Introducion to the Electronic Edition

  1. About the Project
  2. Why James Mill?
  3. About the Common Place Books
  4. History of the Electronic Edition
  5. Editing Principles
  6. Impact
  7. How to cite the Common Place Books

Please see our separate ‘User Guide’ for information on how to navigate the website.

About the Project

The aim of this project, which commenced in 2008 and is funded by the AHRC, is to publish electronically the transcriptions of James Mill’s (1773-1836) common place books, five manuscript volumes which contain his ideas on a variety of subjects through comments on books he was reading, ideas he was developing, and writings he was projecting. Four of these books are held in the archive of the project’s collaborative partner, the London Library, having been donated by Mill's son John Stuart sometime in January 1872, whilst the fifth, which is not yet part of this electronic edition, is in the Mill-Taylor collection at the British Library of Political and Economic Science (at LSE). The electronic edition is based entirely on the typescript by the late Professor Robert A. Fenn of the University of Toronto, who spent many years meticulously transcribing the common place books. We are profoundly grateful to Mrs. Julia Fenn and Larry Johnston for their assistance in procuring the Fenn typescript, and their permission to use it for the electronic edition. Fenn's typesript has since been checked and encoded to TEI standards by Kristopher Grint. We are currently expanding the project’s scope to include more material by Fenn: the transcription of the fifth volume is forthcoming, as well as notes Mill made in the books of J.S. Mill’s library, now in a collection at Somerville College, Oxford.

Why James Mill?

While Mill’s son John Stuart, and close friends Jeremy Bentham and David Ricardo, have received extensive scholarly attention, inspired by editions of their correspondence and collected writings, James Mill remains the least studied of the leading British utilitarians. No monograph studies of Mill have appeared in recent years, and no doctoral dissertations have scrutinised his life and writings since the 1980s. The rationale for renewed study of Mill’s early life is two-fold. We now know more about Mill’s work through labours directed towards his fellow utilitarians. The best example is the work of the Bentham Project at University College London, which has overseen publication of Bentham’s letters to Mill in addition to some of the manuscripts they were involved in publishing. We also know more about the context of Mill’s early life, through a generation of scholarship on the Scottish Enlightenment, and through intellectual histories of British life and thought during the period of the French Revolution and French Empire. The scholarly addition of a complete transcript of his common place books is intended to contribute to an understanding of Mill’s complicated relationship with Bentham, and his role in defending “Benthamism” during subsequent decades. It seeks to enhance our understanding of the complicated transition from the social thought of the Scottish Enlightenment to the political theory of philosophic radicalism. And it hopes to throw light on the movement of utilitarianism away from being compatible with, or at least neutral with regard to religious denominations, to being strongly anti-religious.

About the Common Place Books

Mill’s common place books (CPBs) consist of five distinct volumes. Each volume is loosely divided into separate ‘heads’, under which material on particular topics was organized. Some of these topic heads, for example ‘Liberty of the Press’, can be found across several of the books. The books are not necessarily chronological (although it is sometimes possible to identify ranges of material within them as coming from particular years) nor are they rigidly structured in a thematic sense, which necessitates a good degree of editorial intervention in their organization. One of the many triumphs of Fenn’s transcription is the arrangement of Mill’s work into some semblance of order. The books, which generally span the period 1806 until the mid 1820s, contain material consisting of several types, the most prominent being extracts from other books, pamphlets and articles that Mill was reading and which he felt necessary, for one reason or another, to maintain a written record of. Some scholars have argued that Mill typically collected these extracts for provocative use, that is as intellectual fodder to develop and refine his own arguments. The CPBs also contain instances of more sustained personal comment by Mill, which suggests that he used them to draft portions of his published work and develop the internal logic of his own positions. This can be seen most clearly in the sections entitled ‘Reform II’ in CPB volume 1, where Mill is working up his famous essay on ‘Government’ for the Supplement to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and in the sections on ‘Liberty of the Press’, where Mill constructs a virtual courtroom setting within which he dissects the law of libel. Material in several of the volumes is written on the back of paper scraps and used envelopes. Given the expense of paper in the early 19th century it is not surprising that Mill recycled paper in this way, and a fortunate by-product of this process is that it enables us to date some of the material written on the back of envelopes to within a few years of inscription by simple analysis of the postmark. If dating is possible, a footnote accompanies the item justifying it.

