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James Mill’s dogmatic rhetoric in his essay ‘On Government’ (1820) and his rejection in the History of British India (1817) of ocular and narrowly empirical methods, when seen against the febrile political backdrop of the early 1830s, was a gift to utilitarianism’s Whig, Tory, and Romantic opponents. However, his defence in A Fragment on Mackintosh (1835) of Bentham’s jurisprudence and moral philosophy, when placed in the context of his other late writings, suggests a different intention. In both his historical and political writings, James Mill pursued the ‘real business of philosophy’ in which general principles illuminated social phenomena and laid bare the emptiness of Whig empiricism. Only the ‘speculative man’ could appreciate the past’s distinctness by separating general from special causes, and Mill’s indebtedness to Francis Bacon and David Hume is evident in this respect. His attractions to Benthamite utilitarianism and Scottish philosophical history were variously deepened and underpinned by his readings of Bacon and Hume, and those readings, Barrell suggests, may have been encouraged by Dugald Stewart at Edinburgh.
This first comprehensive account of the utilitarians' historical thought intellectually resituates their conceptions of philosophy and politics, at a time when the past acquired new significances as both a means and object of study. Drawing on published and unpublished writings - and set against the intellectual backdrops of Scottish philosophical history, German and French historicism, romanticism, positivism, and the rise of social science and scientific history - Callum Barrell recovers the depth with which Jeremy Bentham, James Mill, George Grote, and John Stuart Mill thought about history as a site of philosophy and politics. He argues that the utilitarians, contrary to their reputations as ahistorical and even antihistorical thinkers, developed complex frameworks in which to learn from and negotiate the past, inviting us to rethink the foundations of their ideas, as well as their place in - and relationship to - nineteenth-century philosophy and political thought.
The British Enlightenment grappled with the concept of “modern history”: what it should contain and what kind of guide to the world it should be. This chapter examines the decline of neoclassical assumptions about history writing in the context of Britain’s rapid social transformation and the emergence of its robust commercial society. A new pressure for historiography to acknowledge this modern world led historians to profound questions about the relation between present and past. How was the eighteenth-century world different from what came before it? When and where did its modernity begin? Asking and answering these questions produced not only new kinds of history writing but also new readers and writers of history. Setting aside the history of great men, new kinds of histories made clear that everyone is a historical actor, opening the door for women and men who would never be statesmen to tell their stories. New histories took many forms, and the chapter’s sections focus on the different answers to questions about the past—and how to represent it-- provided by philosophical history writing, antiquarianism, and the novel.
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