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1As a guest editor of the Revue d'études benthamiennes, I am pleased to introduce this special issue dedicated to the influence that Bentham had on Latin America.

2This special edition is made up of five contributions. The first, entitled "The Liberation of Slaves in Colombia: A Process that did not escape the Benthamist Influence", is written by Prof. Jacqueline Blanco, and analyzes how Bentham’s principle of "self-preference" was interpreted in Colombia. Indeed, the principle was instrumental in demanding the liberation of slaves, thus unveiling the economic and utilitarian underpinnings of the neo-Granada abolitionist discourses.

3Prof. Aída Kemelmajer de Carlucci writes the second paper in this issue on "Jeremy Bentham and his Influence on Private Law in Some Countries of South America". She discusses the influence of Bentham on the codification of private law in some South American countries, with a special focus on the Argentinian codification endeavor. In the process, she highlights Bentham's progressive ideas, his interest in methodical reasoning, his desire to be more practical than theoretical, his commitment to details (with his proposal isolate parts of a problem to reach a useful solution) and, finally, his reformist spirit, without totally rejecting the past.

4The third paper, called “Jeremy Bentham’s Spanish American Utopia”, is written by Prof. Annie L. Cot. She studies Bentham's proposal for an interoceanic canal that would have linked the Caribbean Sea with the Atlantic Ocean. She analyzes how Bentham built utopias for Latin America, projects which for the most part remained in the making, but they nonetheless inspired dozens of regional leaders who helped consolidate the new Latin American republican regimes. In addition, these projects show Bentham's concern for these territories as they were transitioning to democracies.

5The fourth paper, entitled "Bentham’s Influence on nineteenth-century Mexican Parliamentarism: The Metaphor of Representation", by Prof. Juan Carlos Abreu y Abreu, explains the strong influence that the English jurist had among Mexican liberals in the early nineteenth century, especially when the principle of parliamentary representation was being established in Mexico. It was a principle that ended up helping the interests of the Creole elites against that of the other social classes.

6The fifth paper, entitled “The ‘Benthamist Sect’ or the ‘Ardent Philanthropist’: Bentham in Cuban Nineteenth-Century Scientific, Juridical and Criminal Discourse” by Prof. Adrián Cabrera, discusses the influence of the Bentham on the social scientific discourse, in general, and on the Cuban legal-criminal discourse more particularly, throughout the 19th century. The paper shows how Bentham’s thought was used or dismissed, depending on the specific (strategic) goals of Cuban intellectuals.

  • 1 The idea that there was something called a “Benthamist sect”, as if it were a kind of Freemasonry, (...)

7These five works will undoubtedly shed light on how Bentham influenced some Hispanic American intellectuals and politicians, or how he was rejected by others. This influence reached the point where several of his followers behaved as if they were members of an enlightened sect.1 Conversely, for conservatives and the clergy, the rejection of Bentham’s ideas in many cases bordered on fanaticism. For those of us who have studied the subject, those intense divisive debates caused by Bentham’s thought both in his country and in distant lands are noteworthy. However, passionate love or hate did not prevent his ideas from being refashioned, and – depending on local interests and disputes – sometimes without respecting Bentham's system of thought. It goes without saying that while Bentham himself quite liked controversy and felt flattered by the interest his ideas generated in Latin America, he would have rejected some supporters for their dogmatic readings, and others for their defective method.

8At a time so unlike today when ideas and texts could only be sparsely circulated to the other side of the world, unsurprisingly, on account of Bentham’s intellectual standing and fame, his ideas were discussed by scholars of the first half of the 19th century in any relevant debate.

9It is thus understandable that there is so much specialized literature on Bentham's work and its reception in all corners of the world, literature that, roughly, casts Bentham as a progressive reformer like few others in history. This statement comes with a caveat: Bentham was not followed unrestrictedly (would it have been possible?), but was reconstructed according to the interests of cultural middle-men and women (such as editors, translators, etc.) and the regional stakes of their readers.

