Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Few Factoids From the Life of Jeremy Bentham

Jeremy Bentham’s remarkable life and work included much more than a sketchy design for a “panopticon” prison.

A cursory glance at Bernard Crick’s lengthy entry on Bentham in Makers of Nineteenth Century Culture* immediately yields some eye-opening facts.

To wit: Young Jeremy was 13 when he began attending Queen’s College, Oxford. And he was only 16 when he graduated. Such ages were normal for schooling at the time. Yet they seem downright strange to contemporary American sensibilities.

If he lived in our day, one suspects Bentham would be all over the scientific research on brain development among juveniles. If he were American, he would be insisting that the Supreme Court apply this research to the interpretation of cases on “juvenile lifers” and other related issues.

Consider also the glimpse Crick’s essay provides of the provenance of Bentham’s panopticon plan. The model for the panopticon, Crick says, began as a plan for cooperative settlements created not for prisoners, but for the unemployed.

Bentham worked on the panopticon idea off and on for twenty years. He was, Crick comments, a relentless perfectionist about this work, always struggling for definitive precision before considering it in finished form. It took a concerted effort by a host of followers to eventually apply and popularize it.

About Bentham’s famous donation of his skeleton to the University of London for scientific study, Crick has not a word to say. But if he had included a mention of this, I’m sure he would have included a telling detail or two.

*Makers of Nineteenth Century Culture, 1800-1914, ed. Justin Wintle (London, Boston, Melbourne and Henley: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982).

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