Jeremy Bentham


John Gehl sends this bio of the English philosopher, economist and theoretical jurist Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), who founded Utilitarianism,the philosophy that ideas, institutions, and actions should be judged on the basis of their usefulness. Picking up on Joseph Priestley's expression "The Greatest Happiness for the Greatest Number," Bentham made it a catchword for his Utilitarian conviction that all human actions must be judged by their usefulness in promoting the greatest happiness for the greatest number of persons. Bentham, as leader of The Philosophical Radicals, a group devoted to reforming the basic institutions of England, eagerly expanded his Utilitarian ideas as a reasoned basis and guide for legal, social and moral reform. Associated with Bentham in his reformist schemes were such notable figures as James Mill, his son John Stuart Mill, and the politician Lord Shelburne. While not all of Bentham's reformist ideas were found acceptable, he is credited with being a pioneer voice in such matters as court and prison reform, parliamentary debate procedures, expanding voter suffrage, the codification of laws, and less government interference in business. One of his more noted successes was the use of the ballot box to permit secret
voting. He wrote prolifically, and his ideas spread to Europe and America, leading to an active correspondence with important men in several countries.

Bentham was born the son of an attorney in London. A prodigy, he is reputed to have read serious literature by age three, to play the violin at age five, and to begin studying Latin and French at age six. He entered the University of Oxford at 12, studied law, and joined the King's Bench division of the High Court. Having no real interest in practicing law, he busied himself instead looking into what he believed were abuses in the legal system. This was, of
course, the beginning of the career he would follow as a reformer and moral philosopher. In 1789 he became well-known for his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. He also helped found and edit the Westminster Review to serve as an outlet for the reformist ideas of the Philosophical Radicals. Despite Bentham's disappointment over the failure of some of his specific reforms, his ideas did influence many of the reforms undertaken by the British government in both criminal and civil law. And in truth, some of his ideas were not practical, such as his "felicific calculus" for measuring personal happiness. Bentham died in London in 1832. In accordance with his wishes, his body was dissected before friends. Today his skeleton, covered with his own clothes and provided with a wax effigy of his head, is set upright in a glass-fronted case at University College, London, a school he helped found.

Jeremy Bentham died in London in 1832. In accordance with his wishes, his body was dissected before friends. Today his skeleton, covered with his own clothes and provided with a wax effigy of his head, is set upright in a glass-fronted case at University College, London, a school he helped found. Phyllis Gardner comments: "Imagine my surprise, when as a new postdoctoral fellow at University College, London in 1982, I found the cupboard in the main hallway - one that I had been passing without notice - now open for the new fall term to show the stuffed Jeremy Bentham, in full 19th century regalia. I was told that he wrote in his will that he was to attend all board meetings (hence the cupboard was on wheels). However, a certain stench led to the discovery that his head was rotting, leading to replacement with a wax effigy. From that point on, the real head, in a hermetically sealed container, is now taken to the board meeting. I always dwelled in wonderment at this dying wish of an otherwise totally enlightened man". RH: He obviously didn't trust faculty members and wanted to keep am eye on them.

Glynn Wood reports: "An update on Jeremy. One of my students reported in 2000 that the economists who specialize in collective choice had Bentham's mummy attend their annual meeting at the University of Texas via video conferencing. I think he'd have been so pleased".

Regarding the pickled head of Jeremy Bentham in display at University College, London, James Tent comments: "WAISers may also be interested to know that the skull of the great French philosopher/mathematician, René Descartes, (1596 to 1650) is on display at the Musee de l'Homme in Paris. His contemporaries thought that the very size and shape of his skull might reveal clues to his singular intelligence. He wrote tremendously innovative works for his time such as La géométrie, which includes his includes his application of algebra to geometry. As a result, we now have Cartesian geometry. Later he wrote his Discours de la Méthode ( Meditations on First Philosophy). As a result, many consider him to be the first modern man/woman in terms of scientific thought. Alas, the size and shape of his skull has provided no clues to his extraordinary intelligence". RH: Anatole France was thought to be extremely intelligent, but his skull and brain turned out to be quite small. Attempts to establish a correlation seem as futile as trying to judge a person's feelings by the size of his heart.

Ronald Hilton -


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