Imagining Interest in Political Thought

Origins of Economic Rationality

Imagining Interest in Political Thought

Book Pages: 208 Illustrations: Published: September 2003

Economics, Law, Politics > Political Theory

Imagining Interest in Political Thought argues that monistic interest—or the shaping and coordination of different pursuits through imagined economies of self and public interest—constitutes the end and means of contemporary liberal government. The paradigmatic theorist of monistic interest is the English political philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), whose concept of utilitarianism calls for maximization of pleasure by both individuals and the state. Stephen G. Engelmann contends that commentators have too quickly dismissed Bentham’s philosophy as a crude materialism with antiliberal tendencies. He places Benthamite utilitarianism at the center of his account and, in so doing, reclaims Bentham for liberal political theory.

Tracing the development of monistic interest from its origins in Reformation political theory and theology through late-twentieth-century neoliberalism, Engelmann reconceptualizes the history of liberalism as consisting of phases in the history of monistic interest or economic government. He describes how monistic interest, as formulated by Bentham, is made up of the individual’s imagined expectations, which are constructed by the very regime that maximizes them. He asserts that this construction of interests is not the work of a self-serving manipulative state. Rather, the state, which is itself subject to strict economic regulation, is only one cluster of myriad "public" and "private" agencies that produce and coordinate expectations. In place of a liberal vision in which government appears only as a protector of the free pursuit of interest, Engelmann posits that the free pursuit of interest is itself a mode of government, one that deploys individual imagination and choice as its agents.


"[F]ascinating. . . . Engelmann does not so much seek to evaluate the questionable concept of monistic interest as to show what it is and how it works. His stance throughout is that of a disinterested naturalist putting specimens of political ideology under the microscope for a closer look, in order to understand their origin and development. Everything considered, I think he succeeds."
— Max O. Hocutt , Canadian Journal of Political Science

"Engelmann extends our usual understanding of Bentham’s ‘felicitous calculus’ to the examination of the interplay between economic rationality and imagination in human conduct. . . . Imagining Interest fills in facets of the 18th century debate over economics and politics." — Ross B. Emmett , Review of Political Economy

"Engelmann's text is an original and stimulating contribution to current debates over liberalism as individualism versus noeliberalism as economism." — Regenia Gagnier , Political Theory

"Imagining Interest in Political Thought is an extremely impressive, powerful, and exciting work which casts important light on a crucial yet surprisingly neglected aspect of the history of political thought: the emergence of utilitarianism as a major political theory and its subversion of conceptions of natural law and civic humanism as the basis for social cooperation." — Philip Schofield, General Editor The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Stephen G. Engelmann is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

1. Introduction 1

2. Against the Usual Story 17

3. Virtuous Economies 35

4. Imagining Interest 48

5. State Rationality 77

6. The Public Interest 104

7. The Economic Polity 141

Notes 151

Index 185
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3122-3 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3135-3
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