  • 2 Darnton coined the concept of "book effect" to point out that the publishing world (which is more t (...)
  • 3 “Understanding theory as a toolbox means that it is not about building a system but rather an instr (...)

10It is clear that someone could naively think that the subject has already been exhausted by the abundant literature on the subject. However, I will highlight three reasons why it is not so, in the hope of triggering a renewed interest in Bentham’s works and reception in Latin America. The first of them is because most of the literature on the subject relies Bentham’s books and treatises, but not so much on his very large correspondence, nor on his unpublished manuscripts, which are currently being unearthed by the Bentham Project scientific edition of the Collected Works. Both of these are casting another light on the English jurist: more than just a treatise writer, Bentham was a commendable and friendly correspondent, one who shared his ideas in a spirited manner in each letter he responded to, and many of his letters were addressed to Hispanic Americans or dealt with Hispanic American affairs. Now, without confusing the socio-political effect of books with that of a private correspondence,2 it could be said, with reason, that treatises actually end up being general constructions of ideas articulated in a more complex way, ideas that took shape, among others, through the correspondence received and sent, in the true logic of the epistolary genre. Scholars, who venture into this new avenue of research, need to understand the process of secularization of letter-writing from the middle of the 18th century, as well as the particularities of any correspondence and its influence among the Spanish-American political and cultural groups of the time who received and dispatched them. Indeed, the transformation of the epistolary genre as it was affected by the social practices of literacy were tremendous routes to channels ideas, which in turn contributed to shaping political events. Following a Foucauldian metaphor,3 correspondence can be viewed as a “boîte à outils” (“tool box”). This historical context points a very different way paper or electronic mail was issued, circulated and received at the time, as compared to today.

11The second reason is that most of the literature has left translators, booksellers and printers in the shadows. However, they served as filters (not to say censors or levers) of Benthamian ideas. This requires to understand the reception of Bentham in Latin America not as straightforward (Bentham addressing himself to the Spanish-American reader), but as a triangular relationship with continuous flows, although of variable intensity, between three poles: Bentham, middle-men and women - such as editors, translators, compilers, booksellers, etc. - and the Spanish-American reader. After all, as Schofield reminds us:

  • 4 Philip Schofield, quoted by Rusbel Martínez, " La primera controversia sobre el utilitarismo en Col (...)

Bentham was known in the Spanish-speaking world not for his original writings in English, but rather for reviews of his works produced in elegant French by his Genevan translator and editor, Étienne Dumont (1759-1829), and in the Spanish translations from Bentham's English or, more importantly, from Dumont's French.4

  • 5 For instance: Gómez, Cristina, Navegar con libros. El comercio de libros entre España y Nueva Españ (...)
  • 6 As Bourdieu states, the middle-person between the author and the reader, in this case the publisher (...)

12This requires researchers to recognize the specificities of the circulation of ideas in general and of the book trade in particular during the first half of the 19th century,5 in order to understand the strong role of brokers, not only in the distribution of ideas and works, but also in their transformation. Indeed, these middle-men and women were key factors in the circulation of certain topics that were amplified by readers, when they selected some texts or sections, leaving others aside, when they identified particular issues, and when they circulated texts and issues among elite readers who would then determine issues for discussion in the public space.6 And this process of transformation and adaptation of Bentham's work, begun by middle-men and women and continued by readers, was made possible on account of the loose relationship with sources and their authorship at the time. Indeed, these adaptations were considered necessary to better access the American market for ideas and books, which was different from the European one.

  • 7 About the relationships and boundaries between the State and the Church.
  • 8 Mannori, Luca y Sordi, Bernardo, Storia del diritto amministrativo, 2nd edn (Roma-Bari, Laterza, 20 (...)

13The third reason is that most of the works in relation to the Spanish-American reception of Bentham have focused on highlighting the acceptance or rejection of his philosophical ideas (that is, moral utilitarianism) in political and religious intellectual groups, more particularly in the debate on the "religious question",7 on whether or not utilitarian logic should govern the "science of the police"8 (that of public administration) or on whether or not certain works of English should be used as manuals for education university, especially for the formation of philosophers and lawyers, during the first years of the Spanish-American republics. But much remains to be said about the reception of his legal ideas in the debates among those who saw themselves more as jurists than politicians or religious followers.

