The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism

By Elie Halévy; Mary Morris | Go to book overview

PREFACE TO THE ENGLISH EDITION

I GLADLY accede to the request that I should write a few words introducing this translation of Monsieur Halévy's 'La Formation du Radicalisme Philosophique'. It is a book which I have long known and admired as the most illuminating work on the English Utilitarians, that remarkable school of thinkers and writers who left their mark so deeply on nineteenth-century England, whose influence still works powerfully in us even when we least recognise it. Of the faults of the school we are nowadays conscious enough. We do not nowadays believe in the inevitable blessings of complete laisser faire or in the felicific calculus. Their virtues are more easily forgotten, their unflagging disinterestedness and public spirit, their noble universalism, their amply justified belief in the solid power of clear and courageous thinking. As Monsieur Halévy has shown us, they owe much to French thought. It is a most interesting episode in the international exchange of ideas -- how the thought of Locke, that most English of all phnosophers, with his supreme commonsense, his acceptance of facts, his toleration and his love of liberty, and along with all this his dislike of working out principles to their logical consequences, fructified in France in clear consistent systems, and came back in its French form to inspire Bentham and his successors -- and none is so well equipped to expound it as a Frenchman who has an intimate knowledge of England.

There are two features in Monsieur Halévy's book which seem to me of especial interest and value to us at present. The first is his convincing demonstration of how deeply the Benthamites were influenced by their belief in the possibilities of applying to the study of man and society the principles and methods of the physical sciences. That is the clue to some of the most curious aberrations of their thought, and to much of their short-sightedness. The belief is still with us. It is curious how often men are still found to argue

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