Jeremy Bentham

(1748—1832) philosopher, jurist, and reformer

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English philosopher of law, language, and ethics. Born in London, Bentham was educated at Oxford, and studied law, for which he developed a profound mistrust. His major preoccupation became the flimsy theoretical foundations of law and the abuses to which the law gives rise. His first important publication, A Fragment on Government (1776), was a small part of his enormous Comment on the Commentaries of the jurist Blackstone, the classic statement of the conservative legal theory that was one of Bentham's principal aversions. The main theoretical work Bentham published during his lifetime was the Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789). Bentham was the founder of utilitarianism, and made famous the formula that the proper end of action is to achieve the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Much of his work tried to elaborate that doctrine and to show how utilitarianism could be developed into a calculus of pleasures (a hedonic or felicific calculus) whereby the effects of actions could be judged and right policy thereby identified. Utilitarianism was to provide a coherent and rational foundation for social and legal policy, whereas such fictions as natural rights, the social contract, and natural law served only to introduce incoherent and indefensible systems privileging some set of ‘intuitions’. Bentham's concern with law included a far-reaching critique of the abstractions and fictions within which law is often couched, and a penetrating understanding of the ways words force attitudes on the things they denote. He promoted a generally nominalistic and pragmatic theory of language, while his conception of definition by paraphrasis anticipates Frege in holding that the fundamental unit of meaning is not the individual word, but the sentence in which it occurs.

Bentham exercised enormous influence as the leader of a like-minded group of ‘philosophical radicals’, a group that included James and John Stuart Mill. He founded the Westminster Review as a counterpoise to the more conservative journals of the time, and was also the founder of University College London, where his embalmed body, topped by a wax head, is still revealed on special occasions.

http://www.ucl.ac.uk/Bentham-Project/info/project.htm Website of the Bentham Project at University College London, with a biography, bibliographies, and images of Bentham

http://cepa.newschool.edu/het/profiles/bentham.htm Biography of Bentham with a list of on- and offline resources

Subjects: Philosophy.

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Works by Jeremy Bentham