Franco-British History
24 March 2011
Jennifer Pitts (University of Chicago)
Uniformity, difference, and hierarchy in the context of empire: Bentham’s “Place and Time”

This paper was jointly written by Jennifer Pitts and Stephen G. Engelmann (University of Illinois, Chicago), contributors to Selected Writings: Jeremy Bentham, edited by Stephen G. Engelmann (2010)

“Place and Time” is one of the essays written by Jeremy Bentham that is currently being studied by the Bentham project.  The treatment of Bentham by historians and indeed his characterisation in more public mediums leads us to view him as having a crude understanding of human nature.  We are told that he was a limited author, with limited views.  However, the Bentham project is helpfully studying his writings more closely than ever before and they are beginning to have strong doubts over these conclusions.  

In March last year Jennifer Pitts expressed some of those doubts to the Franco-British History seminar held in Sorbonne, France.  Pitts explained that careful reading of Bentham’s essay alongside his other writings has helped scholars to pick up on his irony, self-mockery, his healthy disgust for existing political and legal systems and suspicion of those who presumed their own superiority of their own tastes and judgements.  Bentham’s opinions were, therefore, much more complex than is often given credit.  Bentham tended to focus his discussions and concerns on the Empire and British/colonial society.  His opinion is revealed clearly in his writings as a negative view of imperial activity.  He felt that the empire was harmful to international relations and that wars were caused by uncertainties created through colonisation. 

Bentham’s essay “Place and Time” composed in 1782 is generally viewed as an exceptional piece.  The essay considers the appropriateness of legislation across place and time, with its thoughts especially located on India.  Contemporary reviews noted its focus on ‘difference’ – not so much cultural differences – but to character, geography and manners.  Bentham is highly sceptical of English and European customs and institutions in his “Place and Time” especially in India.  As a publically renowned supporter of emancipation, Bentham believed strongly in Indian self-governance and was highly critical of British rule. 

Jennifer Pitts explains that our opinion of Bentham has been strongly coloured by his contemporary and near-contemporary editors who often mis-represented what Bentham was actually stating.  For instance Bentham states quite plainly and neutrally that different cultures considered different parts of the body as objects of shame which his editors re-interpreted as signs of superstition in those cultures.  The example used in this podcast is that of West Africans who put their hands in front of their mouths when they eat.  Bentham also stated that lewd behaviour differs between cultures depending on what they consider appropriate.  Female modesty, for instance, varies in different cultures but is not in any case a sign of inferiority or backwardness in those cultures in comparison to western societies. 

In all Bentham’s critique is more complex than many of his contemporaries would give him credit for its criticism of institutions at home as well as abroad.  Bentham argues the Imperial rule in Britain and India alike only serves a ‘sinister’ few at the expense of the nation(s) as a whole.  Bentham’s views changed over time.  By the end of his life he retracted some of his views on emancipation, seemingly accepting the continuance of colonial rule but only if agreements could be made that each European country would sign up to an agreement of non-interference in each other’s colonies. 

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