Jeremy Bentham

15 February 1748 - 6 June 1832

The philosopher and jurist Jeremy Bentham (1748 - 1832) was born in Spitalfields, London. He proved to be something of a child prodigy. At twelve, he was sent to Queen's College Oxford to study law. Bentham, however, soon became disillusioned after hearing the lectures of the leading authority of the day, Sir William Blackstone (1723 - 80). Instead of practising the law, he decided to write about it, and he spent his life criticising the existing law and suggesting ways for its improvement. His father's death in 1792 left him financially independent, and for nearly forty years he lived quietly in Westminster, producing between ten and twenty sheets of manuscript a day into his eighties. [Bentham Project]

He is particularly associated with the doctrine of Utilitarianism based on the principle of "the greatest happiness of the greatest number". "This, however, was only his starting point for a radical critique of society, which aimed to test the usefulness of existing institutions, practices and beliefs against an objective evaluative standard. He was an outspoken advocate of law reform, a pugnacious critic of established political doctrines, and the first to produce a utilitarian justification for democracy. He also had much to say of note on subjects as diverse as prison reform, religion, poor relief, international law, and animal welfare. He advocated universal suffrage and the decriminalisation of homosexuality." [Bentham Project]

His ideas were greatly to influence the reforms of public administration made during the nineteenth century. Research into his work continues at UCL in the "Bentham Project", set up in the early 1960s with the aim of producing the first scholarly edition of his works and correspondence, a projected total of some seventy volumes! [Bentham Project]

Bentham was eighty years old when the new University of London opened its doors in 1828, and many of the founders, particularly James Mill (1773 - 1836) and Henry Brougham (1778 - 1868), held him in high esteem, and their project embodied many of his ideas on education and society. As the first English University to open its doors to all, regardless of race, creed or political belief (provided they could afford the fees!), UCL went a long way to fulfilling Bentham's vision of what a University should be. He took a great interest in the new institution, and was instrumental in securing the appointment of his pupil John Austin (1790 - 1859) as the first Professor of Jurisprudence at UCL in 1829. The UCL provided a home both for Bentham's voluminous manuscripts, now in the library, and for his other tangible memorial, his infamous "Auto-Icon". The cabinet contains Bentham's preserved skeleton, dressed in his own clothes, and surmounted by a wax head. Bentham requested that his body be preserved in this way in his will made shortly before his death. The cabinet was moved to UCL in 1850. [UCL]

Sources and Links

UCL Bentham Project
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Spartacus Educational
Utilitarianism.Net with links to writings
Library of Economics
Biography by Leslie Stephen from The English Utilitarians 1900
British Humanist Association
Quite Interesting