The sheer volume of material present in the common place books – five thick ledgers consisting of over 200 scrap items each, equating to about 1,200 pages of typescript – does present the question: what does one do with all this? The usefulness of Mill’s common place books is extensive, and some of its uses are still to be discovered by visitors to the electronic edition. The CPBs are in one basic sense a record of what an 18th century philosopher, historian and politician might have read. Mill’s erudition was famous, but even so the diversity of material found in his manuscripts can be breath-taking. However, it may be that Mill’s access to works was rather unique: he lived next door to Bentham for twenty-years and thus also had access to his excellent library. The material also gives a distinct insight into a more personal side of Mill that is not present in his published work. This personality manifests itself on several levels. The collecting of expressions is interesting given that Mill rarely used literary embellishment in his published writings. The notion that he read modern poetry almost as soon as it was published is of similar intrigue, as it fits uncomfortably with the perception of Mill as a cold, joyless individual. Most significantly, however, is that fact that one is overridden with a sense that we are at times reading the unrestrained thoughts of James Mill in the CPBs, where he is not afraid of his comments causing offence, since they were never intended to be published. Mill’s justification of regicide in CPB I 170r is one striking example of this, but there are many more. It is thus possible to compare the thought of Mill expressed in the manuscripts and that expressed in his public guise as a published writer, be that for the journals, the Britannica, for the Benthamites or for his published works such as the History of British India. The result generally sees Mill portrayed as more radical in his thinking than previously thought.

One of the most impressive features of Fenn’s transcript, beyond the observation that he has created an edition of immense clarity despite the double horror of Mill’s terrible handwriting and frequently chaotic organisation, is the research and expansion of Mill’s sources. Fenn made over 2,700 editorial notes on the CPBs, and also made a considerable attempt to find and use the editions that Mill consulted when he made up the notes (no easy task for some of the authors). All of these scholarly additions and refinements are preserved in the electronic edition, available as clickable footnotes. In addition, Fenn cites more recent versions of works (such as Loeb for many classical references) which might be more readily accessible to the modern reader. This feat is remarkable for three reasons. Fenn carried out this research before the advent of online resources which make such source verification a much simpler process, which indicates he possessed a mind of encyclopaedic proportions. Secondly, Mill was by no means consistent in even citing which works he was making references to, meaning Fenn frequently had only mere scraps of a quotation, often misremembered by Mill, with which to research an accurate reference. Thirdly, Mill cited works in four different languages: English, French, Latin and Greek. Fenn provided translations for all the items not in English, and these have been used in this edition.

History of the Electronic Edition

The project began in earnest at the London Library, where Mill’s original manuscripts are held in the Library’s archive. An extract from Fenn’s typescript, sent to the Library in the late 1980s and consisting of CPBs I, III and IV, was also found in the archive. Whilst the original remit of the project envisaged transcribing the material in all five books from scratch, the discovery of the incomplete typescript, along with an early version of an attempt at CPB II at the Bentham Project offices at UCL, suggested that Fenn had probably completed his transcription of Mill’s common place books, and that there would be merit in attempting to track down this final version to use as the basis for the electronic edition.

