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Bentham's Metaphysics and the Science of Divinity

  • James E. Crimmins (a1)


The utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) has long been recognized as an exponent of a new science of society. However, scholars of his thought have given scant attention to at least one important aspect of that science: the relationship between the metaphysical presuppositions of his social science and his view on religion. Rarely is it considered that Bentham's aspiration to create a science of society in emulation of physical science was fundamental to his critique of religion just as it was to all other areas of his thought. This critique of religion was set out principally in a series of works written between the years 1809 and 1823. Swear Not at All was published in 1817, and followed a year later, after earlier efforts were aborted in 1809 and 1813, by Church-of-Englandism and its Catechism Examined. The Analysis of the Influence of Natural Religion on the Temporal Happiness of Mankind appeared in 1822 and Not Paul, but Jesus in 1823. It was not merely a coincidence that in the very period when Bentham devoted so much of his time to religion his work on metaphysics and logic substantially reached fruition. The “Book on Logic,” on which Bentham worked at intervals between 1811 and 1821, was intended to give a full description of his “method.” The work was never completed but was eventually edited and included in several fragments in John Bowring's edition of The Works of Jeremy Bentham. The essay on “Nomography” with an appendix on “Logical Arrangements, or Instruments of Invention and Discovery Employed by Jeremy Bentham” is included in the third volume, and in the eighth volume is to be found the “Essay on Logic,” “A Fragment on Ontology,” the “Essay on Language,” and the “Fragments on Universal Grammar.” The metaphysics described in these essays by Bentham was initially developed by him during the formative years of his intellectual life in the early 1770s, and he was always aware of its particular consequences in the field of religion.



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1 Charles Everett acknowledged the importance of Bentham's writings on “method” but did not see any connection between these and the religious works, settling for the observation that nearly “the whole of his life was to be devoted to an attempt to apply the scientific method to the field of law” (The Education of Jeremy Bentham [New York: Columbia University Press, 1931] 35). Mary Mack, on the other hand, does suggest an intimate association between metaphysics and religion when she writes that “Bentham's religious opinions later underwent the same arcane-popular split, long sleep and renaissance as his psychological (sic) and ethical theories.” But she then turns to a discussion of the relations between religion and politics in his later thought, and the connection between the “psychological” works and his religious views is forgotten or not thought relevant (Jeremy Bentham: An Odyssey of Ideas 1748–1799 [London: Heinemann, 1962] 304–5).

2 Bentham MSS, University College London, Boxes cxxviii, fol. 32 (1809), vi, fol. 28–83 (1812–13), and v, fol. 63–316 (1813). Henceforth references to these MSS will appear in brackets in the text, e.g.: (UC cxxvii. 1–32).

3 The Works of Jeremy Bentham, Published under the Superintendence of His Executor, John Bowring (11 vols.; Edinburgh: William Tait, 18381843). Henceforth Works.

4 Odyssey of Ideas, 13. The picture drawn by Mack of the young Bentham, “terrified and repelled by religion,” who could not understand “why it must be painful to be good,” oppressed by “morbid piety” (ibid., 35), is an exaggeration, largely based upon the recollections of an old man who, it must be said, was prone to letting his fancy get the better of his memory.

5 Bentham, Jeremy, A Comment on the Commentaries and A Fragment on Government (ed. Burns, J. H. and Hart, H. L. A.; London: Athlone, 1977) 393.

6 ibid., 440. My presentation of the philosophical foundations of Bentham's utilitarianism is necessarily brief and in many respects tailored to suit my specific concern with his views on religion. For a comprehensive exposition and analysis, see Harrison's, RossBentham (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983).

7 Mack is surely right (.Odyssey of Ideas, 151–52) that before he was a “statesman” Bentham was a “metaphysician,” meaning by this that he speculated on and evolved a comprehensive theory of language.

8 Bentham discussed the subject of subscription to articles of faith and related topics in some depth in MSS dating from 1773–74 (UC v. 1–32; xcvi. 263–341). For a discussion, see Crimmins, James E., “Bentham's Unpublished Manuscripts on Subscription to Articles of Faith,” British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 9 (1986) 3344.

9 In a later MS (ca. 1775) Bentham described “metaphysics” as the science of the meaning of words and credited Helvetius with its invention (UC xxvii. 1).

