Language and Logic

Even though Bentham is best known as a political philosopher and legal reformer, he also made important contributions to the development of logic and the philosophy of language. He was acknowledged explicitly by W V Quine, H L A Hart and C K Ogden, and exercised an equally strong influence over the logical thought of James Mill and John Stuart Mill. Hart went so far as to argue that Bentham's theories were so ahead of their time that they reappeared only in the work of Frege, Wittgenstein and Russell.

Bentham produced the bulk of his manuscripts on logic and language between 1814 and 1816, although the field was an abiding interest throughout his life. Bentham stressed the practical need for a solid basis to language and logic in many of his most important writings. He believed that he had discovered this solid basis with his distinctions between real and fictitious entities, and between perceptible and inferential entities. From this foundation, he developed detailed and fascinating accounts of the relationships between thought, language and action.

Bentham left more than a thousand folios relating directly to what he referred to as 'ontology', from which he appears to have envisaged the production of two separate but related works: one on logic, and the other on language. The texts which are the basis of Bentham's current influence in theories of logic and language (contained in volume VIII of the Bowring edition) fail to reflect this fact, thereby distorting his real position and masking the true depths of his insight. In avoiding the inadequacies of the Bowring texts, the new edition of Bentham's writings on language and logic should have far-reaching implications for our understanding of Bentham's own thought, as well as raising important questions regarding current debates in logic and language. An important first step has been made with the production of a new bilingual (English-French) edition of Bentham's Of Ontology (published as Jeremy Bentham, De l'ontologie et autres textes sur les fictions, Texte anglais établi par Philip Schofield, Traduction et commentaires par Jean-Pierre Cléro et Christian Laval, Éditions du Seuil, 1997).

Catherine Pease-Watkin

This research is funded by the AHRC