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Jeremy Bentham

July 31st, 2006 · Posted by Skuds in Life · 8 Comments · Life

One of the things I liked about the book The Tyranny of Numbers, was what the author called its historical interludes. These were chapters about historical figures relevant to the development of counting and statistics. These reminded me very much of some of Stephen Jay Gould’s essays on historical figures (mostly scientists) in the way they managed to sum up the person in a short space and make them more interesting by homing in on the more quirky aspects of their lives.

In a way this is more rewarding than ploughing through an entire biography, but I’m not sure I want to read an entire book about one minor philosopher or scientist.

The chapter on Jeremy Bentham was especially fascinating. I have to confess that I had not really known anything about him, and the first thing which caught my eye was that he was one of the first utilitarians. For some reason I just assumed that JS Mill started all that off, but it was Bentham who found a phrase in a pamphlet by Joseph Priestly – “It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong” – and based his life’s work on trying to acheive that.

Unfortunately Bentham seemed to be obsessed with how to measure happiness so that he could measure whether it was increased, and the theme running through the chapter is that of a person ahead of his time in many respects who really pissed off the establishment to such an extent that his ideas were not acted upon – although abroad he was lauded as a great thinker he was largely dismissed in England except by a few acolytes.

Amongst his supporters was James Mill, whose son John Stuart Mill later developed the theories of utilitarianism more and who is now much better known than Bentham.

Some of the ideas which Bentham had were truly revolutionary, when you consider the way life and society was in the late eighteenth century when he started promoting them, and many of his ideas were later incorporated into socialism.

His big idea was the panopticon – a prison built in a wheel shape so that one warder could see and supervise all the prisoners at once. His vision was to have the whole prison run as a profit-making venture with the prisoners working 14 hours a day as a literally captive labour force. From a modern perspective this might not sound like such a great idea, but the intention was for prisoners to be made honest through hard work and for the whole thing to not be a drain on the public purse. Its debatable whether the idea of hard labour as a tool of rehabilitation is valid, but at that time it was thought plausible and from that starting point Bentham came up with an idea which never got built but which occupied a large chunk of his life petitioning the government. At one point some land was bought for such a prison, but the project fell through and now the Tate Gallery stands on that land instead.

Even if Bentham’s panopticon did not get built, it did influence prison design with some pseudo-panopticons being built in Britain and abroad.

What I love about the time between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries is that someone with ideas would have ideas in several fields. We are used to ‘experts’ sticking to fairly narrow fields now, but back then it was not unusual for a scientist to make discoveries in several fields and to come up with social, political and economic theories and practical engineering solutions too. Bentham was a bit like that.

I dare say most of his ideas were intended to contribute towards the total happiness of his big idea, but they did so from a number of angles. Its a sad story because most of his ideas were not picked up by anyone, although some did resurface many years after his death. You can’t help wondering how different our society would be if some of Bentham’s ideas were put into action at the time.

He tried to interest the Treasury in currency schemes and speaking tubes, he suggested a scheme of a train of carts drawn at speed between London and Edinburgh, and he suggested to the American that they should build a canal through Panama. Another idea was that the authorities should freeze large quantities of vegetables so that fresh peas would be available at Christmas and teamed up with Roget, of thesaurus fame, to invent a ‘frigidarium’ to keep food cold, told the Bank of England how to create an unforgeable banknote.

Along the way he invented the words ‘international’, ‘codify’, and ‘maximise’ and wrote in favour of votes for women, the legalisation of homosexuality, abolition of slavery, and the separation of church and state as well as making suggestions for the reorganisation of government which were ignored at the time but later came about anyway – the creation of ministers responsible for education, the ‘preservation of the national health’, and transport. Maybe he just had too many ideas to be able to do any one of them justice? Certainly some of his more bizarre ideas must have tainted the good ones by association.

One of his more bizzare ideas was to rename the country and call it ‘Brithibernia’. This was just one manifestation of his eccentricity, along with having a cat named The Reverend Dr John Langhorn and a walking stick called Dapple, but he saved his strangest idea for after his death.

Bentham had founded the University College School, and was influential in getting UCL established. When he died he had his body preserved and kept in a cabinet at UCL. This so-called ‘auto-icon’ is still there and is still sometimes taken into meetings of the council, where he is listed as “present but not voting”. Unfortunately the head suffered from the preservation process and had to be replaced with a wax copy. The original was kept between the legs of the stuffed Bentham, until a string of student prank thefts led to it being kept under lock and key. Go to UCL today and you can still see Bentham’s body on public display!

Having a story like that told across 19 or 20 pages is just about right. A whole 300-page book about Bentham could well tend towards the dull in places, but cramming the best bits into one chapter leaves you wanting more without the disappointment of actually getting it.

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8 Comments so far ↓

  • el tom

    Hmm. he also invented the utility monster as a consequence of his great moral vision. what if it gives someone 2 times the pleasure to eat somebodies baby than it gives the person to keep the baby alive?

    That’s why Mill and his pals had to invent ‘rule utilitarianism’, which ended up developing into the same moral ambiguity that existed before.


    Bentham was also a great legal mind.

  • Skuds

    By coincidence the subject of utilitarianism is touched on by Mark Vernon in today’s Guardian, and also the futility of trying to measure happiness.

    I think that Bentham had the right big idea, but was more than a bit blinkered in his application of it. But of course he was a product of his time.

    Had I not failed miserably at my A levels I was going to study philosophy. Sometimes I wish I had done that.

  • Richard W. Symonds

    Anybody who asks “Why?” (and sticks around for answers) is already a philosopher, Skuds, so I shouldn’t worry about the paper qualification.

  • Skuds

    I am not worried about the paper qualification. I just think I would have enjoyed having a couple of years to read all those books and discuss them and think about them.

    What little reading I manage to do now is a poor substitute.

    All the drink, drugs and student sex would have been nice too 🙂

  • Richard W. Symonds

    Fair comment

  • Richard W. Symonds

    May I recommend “Teach Yourself Philosophy” by CEM Joad.

  • Danivon

    When Ms Danivon & I went to Ireland, we visited Kilmainham Gaol. The original parts were built as directed by Howard in 1796. One wing was later torn down and replaced by a Bentham panopticon. So it was built, and used.

    You will all have seen it – it was used to film the original ‘Italian Job’

  • Jane Skudder

    One of my heroes was also a bit of a polymath with some ideas ahead of his time. Lewis Carroll was, of course, a mild-mannered mathematician and pioneering photographer as well as a children’s author. He also wrote pamphlets on proportional representation and anti-vivisectionism. (I may have just made that word up).