worthlessness or inappropriate guilt, (8) inability to concentrate, (9) recurrent thoughts of death or suicide" (APA, 1994, p. 327). As Martin argues persuasively, Mill did suffer symptoms that could easily have classified him as suffering from MDD. He had thoughts of suicide, he carried on his activities 'mechanically' with little of no interest in them, he felt his life unworthy, and he hinted at a lack of sleep as well as an inability to concentrate (Martin, 1999, pp. 273-274). [2]

Lately, there has been a great deal of literature written that is highly critical of the DSM and what critics think of as an excessive medicalization of behaviour (e.g., Caplan, 1995; Crister, 1996; Gordon, 2000; Kingwell, 1998; McLaren, 2000; McLaren, 2001; Stewart, 2001). This is not part of my concern here with posthumous psychological diagnosis, however. That is, I don't want to suggest that this activity is yet another example of the excessive medicalisation of behaviour. I want rather to investigate what sense we can make, if any, of saying, after the fact, that Mill suffered from psychological ailments that did not even exist during Mill's lifetime.

Another option

Although none of the three diagnoses we have considered thus far were available during Mill's lifetime, there was a fairly common psychological problem often diagnosed in the nineteenth century that, I shall argue, Mill could have suffered from; namely, neurasthenia. In discussing this option, I hope to display the advantages such a diagnosis has over others that we have considered, and in doing this, I hope to display a major flaw with posthumous psychological diagnosis.

The American physician, George Miller Beard, described neurasthenia as a 'nervous disease' caused by the pressures of 'modern' life in industrial America (Beard, 1881, cited in Rabinbach, 1992). Marcel Proust's father, Dr. Achille-Adrien Proust, agreed that neurasthenia had social rather than hereditary causes, and pointed to its "predominance in towns, among the middle and upper classes, in a word, in all circumstances where intellectual or commercial and industrial traffic are carried to their highest degree of intensity" (Proust and Ballet, 1887: quoted in Rabinbach, 1992). Symptoms of the disease were varied leading one physician to refer to people suffering from the ailment as 'l'homme du petit papier' because they "frequently appeared in his consulting room with slips of paper or manuscripts with an endless list of their ailments" (quoted in Rabinbach, 1992, p. 180). Neurasthenia was, in a loose manner of speaking, the fibra myalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome of the day, an ailment with an uncertain cause and a vast but inconsistent set of symptoms. Common to almost all patient accounts, however, was extreme fatigue which could be muscular or mental, with patients complaining of an exhaustion typical of extreme mental exercise. This was often combined with an inexplicable 'aboulia' or lack of will (Rabinbach, 1992).

A variety of symptoms was matched with a wide variety of treatments, ranging from 'electrotherapy,' and 'hydrobaths' to complete rest. The American physician, Silas Weir Mitchell, suggested a further dimension to treatment: "the moral action exerted on the neurasthenic by the physician and his surroundings constitutes one of the most powerful therapeutic agents that can be employed" (Proust and Ballet, 1887, quoted in Rabinbach, 1992). In suggesting this, Mitchell hit upon a moral basis for the disease. Neurasthenics suffered from a moral as well as physical malady. While they "know how to will interiorly, mentally, according to the dictates of reason" [and] may desire to do something, [they] are powerless to act accordingly" (Ribot, 1896, quoted in Rabinbach, 1992, p. 184). This description matches surprisingly well Mill's own description of his crisis when he claimed that he felt "stranded at the commencement of [his] voyage, with a well equipped ship but with no sail" (Mill, 1873/1969, p. 84). That is, while he had the intellectual wherewithal to know what to do, he lacked the emotional capacity or will to act. Hence, though Mill continued to work, he did so by rote taking little or no real interest either in utilitarian causes or his life in general.

That Mill was middle class, lived in the urban center of London, and was involved intensely in both intellectual and commercial pursuits also makes Mill a particularly apt candidate for neurasthenia. Finally, and tellingly, with respect to the connection that researchers of the day made between neurasthenia and morality, Mill spoke of his crisis in terms of 'sin.' His 'insipid' and 'indifferent' state of mind was analogous, he thought, to the state "in which converts to Methodism usually are, when smitten by their first conviction of sin" (Mill, 1873/1969, p. 81). This was particularly bad for someone like Mill steeped in the Protestant Work Ethic. Not only did he feel horrid, but he had, in his mind, no good reason for feeling that way.

While there is no record that Mill was diagnosed with neurasthenia, the disease was obviously in the public mind, just as depression or attention deficit disorder are in the air currently. Moreover, because of this, it is possible that his behaviour could have been affected by the mere existence and knowledge of this classification -- this way of being as Hacking sometimes expresses it. In other words, because neurasthenia was a common diagnosis of Mill's day, it's not only likely that he knew of its existence, it's also possible that the classification had some effect on the way in which he perceived himself and indeed, it's even possible that the classification had an effect upon his behaviour. Using Hacking's terminology, it is possible that looping effects were established between Mill and the description of neurasthenia in a way that was impossible for looping effects to exist between Mill and the other psychological classifications considered here 'Oedipal complex, schizophrenia, and MDD because they were not in existence at the time.

Hence, the reality of a psychological classification is only partially significant regarding diagnosis; rather, it is the reality of the classification in combination with an awareness of its existence at the time. Only then can there be connections between behaviour, particularly behavioural modification, and the classification. In this sense, then, posthumous psychological diagnosis that involves the claim that a person suffered from an ailment not in existence at that time, is a rather truncated and indeed academic exercise. It can tell us little about the historical figure in the context of his time. Hence, if we want to understand someone like Mill (and his philosophy), and the effect a psychological condition might have on these, it is important to avoid diagnosing them with conditions not in existence in their time. Doing this can tell us nothing about them: it can tell us only about ourselves and current trends in psychological classification. This is to say, in other words, that our paradigms about the way of the world, or certain segments of it, change over time. When we return to some historical moment in order to explore it, we must remember, as Kuhn (1962) said half a century ago, to attempt to think in terms of the paradigm of that time, and not the present time.

In attempting to understand Mill's crisis, then, we ought to think in terms of psychological diagnoses available then, not now. Posthumous psychological diagnoses largely fail on this front. They tell us more about us then they tell us about them; i.e., they tell us more about the present than about the past. As such, they are in general not good guides to truths about the past. It is unlikely, then, that we will learn the historical truth about Mill or his philosophy through posthumous psychological diagnosis. As a result, no matter how enticing the urge to diagnose historical figures, we ought probably to refrain from doing so as an exercise in historical analysis. However, as a way in which to explore our present reaction and interpretation of Mill's crisis and the way in which we presently seek to link those thoughts to the way we currently understand his philosophy, such an exercise may be valuable and, as a result, we need not resist the urge to engage in such activity. The point is to keep clear what it is we are doing, and not to confuse historical truth with contemporary interpretation of philosophical positions.


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[1] In this passage, Tocqueville was speaking particularly of the situation in America, but the spirit certainly applies to Mill.

[2] For what it's worth, I believe that a good case could be made for the concurrent diagnosis of "dysthymia" which is a milder but longer lasting form of depression (see DSM, 1994, and Stewart, 2001).

Institutional Affiliation and Correspondence: Robert Scott Stewart, Ph.D., Associate Professor & Chair, Department of Philosophy, University College of Cape Breton, PO Box 5300, Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada B1P 6l2 scott_stewart@uccb.ca

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