14For these three reasons, among others, Bentham studies remain a promising area for scholars. The present editorial suggests that, by changing the way research approaches Bentham studies in Latin America, new themes and new ideas will emerge, around Bentham, who was viewed either as an angel (for his followers) or as the devil (for conservatives and the Church).

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1 The idea that there was something called a “Benthamist sect”, as if it were a kind of Freemasonry, which would bring together orthodox disciples and recalcitrant readers, circulated in many countries at the time, even in England. See for example: Colomer, Josep, “Teoria de la democracia en el utilitarismo (En torno a Jeremy Bentham)” in Revista de Estudios Políticos, 57 (1987), pp. 7-30 (notably p. 25).

2 Darnton coined the concept of "book effect" to point out that the publishing world (which is more than just authors, as it includes editors, translators, booksellers, etc.) has effects that operate differently from other genres of bibliographic production such as magazines, the press or correspondence. Books have the ability to offer themselves as a cultural products which last over time (their content do not become outdated so quickly); which raise articulated messages explained under the assumption that they belong to a broad system of meaning; and which develop ideas. For this reason, books, unlike other genres, especially at time we are referring to, were raised to be the epitome of cultural products among the intellectual elite (which at that time had greater access to power circles than at present). They were aimed at a wider audience (what is known as "public opinion"). However, despite the greater cultural legitimacy of books, correspondence, albeit less studied, played an important role in the construction, circulation, reception and implementation of many liberal ideas, either revolutionary and reformist. Darnton, Robert, Los best Sellers prohibidos en Francia antes de la revolución, trad. Antonio Saborit (Buenos Aires, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2008), pp. 273-196 (chapter on “Redes de comunicación”). Darnton, Robert, “La France, ton café fout le camp!: De l’histoire du livre à l’histoire de la communication”, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, 100 (1993), pp. 16-26.

3 “Understanding theory as a toolbox means that it is not about building a system but rather an instrument; a logic adapted to power relations and the struggles that are triggered by them; that this search can only be done little by little, starting from a reflection (necessarily historical in some of its dimensions) on given situations.” Foucault, Michel, “Poderes y estrategias” (1977), in Foucault, Michel, Un diálogo sobre el poder y otras conversaciones, Trad. Miguel Morey (Madrid, Alianza Editorial, 2000), p. 85.

4 Philip Schofield, quoted by Rusbel Martínez, " La primera controversia sobre el utilitarismo en Colombia (1825-1836): disputa por el control de los fundamentos filosóficos del derecho", in Revista Facultad de Derecho y Ciencias Políticas, 44/121, (2014), pp. 721-766 (notably pp. 756-757, notes 19 and 20).

5 For instance: Gómez, Cristina, Navegar con libros. El comercio de libros entre España y Nueva España (1750-1820) (Madrid, UNAM/Trama, 2011).

6 As Bourdieu states, the middle-person between the author and the reader, in this case the publisher, “has the totally extraordinary power to ensure publication, that is, to bring a text and an author into public existence (Öffentlichkeit), to be known and recognized.” See Bourdieu, Pierre,“A conservative revolution in publishing”, in Bourdieu, Pierre, Intellectuals, politics and power (Buenos Aires, Eudeba, 2000), p. 223.

7 About the relationships and boundaries between the State and the Church.

8 Mannori, Luca y Sordi, Bernardo, Storia del diritto amministrativo, 2nd edn (Roma-Bari, Laterza, 2003), pp. 127-167.

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Andrés Botero Bernal, « Editorial »Revue d’études benthamiennes [En ligne], 17 | 2020, mis en ligne le 30 septembre 2020, consulté le 27 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Andrés Botero Bernal

Professor at the School of Philosophy at the Universidad Industrial de Santander (UIS). Orcid: Email:

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