Friday, 26 January 2007

Jeremy Bentham

If you've read any of my other posts on this blog you will probably have noticed that it is the quirkier sides of philosophy that I enjoy discussing and there are few philosophers quirkier than Jeremy Bentham. Bentham was the proverbial renaissance man, he wrote masses and masses of volumes (not all of which have been published yet although UCL are working on it) on a wide variety subjects from writings on jurisprudence, economics and social theory. He designed a jail called the panopticon (you can see a picture of this in Foucault's 'Discipline and Punish'...or you can just google it, the choice is very much yours) which has influenced their design to this day. He is probably most famous as being the father of utilitarianism a philosophy which I doubt needs any introduction. If it was not for Bentham then arguably we would not have had John Stuart Mill or John Austin.

Bentham is one of those eccentrics that only England seem able to produce, Marx labelled him as a "pu
rely English phenomenon". He had a pet pig who would sleep on the end of his bed. He had a teapot called 'Dick' (or 'Dickey') and two walking-sticks called 'Dapple' and 'Dobbin'. He was said by J.S. Mill to have been frustrating company as he always had to be right, no matter what. In a rather macabre fashion Bentham petitioned London City Council for permission to replace the shrubbery that ran along his driveway with mummified cadavers arguing that dead bodies are "far more aesthetic than flowers". The irony is that embalming was to be a striking feature of his legacy.

Jeremy Bentham was influential in the creation of University College London. Before I go on I must is
sue the familiar warning that the stories I'm about to tell are apocryphal and sadly in this case there is a great chance that they are untrue. The picture is of what is known as the "auto-icon", it is Bentham's embalmed body with a wax head and glass eyes. The reason that a waxed head is used is that there was an error in the embalming process leaving his face without much feature and for a while his head sat between his legs on display, this much is true and you can visit him the next time you're in London. The stories go that when the university's college council meets, that is body is wheeled in and that his attendance is marked in the minutes as "present but not voting". Another story goes that the 'Auto-Icon' proved too much temptation for students at UCL and on one occasion he was found in a locker at the railway station in Aberdeen.

Personally I don't like the hedonistic style of Bentham's utilitarianism or the positivist jurisprudence he espoused but one cannot escape the fact that he was massively influential in the Enlightenment and beyond and the fact that he was such a character makes him quite endearing. I must also mention here that I quoted Bentham in my university application form because for some reason I was harping on about 'natural rights' which Bentham had occasion to call "rhetorical nonsense upon stilts". That verbosity is something which is characteristic of his prose and makes him an entertaining read.


Anonymous said...


saw your post on Bentham and thought you might be interested in a play-reading that we're puting on at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe entitled "Jeremy Bentham - the Pursuit of Happiness".