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In a number of related disciplines, such as philosophy, political theory, jurisprudence, history of political thought and history of economic thought, we often refer collectively to those texts which form the staple of university undergraduate courses e. We sometimes use the term in a more extended sense to refer to the larger group of such works which are read by more advanced researchers.

In either case, the canon is made up of texts. The question of how one should study texts has greatly perplexed philosophers, even laying aside the question of how to choose what text or texts should be read. One prominent view is that the text should be read in order to extricate the truths, or more modestly the philosophical insights, which it might contain. A second prominent view is that we need to understand the intentions of the author if we are to grasp his meaning.

And a third prominent view is that a text must be understood within its historical situation the context in which it was written, and this requires a historical study, among other things, of the circumstances which prompted the production of the work, of the influences on the author, of the texts to which he was responding, and of the conventions of the genre in which he was working. Yet there is an even more fundamental issue than that concerning how one reads a text namely, how is a text established or created in the first place?

Utilitarianism: A Guide for the Perplexed

I am not here adopting the approach of the post-modern sceptic, who thinks that nothing that has ever been written, or ever will be written, has any inherent In relation to the Bentham canon, the aggregate of texts that have been attributed to Bentham has changed radically in the past, is changing now, and will certainly change in the future. The point is that as new texts become available and as already-available texts are re-edited, the list of texts which constitute the Bentham canon undergoes significant change.

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Rather than being able to regard the canon as a rock on which we can stand with confidence, it appears to be more like sand which constantly shifts beneath our feet. The standard source for the study of Bentham has been, and to a significant extent still is, the edition of his writings produced under the superintendence of his literary editor John Bowring, and published in 11 volumes between and The Bowring edition contains most of the texts which Bentham himself published during his lifetime though it excludes Benthams published writings on religion ;2 texts which were edited by various disciples of Bentham during his lifetime, including English translations of Dumonts recensions; and texts which were produced from Benthams unpublished manuscripts after his death specifically for inclusion in the Bowring edition.

Most subsequent reprints of Benthams writings are derived either from the original works published by Bentham or from the Bowring edition. However, not only is the Bowring edition far from comprehensive, it does not seem to have been very widely read, and even where it has been read, it has been read very selectively. The Bentham canon narrowly defined, therefore, can probably be restricted to one, two or possibly three works: the most popular is An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, which, as noted in Chapter One,3 was printed by Bentham in , and published in , with a slightly expanded second edition in ; then comes A Fragment on Government, Benthams first major published work which appeared in ; and finally the so-called Anarchical Fallacies, written in , but never published by Bentham himself, and which I will discuss below.

Having said that, if one were to ask what constituted the Bentham canon in the early nineteenth century, and particularly in the non-English speaking world, the answer would be Dumonts edition of Traits de lgislation civile et pnale, first published at Paris in It was this work which established Benthams reputation in places as far afield as Buenos Aries and St Petersburg as we have seen in Chapter One,4 it was retranslated into Spanish, but also into Russian, German and several other languages. As we have also seen in Chapter One,5 Dumont went on to produce four more major recensions of Benthams work, yet these works were not straightforward translations of Benthams writings, but rather distillations of his key ideas, arranged in a way in which Dumont thought would appeal to the intended audience, and not necessarily in the way in which Bentham intended them to appear.

I have already, therefore, identified three Benthams. First, we have the Bentham who was known throughout Europe and America in the nineteenth century through the recensions of Dumont; second, we have the Bentham who is known to undergraduate students in philosophy or other related disciplines from the first few chapters of An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation; and third, we have the Bentham known to the more specialized scholar who is familiar with the Bowring edition which at least has the virtue of a fairly detailed index.

But there is now a fourth Bentham, namely the Bentham who is beginning to emerge from the new authoritative edition of The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham, being produced by the Bentham Project, based at University College London. The new Collected Works will, of course, supersede all previous versions of Benthams writings, and especially the Bowring edition. As early as the s it was recognized that the Bowring edition was poorly edited.

In University College, London it had a comma in its title until the s , which had possession of around 60, folios of Benthams manuscripts, decided to establish a Bentham Manuscripts Committee in order to oversee the publication of a new edition. Some half-hearted progress was made towards producing a volume of Benthams economic writings, but even that modest enterprise was interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War. It was not until the late s, and prompted by the distinguished philosopher A. Ayer, that the authorities of University College, London once again gave serious consideration to the production of an authoritative edition.


