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Transcribe Bentham


A Participatory Initiative


‘A body of laws is like a vast forest’ – editing Bentham’s French legal writings

By uczwlse, on 16 September 2016

On 12 and 13 September 2016, the Bentham Project welcomed five scholars from the Centre Bentham.  The purpose of this Anglo-French meeting was to discuss plans to produce an edition of Bentham’s French legal writings as part of the Collected Works.  We are grateful to UCL’s Global Engagement Fund for covering the costs of this meeting.

Bentham’s Projet d’un corps de loix complet was his plan for a complete code of laws. Bentham wrote over 500 folios on this subject, in French, across the mid-to-late 1780s.  French was the lingua franca of the eighteenth century and by writing in this language, Bentham could reach a wider audience.  Bentham was both contributing to and building upon the case for legal codification which had recently been made by noted philosophers like Voltaire, Montesquieu and Beccaria, as well as by the Russian empress Catherine the Great.

Bentham divided his endeavour into two parts – Projet forme and Projet matière.  In terms of the surviving manuscripts, Projet forme is the more coherent of the two and includes concrete ideas for a legal code.  Projet matière is more abstract and is focused on explaining the underlying principles of Bentham’s proposed code.  One of Bentham’s major points was that in order to be understood, laws needed to be expressed as clearly and precisely as possible.

The Projet manuscripts were never published as a discrete text but some of them were later included in Bentham’s Traités de législation civile et pénale.  Edited by Bentham’s friend Étienne Dumont and published in 1802, this work helped to make Bentham’s name in Europe.  Dumont presented a selective and heavily edited version of the Projet manuscripts and so a definitive edition of these papers still needs to be produced.  They represent a crucial moment in Bentham’s thinking about jurisprudence and demonstrate ideas which continued to inform his thinking across the rest of his life.

The meeting gave us a chance to review what we already know about Projet forme and Projet matière.  Professor Emmanuelle De Champs and Dr Malik Bozzo-Rey from the Centre Bentham have both worked extensively on this material and they were able to shed light on the structure and content of the manuscript pages.

We spent some time working together to transcribe and translate some of the Projet manuscripts using digital images produced as part of the Transcribe Bentham initiative.  We started off with Box xxxiii, fo. 109 where Bentham declared that ‘Un corps de loix c’est {comme} une vaste forêt: mieux il est percé, plus il est connu’ or ‘A body of laws is {like} a vast forest: the better it is explored, the better it is known’.  The same might be said of the Projet manuscripts!

UCL Bentham Papers, Box xxxiii, fo. 109 (Image courtesy of UCL Special Collections).

UCL Bentham Papers, Box xxxiii, fo. 109 (Image courtesy of UCL Special Collections)

If we want to produce a scholarly edition, we must follow a consistent set of conventions as we transcribe and edit Bentham’s text. Bentham’s use of French was not perfect and he sometimes used unusual words and phrases – probably because he was formulating his ideas in English and then translating them literally into French.   So we need to make Bentham’s French readable, without distorting its original meaning.  This can be done by making small editorial changes such as correcting grammatical errors and adding extra punctuation.

It was agreed that the Projet manuscripts would ideally be presented as a parallel edition, in the original French and in English translation.  This would make these manuscripts accessible to English-speaking scholars for the first time.  We also considered other ways we could increase wider awareness of Bentham’s plans for codification and got some interesting responses from our Twitter followers – including podcasts, videos and even a comic!

Thanks to our Anglo-French meeting, we have a better understanding of the Projet papers.  We can now begin to work on funding applications that could help us to develop these manuscripts into a scholarly edition.  Our collaboration with our French colleagues on the editing of the Projet manuscripts looks set to continue!

2 Responses to “‘A body of laws is like a vast forest’ – editing Bentham’s French legal writings”

  • 1
    Progress Update – 10 to 16 September 2016 | UCL Transcribe Bentham wrote on 16 September 2016:

    […] Hi everyone.  It’s been a busy week at the Bentham Project.  At the beginning of the week we met with scholars from the Centre Bentham to discuss how we might edit an edition of Bentham’s French legal writings – check out our blog post to find out more. […]

  • 2
    Project Update – new material to transcribe on Panopticon and punishment | UCL Transcribe Bentham wrote on 26 April 2018:

    […] Boxes 143 and 159 both focus on the subject of punishment.  Bentham became intrigued by this matter early in his life and started to philosophise about it in the mid-1770s.  He envisioned a penal system where each punishment would be proportionate to the offence and where each offence would be clearly defined and publicly known.  Box 159 also contains some French writings relating to Bentham’s Projet for a complete code of law. […]

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