In the influential essay in which he claimed that Jeremy Bentham was one of the "great seminal minds" of the age, John Stuart Mill described the characteristic intellectual approach deployed by this father of Utilitarianism. Although on the one hand Mill's presentation of Benthamite method makes it appear the very anthithesis of the poetic, on the other he shows that shares a characteristically Romantic emphasis — an emphasis upon particularity, detail, and specific fact. According to Mill,

Bentham's method may be shortly described as the method of detail; of treating wholes by separating them into their parts, abstractions by resolving them into Things, — classes and generalities by distinguishing them into the individuals of which they are made up; and breaking every question into pieces before attempting to solve it. The precise amount of originality of this process, considered as a logical conception — its degree of connexion with the methods of physical science, or with the previous labours of Bacon, Hobbes, or Locke — is not an essential consideration in this place. Whatever originality there was in the method — in the subjects he applied it to, and in the rigidity with which he adhered to it — there was the greatest. Hence his interminable classifications. [220]

Certainly, the preceeding explanation of Bentham's analytic approach exemplifies precisely the abstract theorizing and classification attacked by a line of nineteenth-century Romantic writers from Blake and Keats through Carlyle, Dickens, and Ruskin.

Nonetheless, when Mill continues his description of Bentham's fundamental approach, he makes the Utilitarian sage and guru sound surprising like these Romantic and Post-romantic authors, all of whom fervently believe that one can only approach reality through specific details. As Mill, who shares this emphasis, points out,

It is a sound maxim, and one which all close thinkers have felt, but which no one before Bentham ever so consistently applied, that error lurks in generalities: that the human mind is not capable of embracing a complex whole, until it has surveyed and catalogued the parts of which that whole is made up; that abstractions are not realities per se, but an abridged mode of expressing facts, and that the only practical mode of dealing with them is to trace them back to the facts (whether of experience or of consciousness) of which they are the expression. [221; emphasis added]

Bentham as much as Keats or Ruskin completely opposes the emphasis of Pope, Johnson, and other neoclassical poets and critics upon generalization. Although very much a product of the eighteenth century — and of what contemporary trendy jargon calls the "Enlightenment Project" — Bentham clearly provides both a philosophical analogue to key aspects of Romanticism and a philosophical justification for it!

References

Bentham, Jeremy. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907. First edition 1780.

Houghton, Walter E. The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830-1870. New Haven: Yale UP, [c. 1956], esp. 93-96.

Mill, John Stuart. "Bentham," quoted from Autobiography and Other Writings. Ed. Jack Stillinger. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969. Original appeared in The London and Westminster Review 29 (August 1839): 467-506.


Victorian Web Overview Philosophy

Last modified 28 February 2002