The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics

Living Edition
| Editors: Palgrave Macmillan

Halévy, Elie (1870–1937)

  • M. Donnelly
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1057/978-1-349-95121-5_1059-1

Abstract

Elie Halévy was one of the foremost historians of 19th-century English thought and politics. He was born at Etretat, France, and educated in Paris at the Lycée Condorcet and the Ecole Normale. His early training was philosophical, and he remained throughout his life associated with the Revue de métaphysique et de morale. He passed his agrégation in 1892, and was invited to lecture at the Ecole des Sciences Politiques on the evolution of political ideas in England; this was to establish the course of his career. In 1900–1903 he published his first major work. La formation du radicalisme philosophique en Angleterre, a study tracing the development of the utilitarian doctrine from 1776 to 1832. As an offshoot of this project he also published a short study, Thomas Hodgskin (1903), which presents Hodgskin as a precursor of Marx. Halévy’s major historical writings were the volumes of his Histoire du peuple anglais au XIXe siècle (1912–1932), most notably vol. I, England in 1815, and vol. V, Imperialism and the Rise of Labour.

Elie Halévy was one of the foremost historians of 19th-century English thought and politics. He was born at Etretat, France, and educated in Paris at the Lycée Condorcet and the Ecole Normale. His early training was philosophical, and he remained throughout his life associated with the Revue de métaphysique et de morale. He passed his agrégation in 1892, and was invited to lecture at the Ecole des Sciences Politiques on the evolution of political ideas in England; this was to establish the course of his career. In 1900–1903 he published his first major work. La formation du radicalisme philosophique en Angleterre, a study tracing the development of the utilitarian doctrine from 1776 to 1832. As an offshoot of this project he also published a short study, Thomas Hodgskin (1903), which presents Hodgskin as a precursor of Marx. Halévy’s major historical writings were the volumes of his Histoire du peuple anglais au XIXe siècle (1912–1932), most notably vol. I, England in 1815, and vol. V, Imperialism and the Rise of Labour.

La formation du radicalisme philosophique is, among other things, a signal contribution to the history of economic thought. Halévy’s subject is less utilitarianism in general than the application of utilitarian principles to criticize the established order and to justify grand proposals of reform: in sum. Philosophic Radicalism, or what Bentham referred to as the exposure of ‘political fallacies’. The book offers a detailed exposition, at once historical and analytical, of works by Bentham and James Mill, and to a somewhat lesser extent the classical economists (Smith, Malthus, Ricardo). Halévy is at pains to demonstrate the connection between utilitarianism as a moral and political doctrine, and classical political economy. Indeed he summarizes his argument in the formula. ‘The morality of the Utilitarians is their economic psychology put into the imperative’ (Halévy 1928, p. 478), a formula which nicely captures utilitarianism’s debt to economics as well as the ambiguities inherent in the doctrine.

Bentham held that only the principle of utility – the principle of promoting the greatest happiness for the greatest number – can offer a satisfactory criterion for evaluating action. Not only is this principle commonly acceptable to reasonable men and women, it is moreover grounded in and reinforced by human psychology. Human beings are creatures who cannot but pursue pleasure and avoid pain. The difficulty in the argument arises in the comparison and summing up of individual pleasures. Is the greatest happiness of the greatest number simply a summation of individual happinesses egoistically pursued? Or does it require that an individual’s pursuit of his private pleasure coincide with a pursuit of the greatest happiness of the greatest number? For his own part Bentham was ambiguous on this point: on the one hand, he acknowledged the (potential and actual) conflict between private interests and the public interest, and hence the need for molding or transforming human nature. This is the sphere of the ‘artificial identification of interests’, where as Halévy puts it, ‘the science of the legislator must intervene to identify interests which are naturally divergent’ (p. 508). On the other hand, Bentham argued, more optimistically, that there is social order ‘realised spontaneously, by the harmony of egoisms’ (p. 508). This is the part of the argument utilitarianism shares most closely with, or borrows from, classical economics. It provides the climax of Halévy’s history:

insensibly, the progress of the new political economy had determined the preponderance within [Utilitarianism] of another principle, the principle according to which egoisms harmonise of themselves in a society which is in conformity to nature. From this new point of view, the fundamental moral notion for the theorists of Utilitarianism is no longer that of obligation, but that of exchange ….The Utilitarian moralist dispenses the legislator from intervening just in so far as, by his advice and by his example, he tends, in conformity with the hypothesis of the political economists, to realise in society the harmony of egoisms. (p. 478)

In the event, as Halévy shows in conclusion, this synthesis was precarious. The harmony of egoisms was too tenuous a factual basis for utilitarian morality, and the ambiguities of Philosophic Radicalism were supplanted by new and simplified versions of utilitarianism, like the ‘Manchester philosophy’.

Selected Works

  • 1912–1932. History of the English people in the nineteenth century, 6 vols. Trans. E.I. Watkin and D.A. Barker. London: Benn, 1924–1949.

  • 1928. The growth of philosophic radicalism. Trans. Mary Morris. London: Faber.

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 1987

Authors and Affiliations

  • M. Donnelly
    • 1
  1. 1.