A Critique of Elie Halévy: Refutation of an Important Distortion of British Moral Philosophy

Philosophy 73 (283):97 - 111 (1998)
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The prestigious French publisher Presses Universitaires de France has recently brought out (November 1995) a new French edition of Elie Halévy's well known book "The Growth of Philosophical Radicalism", first published in France in three volumes as "La formation du radicalisme philosophique" (1901-1904) and translated into English in 1926. The prevailing opinion on this book is that it gives an excellent account of English utilitarianism. Thus, in the International Encyclopedia of Social Sciences, Talcott Parsons speaks of it as the ‘virtually definitive analysis of utilitarianism’. More recently Donald Winch, in his introduction to the Penguin edition of John Stuart Mill's Principles of Political Economy, describes Halévy's book as: ‘Still the best study of the ideas and activities of the school taken as a whole’. In this short essay I express a very different opinion. I show that Halévy, who qualifies utilitarianism (with obvious disgust) as ‘a plebeian or rather bourgeois morality’, as ‘much too simple’, completely misunderstood the writings of the English and Scottish utilitarian philosophers.

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