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In the College established the Bentham Committee as a National Committee, under the chairmanship first of Lord Cohen, the judge, and then of Lionel Robbins, the economist, in order to oversee the production of the edition. Burns was appointed as the first General Editor in The present author is the fourth General Editor of the edition. Why this is perplexing and this can be extended to any other major philosopher is that what we consider to be the Bentham canon, and from there what we consider to be Benthams thought, ideas or world-view, will depend on just who it is that is doing the reading, in that they will be reading different things.

If it is an early nineteenth-century South American politician, then the Bentham canon may be a Spanish translation of Dumont; if it is a contemporary undergraduate taking a course in the history of philosophy, then it may be the first six chapters of An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation; if it is an academic with a wide-ranging interest in the history of philosophy, it may be five or six texts which, he believes, contain the essence of Benthams thought; and if it is the specialist scholar who has spent most of his career reading and writing about Bentham, then it is absolutely everything Bentham produced such is my sad predicament.

So, today, the Bentham canon may be said to consist in the first few pages of An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, or it may consist in the texts typically discussed in the mainstream scholarly literature, or it may consist in all of the available texts, including unpublished manuscripts. There is no doubt that the new edition of Benthams Collected Works has led to increased awareness of and thence interest in Benthams thought, and has stimulated much excellent original scholarship, as hitherto unknown works have been published for the first time, or else rescued from the double-columned small print of the Bowring edition.

And what seems beyond dispute is that as more texts become available, there are increased possibilities for a more nuanced and detailed understanding of Benthams thought, and of its development over time. We can, therefore, construct a much more accurate account of Benthams thought than the early nineteenth-century South American politician, but that does not alter the fact that, from a historians point of view, the way in which Bentham was received in early nineteenth-century South America was through the texts which were available there and then, and that must never be lost sight of when trying to assess any historical influence which Bentham may have had.

A further complication is that scholars from different disciplines have different purposes when they read texts. Take the distinction between a historical and a philosophical approach that is, the distinction between a historian who wishes to produce an intellectual biography of Bentham, and a philosopher who wishes to produce a reconstruction of his system. The philosophical approach has produced some excellent Bentham scholarship in recent years, and has led to reconstructions of Benthams utilitarianism that, according to the lights of contemporary political and moral philosophy, are either more coherent, more consistent, or more plausible than a historical reading of the texts would allow.

The philosophical reconstructions in question do, of course, take seriously the constraints imposed by a historical reading of Benthams texts, but only up to a point. It is incumbent on the philosopher to be completely open about when that point has been reached. The distinction between the historical and philosophical approaches may be illustrated by reference to A. Ayers seminal essay on Benthams principle of utility.

Bentham: A Guide for the Perplexed

The problem which Ayer addresses is how to reconcile Benthams psychological theory with his ethics. As we shall see in more detail in Chapter Three,10 Bentham argues that while each individual wishes to promote his own greatest happiness, what he ought to do is to promote the greatest happiness of the community as a whole. How, then, does Bentham expect the individual in fact to do what he ought to do in other words, how does he expect to reconcile the interests of the individual with that of the community?

Ayer suggests that Bentham attempts to do this not only by making the rewards of benevolence [i.


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This very much more subtle way consisted in appealing to peoples emotions, and thereby exhorting or persuading them to do what the moral standard the principle of utility stipulated was right. In the course of his discussion Ayer reconstructs Benthams doctrine in a further significant way, yet writes as if his reconstruction is attributable to the authenticity Bentham.

While Bentham understood the promotion of the happiness of the community in terms of maximizing the pleasure experienced by the members of that community, Ayer argues that what he really meant to maximize was preference satisfaction in other words, the satisfaction of as many of each persons wishes or desires as possible. As contemporary students of Bentham, we are struggling to come to terms with the shifting sand which the new edition represents. Yet, as that edition progresses, we should find an increasing amount of firm ground to cling to.

Having said that, even when a text has been produced in a so-called authoritative edition, the extent to which it is authoritative may be a matter of dispute. This leads us into the question of how does one produce an authoritative text? How, then, does the Bentham Project go about its task of editing Bentham texts? We have already discussed the difference between a historical and a philosophical approach to reading a text.

If one translates the historical and philosophical approaches into an editorial method for constructing a text, a very different text is likely to emerge. The historian will aim to produce the text as Bentham intended it taking into account the fact that Benthams intentions may have changed in the course of writing , whereas the philosopher will aim to produce a text which, by his lights, puts the argument in the most convincing or most coherent way.


