Against Theories of Punishment: The Thought of Sir James Fitzjames Stephen
57 Pages Posted: 1 Jul 2011 Last revised: 14 Nov 2011
Date Written: 2011
This paper reflects critically on what is the near-universal contemporary method of conceptualizing the tasks of the scholar of criminal punishment. It does so by the unusual route of considering the thought of Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, a towering figure in English law and political theory, one of its foremost historians of criminal law, and a highly prominent public intellectual of the late Victorian period. Notwithstanding Stephen’s stature and importance, there has as yet been no sustained effort to understand his views of criminal punishment. This article attempts to remedy this deficit. But its aims are not exclusively historical. Indeed, understanding Stephen’s ideas about the nature of punishment serves two purposes, one historical and the other theoretical.
The historical aim is to elucidate Stephen’s own thought, a subject which has been thoroughly contested and, unfortunately, deeply misunderstood. The primary culprit has been exactly the effort to pin down Stephen’s ideas about punishment as retributivist, or consequentialist, or a specific hybrid. The drive to systematize Stephen’s thought has had the regrettable effect of flattening it, in some cases unrecognizably. Though he followed Kant, Hegel, Beccaria, and Bentham, Stephen wrote at a time that preceded the full flowering of the philosophy of punishment by roughly a century, and his assumptions and arguments about the nature and purposes of punishment are an uncomfortable fit within the modern hard-edged methodology of punishment theory.
The theoretical aim concerns whether punishment theory might learn from its serious misunderstanding and misrepresentation of Stephen, whether and to what extent its own methodological assumptions ought to be adjusted in light of the paper’s historical reconstruction. The article claims that that they might be, and arguably should be. Perhaps more than any other writer on the subject, Stephen poses a powerful challenge to the methodology of systematization in punishment theory; his ideas are an extended argument that an allegiance to system renders thought about the reasons for punishment less rich and more monolithic than they otherwise might be. The article suggests, first, that punishment theorists ought to open themselves to historical scholarship as a source of illumination in fashioning, and perhaps modifying, their sophisticated normative accounts; and second, the theoretical perspective that is most capable of internalizing historical studies and ideas would adopt a pluralistic view of the justification of punishment. The reason for examining neglected historical views is that one may actually improve one’s theory by beclouding and complicating it with perspectives that do not match one’s existing prescriptive views. And the reason for inclining toward pluralistic theoretical accounts is that it is precisely their untidy and unsystematic methodological commitments which make it possible for theory to learn from history.
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