In writing this book, which takes the political thought of Jeremy Bentham for its subject-matter, and approaches it through the discipline of the historian, I have aimed to present Bentham on his own terms. I have not seen it as my role to attempt to contribute directly to contemporary debates about the strengths and weaknesses of utilitarianism, or about the explanatory power of legal positivism, or about whether Bentham is best interpreted as a liberal or an authoritarian, and so forth. These are the tasks of the philosopher, of the legal theorist, and of that variety of historian of political thought who studies the past in order to shed light on the present. Nevertheless, providing it is not the case that no one ever learns anything from history, it is possible that the contents of this book may be of some interest to participants in those debates. If Bentham is invoked by philosophers, legal theorists, historians of political thought, and scholars from other disciplines such as political science, economics, and literary and cultural studies (as he increasingly is), then it may be of service to have a more detailed historical account, and in turn a clearer understanding, of what it was that Bentham himself thought, and of the circumstances which prompted him to think it. My ambition has been to provide a more satisfactory narrative of the historical development of Bentham's political thought—or at least of some aspects of Bentham's political thought—than has hitherto appeared, and thereby to provide a framework for future research, where that may be appropriate.
It is the central thesis of this book that in or around 1804 the notion of sinister interest emerged in Bentham's thought, and had a major impact on his understanding of the political process. It is the presence of sinister interest which, crudely speaking, distinguishes 'the radical Bentham' of the nineteenth century from 'the enlightenment Bentham' of the eighteenth century. Having said that, I also contend that, in certain key elements, Bentham's thought remained remarkably stable. Those elements included not only the principle of utility, but also, and more fundamentally, his theory of real and fictitious entities. Bentham's philosophy began with the physical world, and the way in which the human mind experienced that world, and then represented it in discourse. When Bentham had explained the nature of the physical or the real, he found himself in a position to explain the nature of the moral. Pleasure and pain were real, and if sentient creatures who had the capacity to experience pleasure and pain did not exist, nothing would matter.
While this is not a short book, it suffers from a number of lacunae. The vast amount of material which Bentham printed and published during his lifetime, together with that which has been published since, and the near impossibility of reading with ease the great mass of his manuscripts which remain untranscribed . . .