10 In the Encyclopedic D'Alembert described the connection between the sciences in terms of a logically constructed series of propositions, and called for rigorous clarity in the formulation of these propositions. See Hankins, Thomas L., Jean D'Alembert: Science and the Enlightenment (Oxford: Clarendon, 1970) 112.

11 See Bentham, Jeremy, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789; ed. Burns, J. H. and Hart, H. L. A.; London: Athlone, 1970) Introduction, xxxviii.

12 This MS is part of an analysis of a pamphlet by Richard Hey entitled Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty.

13 Bentham, Jeremy, Of Lam in General (ed. Hart, H. L. A.; London: Athlone, 1970) 284.

14 In a conversation with John Quincy Adams in 1817, Bentham left his American friend in no doubt as to the foundations of his unbelief: “The general tenor of his observations,” writes Adams, “… was to discredit all religion, and he intimated doubts of the existence of a God. His position was, that all human knowledge was imperfect and uncertain, depending upon a process of the human mind which could not in its nature, be conclusive; that our knowledge of the physical world was positive, while that of a Creator of it was inferential; that God was neither seen nor felt, nor in any manner manifested to our senses, but was the deduction from a syllogism, a mere probability from the combinations of human reason; that of the present existence of matter we have positive knowledge; that there was a time when it did not exist we assume without proof, for the purpose of assuming equally without proof, an eternal Creator of it” (Memoirs of John Quincy Adams [1874–77; 12 vols.; ed. Adams, Charles Frances; New York: Praeger, 1970] 3. 564, entry for 8 June 1817).

15 Bentham's disaffection with organized religion began at Oxford (1760–64) with his doubts concerning subscription to articles of faith and the expulsion of his Methodist friends from the University for voicing heretical opinions. See Crimmins, James E., “Bentham's Religious Writings: A Bibliographic Chronology,” The Bentham Newsletter 9 (1985) 2133. For a sample of Bentham's distrust of the political power wielded by the Bishops, see “Effect, Good Government; Obstacle represented as a cause, Station of the Bishops in the House of Lords,” in Bentham's Handbook of Political Fallacies (1824; ed. Larrabee, Harold A.; New York: Crowell, 1952; reprinted New York: Apollo, 1971) 215–18

16 See Jeremy Bentham, Chrestomathia (1816–17) Appendix IV, “Essay on Nomenclature and Clarification,” and also “Essay on Logic,” Works, 8. 63–64 and 266–70, respectively.

17 E.g., Bentham, Introduction, chap. II, section 18.

18 Bentham, Jeremy, Analysis of the Influence of Natural Religion on the Temporal Happiness of Mankind, by “Philip Beauchamp” (London: Carlisle, 1822) 97, 98. Henceforth Analysis.

19 For the critique of The Apostle's Creed see Bentham, Jeremy, “Catechism Examined,” in Church-of-Englandism and Its Catechism Examined (London: Effingham Wilson, 1818) 1730. Henceforth Church.

20 Bentham, Analysis, 103. Elsewhere Bentham defines a miracle as “a special act of Almighty power, an effect produced by means disconformable to the uniform course of nature” (Bentham, Jeremy, Not Paul, but Jesus, by “Gamaliel Smith” [London: John Hunt, 1823] 329; henceforth Not Paul).

21 These miracles are discussed at length in Not Paul, chap. XIII, sections 2–13.

22 It is not known whether Bentham had read Hume's essay. For a discussion of the background to the eighteenth-century controversy over miracles and Hume's role in it, see Gaskin, J. C. A., Hume's Philosophy of Religion (London: Macmillan, 1978) chap 7.

23 Frye, Northrop, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature (Toronto: Academic Press of Canada, 1982) 13.

24 ibid., 16.

25 ibid., 17.

26 Wilberforce, William, A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians … Contrasted with Real Christianity (London: T. Cadell & W. Davies, 1811) 319, 322.

27 ibid., 13.

28 For a discussion of the “critical tradition” of theological thought, see Howlett, Duncan, The Critical Way in Religion (New York: Prometheus, 1980). It is indicative of the neglect of Bentham's religious writings that Howlett ignores Bentham's contribution to this tradition.

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Bentham's Metaphysics and the Science of Divinity

  • James E. Crimmins (a1)


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