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What is important to note is that a historical approach to editing, where authors intentions take priority, is not incompatible with the philosophical enterprise; but that a philosophical approach, where presenting a Perhaps this is why most textual editors are historians, and philosophers have the good sense to allow them to get on with the job. The approach of the Bentham Project is to construct the text in a way which is faithful to Benthams intentions.

We have already seen that a different methodology would produce a very different text.

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Yet it is also true that a different editor using the same methodology might also produce a very different text. For instance, the first volume that I edited for the Collected Works is titled First Principles preparatory to Constitutional Code, and appeared in This volume is based entirely on original manuscripts, most of which were written in , and many of which were previously unpublished. The material it contains is now fairly well known by those Bentham scholars who have an interest in his democratic political theory. To those scholars it has become part of the canon.

Yet it is quite possible that had some other person started from the point at which I started in editing that volume, he would have produced a volume which would have differed, and differed in a significant number of respects for instance, in terms of the essays it contained; in terms of the structure of those essays; in terms of the detailed transcription of the manuscripts; in terms of the accompanying annotation; and even in terms of the title of the volume.

The best that the editor can do is to be as explicit as possible in the editorial introduction to the volume in explaining how he has constructed the text in question.

A number of factors, both scholarly and non-scholarly, affect the production of the new Bentham edition. At the outset it was decided by the Bentham Committee that the edition should be comprehensive in scope as well as definitive in text. This statement appears in the General Preface to the edition which appeared in Correspondence: Vol. I the first volume to be published in The General Preface sets out the rationale for the edition, and lays down its proposed structure i. The subject categories as originally conceived However, as knowledge about Benthams surviving manuscripts has increased, the original estimate that the edition would run to 38 volumes has been revised upwards to the present estimate of 68 volumes.

It should be pointed out that in practice the edition is divided into two areas: the correspondence and the works. The correspondence aims to be both comprehensive and complete, including all known letters written by and written to Bentham. To date, 12 of 14 projected volumes of correspondence have appeared, containing Benthams letters through to the end of June The remaining 54 projected volumes belong to the works. Of these, 14 have been published, and the 15th the second and final volume of Writings on the Poor Laws is due for publication in Many of the published volumes deal with Benthams political and constitutional thought, though individual volumes deal with ethics, education and codification.

Other volumes dealing with logic and language and with political fallacies are also being prepared for publication. There are, however, large areas of Benthams writings which are still to be explored.

About Bentham: A Guide for the Perplexed

In the general area of Benthams legal writings, little work has been done on the panopticon prison, on the civil, penal and procedural codes, on real property, and on law reform. Elsewhere, serious work is only just beginning on the economic writings and on the religious writings, on the early writings on jurisprudence, and on the theory of reward and punishment. The point is that we still have only a partial canon of Benthams works to study: Dumonts recensions were not pure Bentham in the first place; the Bowring edition is incomplete and poorly edited; and the new authoritative edition is only a third of the way through its publishing programme.

And what about the volumes which have been published in the new edition? I have already intimated that they do not constitute a representative sample of Benthams works whatever that might look like. What criteria, then, are used in judging which volumes to prepare for publication now, and which to leave until some future time?

Had ideal circumstances prevailed at the inception of the edition and by ideal circumstances I mean the existence of guaranteed funding for the whole of the enterprise , it is unlikely that the volumes would have been published in the order in which they have In such ideal circumstances, chronology would or should have determined the order of publication in other words, Benthams works would have been published in the order in which they were written, except where, for thematic reasons, a special argument could be made for grouping together works produced at different times.

An alternative approach might have been to publish, in the first instance, those works which were considered to be the most important. But such an approach would run into the insuperable problem of deciding which volumes were in fact the most important. If each scholar with an interest in Bentham were asked to provide a list of the 26 volumes which should be published first, there would be as many different lists as there were scholars.

Others lament the fact that Bentham destroyed the manuscripts for the works which he himself published, and would be delighted to have parallel editions of printed and manuscript text. To sum up on the one hand no one would probably think that the volumes published to date are the most important, and on the other hand no one would agree which volumes are the most important.

Indeed, such an assessment would only begin to be feasible after all the volumes had been edited and published. Why, then, do we have the 26 that we do? Giving a high priority to publishing the correspondence makes sense in that, once identified, the material is on the whole relatively straightforward to organize, and casts considerable light on the works and projects with which Bentham was engaged at the time.

Having said that, the works often cast light on the correspondence, and, to emphasize the point I made earlier, greatest benefit would have accrued had chronologically related correspondence and works volumes progressed hand in hand.