The Philosophical Radicals were a philosophically-minded group of English political radicals in the nineteenth century inspired by Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) and James Mill (1773–1836). Individuals within this group included Francis Place (1771–1854), George Grote (1794–1871), Joseph Parkes (1796–1865), John Arthur Roebuck (1802–1879), Charles Buller (1806–1848), John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), Edward John Trelawny (1792–1881), and William Molesworth (1810–1855).
Several became Radical members of Parliament, and the group as a whole attempted to use the Westminster Review to exert influence on public opinion. They rejected any philosophical or legal naturalism and furthered Jeremy Bentham's utilitarian philosophy. Utilitarianism as a moral philosophy argues that maximizing happiness should be the moral standard by which our actions should be measured. It thereby stands in contrast to the rationalistic ethics of Immanuel Kant as well as to the convictions of idealism, amongst others.
Born in the first half of the eighteenth century, Bentham proved a conduit for enlightenment ideas to reach nineteenth century Britain. A disciple of Helvetius,, who saw all society as based on the wants and desires of the individual, Bentham began with a belief in reform through enlightened despotism, before becoming a philosophical radical and supporter of universal suffrage, (though without ever losing his belief in the positive power of the state).
G. M. Trevelyan considered that “Parliamentary, municipal, scholastic, ecclesiastical, economic reform all sprang from the spirit of Bentham’s perpetual enquiry, ‘what is the use of it?’ - his universal shibboleth”.
The philosophical radicals, as a group, came to prominence in the 1820s. When radicalism re-emerged from the defeat of the Six Acts, it was (in Elie Halévy’s words) “the Radicalism – respectable, middle-class, prosaic, and calculating – of Bentham and his followers”. Central to their political aims was the reduction of aristocratic power, privilege and abuse. In his article in the opening number of the Westminster Review, James Mill dissected the aristocratic nature of the British Constitution, the House of Commons largely nominated by some hundred borough-managers, the landlord culture propped up by the Law and the Church. His son veered in many respects from his views, but never ceased (in his own words) to consider “the predominance of the aristocratic classes, the noble and the rich, in the English Constitution, an evil worth any struggle to get rid of”.
Some of their remedies – universal suffrage; the ballot – would a century later have become taken-for-granted realities of British life; others – abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords; disestablishment of the Church of England - never materialised.
Alongside their political radicalism, the group shared a liberal view of political economy influenced by David Ricardo, and favouring laissez faire; while codification and centralisation also formed component elements (not always compatible with laissez faire) of the Benthamite creed.
By the second half of the 19thC, much of the philosophical radicals’ program had been realised, much had become to be seen as inadequate – aristocratic privilege no longer appearing as the central social problematic. Setting out “to free philosophical radicalism from the reproach of sectarian Benthamism”, J. S. Mill introduced new themes – the dangers of excessive centralisation; of the tyranny of the majority – which laid the broader foundations of British liberalism. And a New Liberalism would succeed to the formative role of the philosophical radicals.
- Sir Walter Scott in 1819 wrote that "Radical is a word in very bad odour...a set of blackguards".
- D Daiches, ed., Companion to Literature 1 (1969) p. 44-5
- E Halévy, The Liberal Awakening (London 1961) p. 31
- G Berereton, A Short History of French Literature (Penguin 1954) p. 99
- D Daiches, ed., Companion to Literature 1 (1969) p. 45
- G M Trevelyan, British History in the Nineteenth Century (London 1922) p. 182
- E Halévy, The Liberal Awakening (London 1961) p. 189
- J S Mill, Autobiography (Penguin 1989) p. 85-6
- J S Mill, Autobiography (Penguin 1989) p. 136
- E Halévy, The Triumph of Reform (London 1961) p. 64-9
- E Halévy, The Liberal Awakening (London 1961) p. 193
- G M Trevelyan, British History in the Nineteenth Century (London 1922) p. 183
- J. Harvey, John Henry Muirhead (2013)
- J S Mill, Autobiography (Penguin 1989) p. 164
- J Robson, Introduction, J S Mill, Autobiography (Penguin 1989) p. 11
- J. Harvey, John Henry Muirhead (2013)
- Quoted in J. C. D. Clark, Our Shadowed Present (London 2003) p. 113
- J C D Clark, Our Shadowed Present (London 2003) p. 125
- Elie Halevy (1928) The Philosophic Radicals (MacMillan)
- Joseph Hamburger (1965) Intellectuals in Politics: John Stuart Mill and the Philosophical Radicals (Yale University Press)
- William Thomas (1979) The Philosophical Radicals: Nine Studies in Theory and Practice (Oxford)