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Recent critics have declaimed against John Stuart Mill's liberalism, arguing that his conception of civilization is inexorably bound to a hierarchal conception of social progress justifying Europeans' moral right to 'civilize' barbarian peoples. Without exonerating him from his undoubtedly problematic views regarding non-European cultures, I would like to argue that Mill in fact has a much subtler view of historical development and of civilization than such critics attribute to him. Central to these critics' charges is an 'aggregative' view of Mill's conceptualization of historical development--suggesting that Mill understood societies to move through discrete stages of social development, characterized by internally-correlated stages of economic, political, cultural and moral development--which fails to be borne out under close examination. I argue that Mill's view of historical development and his liberalism more generally are in fact significantly more capacious than is often recognized and are not inextricably bound to the project of imperialism.

Keywords: John Stuart Mill; barbarism; civilization; ethology; historical development; liberal imperialism; progress; sociology

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Dept. of Political Science, University of Toronto, 100 George Street, Toronto, ON, M5S 3G3, Canada., Email:

Publication date: 2011-01-01

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