The discovery of the full transcript itself is a story worth retelling. It demonstrates the good fortune we experienced throughout the search. We began by contacting Fenn’s academic colleagues and our enquiries eventually lead us to his widow, Mrs. Julia Fenn, and his literary executor, Larry Johnston. Larry had kept Fenn’s old Macintosh computer in the loft of his house in rural Canada and, to our amazement, we found that the computer powered up after 15 years of inactivity. Further still, it appeared that the transcript existed in full upon the computer’s hard drive which, through the combined efforts of Larry and our technical adviser, David Schmidt, we were able to extract and translate into text files. Upon receipt of the files, it was realized we had got a lot more than we had bargained for: not only were transcriptions of the full five books amongst the files, but Fenn’s transcription of material written by James Mill into the margins and end leaves of books in the J.S. Mill collection at Somerville College, Oxford, was also included. This material essentially made up a sixth volume of work to be added to the electronic edition’s corpus. In 2009, work began in making up the Fenn typescript into XML, in accordance with the guidelines from the Text Encoding Initiative. The electronic edition was launched in November 2010.

Editing Principles

There is no doubt that Fenn had just about completed his transcription, bar one or two referencing checks, when one consults a document incuded amongst his computer files entitled 'Editing Principles'. This document, which is available to download as a PDF, goes some way to illustrating the amount of detailed research work Fenn conducted on Mill's common place books. It also provides insight to the coventions he used whilst performing his editorial work.


Scholars are already using Mill's common place books to conduct new research on Mill. Below, two researchers have kindly given permission for us to publish what they specifically found useful within Mill's manuscripts. We are always interested to here from visitors who are making use of the common place books in their scholarly work — please email us.

Dr. Antis Loizides

BA hons. (UCY), MSc.(Lon.), PhD (Lon.) Researcher, Department of Social and Political Sciences, University of Cyprus

In my doctoral dissertation (Plato's Influence on British Utilitarianism: The Case of John Stuart Mill, Queen Mary, University of London, 2011), I examine James Mill's and John Stuart Mill's reception of the ancient Greek and Roman Classics, with special emphasis on their respective readings (and appropriation) of Plato — briefly put, both father and son turned Plato into a Radical. I then attempt to trace how specific ideas from Plato's dialogues resurfaced in their works on educational, social and political reform. What is more, I am particularly interested in Plato's influence on John Stuart Mill's ideas concerning the 'Art of Life, character-formation and pleasure which combine to form his conception of happiness. However, at the same time, James and John Mill's shared admiration of Plato provides a way into their intellectual relationship and goes some way towards showing that the dominant interpretation of John Stuart Mill's intellectual development (e.g. that he rejected most of his father's ideas) is frequently one-sided, by placing too much emphasis on the influence of the Coleridgians on John Stuart Mill's mature views.

I have used the excellent online edition of James Mill's Common Place Books (CPBs) to substantiate the two main themes of my PhD thesis with regard to Plato's reception and influence as well as the underlying theme in reference to the intellectual affinity between father and son. To this effect, I have used those parts of James Mill's CPBs which refer to the ancient Greek and Roman classics (mainly Plato but also, for example, Aristotle, Demosthenes, Isocrates and Cicero). Moreover, I have also used those parts which refer to James Mill's views on theory and practise, character and education, liberty of thought and discussion, pleasure and utility.

Dr. Anna Plassart

MPhil (Cantab), PhD (Cantab) Research Fellow, Christ Church, Oxford

James Mill's Common Place Books give interesting insights into his private views on the mechanisms of reform and revolution, and how his reformist views/strategies evolved in time. But I also found it very useful to see some of the things he was reading (in particular, in my case, his interest for de Staël, who is not a writer scholars usually associate with him). Generally speaking, it's an extremely useful tool for someone who studies Mill's views on reform, because so much of the scholarly debate revolves around the question of whether what he wrote publicly was really what he thought, or rather part of strategies of propaganda/provocation/appeasement/etc.

How to cite the Common Place Books

When referencing this electronic edition of the Common Place Books in scholarly works, the following conventions can be used:

James Mill's Common Place Books, (ed.) Robert A. Fenn, 2010. <>

For specific chapter references, adapt the following example for Liberty of the Press I in common place book I:

'Liberty of the Press I' in James Mill's Common Place Books, (ed.) Robert A. Fenn, 2010, vol. I, ch. 2. <>

Kristopher Grint
November 2010
Updated May 2011