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Benn, Stanley Isaac (1920–1986)

by Robert Brown

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Stanley Isaac Benn (1920-1986), political and social philosopher, was born on 16 September 1920 at Forest Gate, London, England, third of four children of Mark Benn, jeweller, and his wife Dora, née Prusansky. His father’s surname was originally Bendkofski—that family was from Russia, his mother’s from Poland. Both parents were Orthodox Jews by birth and practice. Stanley was educated at Stratford Grammar School, West Ham, while learning Hebrew at the synagogue. He studied political science at the London School of Economics and Political Science (B.Sc.Econ., 1941), graduating with first-class honours. By the time of his service as a lecturer in politics in the Army Educational Corps in World War II, he had largely given up religious belief, although not attachment to his cultural heritage.

In 1948 he was appointed lecturer in government at the University College, Southampton (University of Southampton). He married Joan Miriam Foster, née Embray, a lecturer in English and a divorcee, on 7 April 1951 at the register office, Southampton. Because of his increasing interest in political theory, he withdrew from doctoral study to write lectures on political and social philosophy for local government officers. He and the philosopher Richard Peters developed these lectures into the book Social Principles and the Democratic State (1959), which was well received and widely adopted as a university text. They discussed the institutions and principles needed by a modern democratic state to produce a rationally justifiable government rather than an arbitrary one.

In 1962 Benn moved to Canberra as senior fellow in the department of philosophy, Research School of Social Sciences, at the Australian National University, where, two years later, Miriam became lecturer in English, School of General Studies. Benn remained in the philosophy department, from 1973 as professorial fellow, until his retirement in 1985. A member (1965-71) of the Social Science Research Council of Australia and a fellow (1971-86) of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, he was also elected a fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities in 1979.

Although Benn wrote many papers on such topics as power, human rights and freedom of action, his major and last work was A Theory of Freedom (1988). Completed shortly before his death, it was a closely reasoned inquiry into the concept of the person, the principle of respect for persons, and the kind of society most favourable to the development of free and self-governing moral agents. It was an ambitious attempt to make a substantial contribution to the literature on social ethics.

Benn was a stocky man of medium height with a leonine head of hair but an equable and benign disposition. In discussion he was unfailingly amiable and courteous yet indefatigable in pursuit of truth. His major relaxation was country life. Soon after his arrival in Canberra, he acquired the country property Tyira near Sutton, New South Wales. Survived by his wife and their two sons, he died there of cancer on 25 July 1986 and was buried in Woden cemetery, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Brown, `Stanley Isaac Benn 1920-1986’, Australian Academy of the Humanities, Proceedings, 1984-86, p 145
  • Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, Annual Report, 1985-86, p 42
  • private information and personal knowledge.

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Citation details

Robert Brown, 'Benn, Stanley Isaac (1920–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/benn-stanley-isaac-100/text21859, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 22 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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