University of Cambridge > > Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science > Two sovereign masters: pain, pleasure and utility from Bentham to Skinner

Two sovereign masters: pain, pleasure and utility from Bentham to Skinner

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This talk surveys the history of the Anglo-American ‘utilitarian self’, the idea that human behaviour is governed by pain avoidance and pleasure seeking. This concept of human motivation and purpose brings psychology, physiology, economics, political science and ethics together in one seamless whole, united under the banner of utility. The origins of the utilitarian self lie in the British reaction to the American and French revolutions, but its life extended into twentieth-century behaviourist psychology. This presentation will sketch a line of intellectual descent connecting Bentham and Malthus in the 1790s, to Alexander Bain, Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer in the Victorian Age, to Edward Thorndike and B.F. Skinner in twentieth-century America. It will pay particular attention to the period in the mid-nineteenth century when the political, historical and ethical assumptions underwriting the utilitarian self were absorbed into evolutionary theory.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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