Jeremy Bentham: An Odyssey of Ideas

Jeremy Bentham: An Odyssey of Ideas

Jeremy Bentham: An Odyssey of Ideas

Jeremy Bentham: An Odyssey of Ideas

Excerpt

This study of Jeremy Bentham began in bewilderment and it ends in hope. Could the usual condescending sketch of him be a full portrait or was it a caricature? Was he a shallow, unoriginal, and slightly comic philistine or a profound and serious creator? Was it possible that so ardent a reforming pragmatist should have sat still with a petrified doctrine while the world around him lurched forward from static, agricultural, aristocratic anarchy to industrial, middle-class, democratic bureaucracy? Can he have died in 1832 placidly cherishing the same ideas he first discovered in 1769, unaffected by the American, French, and Industrial Revolutions? Can a man whose influence on the development of British political and legal history was admittedly so enormous have been so trivial and defective a thinker? Was his attempt to create a science of morals and legislation quixotic or was it viable? Can it be dismissed with a sneer or is it admirable? Was there a gap, then, between his own words and the interpretations of his critics?

There was. With several generous grants from the Social Science Research Council and the American Association of University Women, I was able to study many of Bentham's unpublished manuscripts at the British Museum and University College, London -- and stand bemused before his mummy. The more I read among his published and unpublished writings, the wider the gap yawned; the higher my admiration for him rose; and the more determined I became to draw another picture of him. I believe he was a great man who has often been misunderstood and therefore undervalued. This book is an attempt to see him in a new perspective, as the creator of a general method rather than a particular doctrine, of a 'logic of the will' that covers every human action and not merely a limited ethical or political theory.

These are some of the questions it tries to answer. What were the major influences that shaped his ideas and how important . . .

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