Herbert Spencer

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Herbert Spencer
Herbert Spencer.jpg
Spencer at the age of 73
Born (1820-04-27)27 April 1820
Derby, Derbyshire, England
Died 8 December 1903(1903-12-08) (aged 83)
Brighton, Sussex, England
Nationality British
Era 19th-century philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School Evolutionism, positivism, classical liberalism
Main interests
Evolution, positivism, laissez-faire, utilitarianism
Notable ideas
Social Darwinism
Survival of the fittest
HS steel portrait sig.jpg

Herbert Spencer (27 April 1820 – 8 December 1903) was an English philosopher, biologist, anthropologist, sociologist, and prominent classical liberal political theorist of the Victorian era.

Spencer developed an all-embracing conception of evolution as the progressive development of the physical world, biological organisms, the human mind, and human culture and societies. As a polymath, he contributed to a wide range of subjects, including ethics, religion, anthropology, economics, political theory, philosophy, literature, astronomy, biology, sociology, and psychology. During his lifetime he achieved tremendous authority, mainly in English-speaking academia. "The only other English philosopher to have achieved anything like such widespread popularity was Bertrand Russell, and that was in the 20th century."[1] Spencer was "the single most famous European intellectual in the closing decades of the nineteenth century"[2][3] but his influence declined sharply after 1900: "Who now reads Spencer?" asked Talcott Parsons in 1937.[4]

Spencer is best known for the expression "survival of the fittest", which he coined in Principles of Biology (1864), after reading Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species.[5] This term strongly suggests natural selection, yet as Spencer extended evolution into realms of sociology and ethics, he also made use of Lamarckism.[6]


Spencer was born in Derby, England, on 27 April 1820, the son of William George Spencer (generally called George). Spencer's father was a religious dissenter who drifted from Methodism to Quakerism, and who seems to have transmitted to his son an opposition to all forms of authority. He ran a school founded on the progressive teaching methods of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi and also served as Secretary of the Derby Philosophical Society, a scientific society which had been founded in 1783 by Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin.

Spencer was educated in empirical science by his father, while the members of the Derby Philosophical Society introduced him to pre-Darwinian concepts of biological evolution, particularly those of Erasmus Darwin and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. His uncle, the Reverend Thomas Spencer,[7] vicar of Hinton Charterhouse near Bath, completed Spencer's limited formal education by teaching him some mathematics and physics, and enough Latin to enable him to translate some easy texts. Thomas Spencer also imprinted on his nephew his own firm free-trade and anti-statist political views. Otherwise, Spencer was an autodidact who acquired most of his knowledge from narrowly focused readings and conversations with his friends and acquaintances.[8]

Both as an adolescent and as a young man, Spencer found it difficult to settle to any intellectual or professional discipline. He worked as a civil engineer during the railway boom of the late 1830s, while also devoting much of his time to writing for provincial journals that were nonconformist in their religion and radical in their politics. From 1848 to 1853 he served as sub-editor on the free-trade journal The Economist, during which time he published his first book, Social Statics (1851), which predicted that humanity would eventually become completely adapted to the requirements of living in society with the consequential withering away of the state.

Its publisher, John Chapman, introduced Spencer to his salon which was attended by many of the leading radical and progressive thinkers of the capital, including John Stuart Mill, Harriet Martineau, George Henry Lewes and Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot), with whom he was briefly romantically linked. Spencer himself introduced the biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, who would later win fame as 'Darwin's Bulldog' and who remained his lifelong friend. However it was the friendship of Evans and Lewes that acquainted him with John Stuart Mill's A System of Logic and with Auguste Comte's positivism and which set him on the road to his life's work. He strongly disagreed with Comte.[9]

The first fruit of his friendship with Evans and Lewes was Spencer's second book, Principles of Psychology, published in 1855, which explored a physiological basis for psychology. The book was founded on the fundamental assumption that the human mind was subject to natural laws and that these could be discovered within the framework of general biology. This permitted the adoption of a developmental perspective not merely in terms of the individual (as in traditional psychology), but also of the species and the race. Through this paradigm, Spencer aimed to reconcile the associationist psychology of Mill's Logic, the notion that human mind was constructed from atomic sensations held together by the laws of the association of ideas, with the apparently more 'scientific' theory of phrenology, which located specific mental functions in specific parts of the brain.[10]

Portrait of Spencer

Spencer argued that both these theories were partial accounts of the truth: repeated associations of ideas were embodied in the formation of specific strands of brain tissue, and these could be passed from one generation to the next by means of the Lamarckian mechanism of use-inheritance. The Psychology, he believed, would do for the human mind what Isaac Newton had done for matter.[11] However, the book was not initially successful and the last of the 251 copies of its first edition was not sold until June 1861.

Spencer's interest in psychology derived from a more fundamental concern which was to establish the universality of natural law.[12] In common with others of his generation, including the members of Chapman's salon, he was possessed with the idea of demonstrating that it was possible to show that everything in the universe – including human culture, language, and morality – could be explained by laws of universal validity. This was in contrast to the views of many theologians of the time who insisted that some parts of creation, in particular the human soul, were beyond the realm of scientific investigation. Comte's Système de Philosophie Positive had been written with the ambition of demonstrating the universality of natural law, and Spencer was to follow Comte in the scale of his ambition. However, Spencer differed from Comte in believing it was possible to discover a single law of universal application which he identified with progressive development and was to call the principle of evolution.

In 1858 Spencer produced an outline of what was to become the System of Synthetic Philosophy. This immense undertaking, which has few parallels in the English language, aimed to demonstrate that the principle of evolution applied in biology, psychology, sociology (Spencer appropriated Comte's term for the new discipline) and morality. Spencer envisaged that this work of ten volumes would take twenty years to complete; in the end it took him twice as long and consumed almost all the rest of his long life.

Despite Spencer's early struggles to establish himself as a writer, by the 1870s he had become the most famous philosopher of the age.[13] His works were widely read during his lifetime, and by 1869 he was able to support himself solely on the profit of book sales and on income from his regular contributions to Victorian periodicals which were collected as three volumes of Essays. His works were translated into German, Italian, Spanish, French, Russian, Japanese and Chinese, and into many other languages and he was offered honours and awards all over Europe and North America. He also became a member of the Athenaeum, an exclusive Gentleman's Club in London open only to those distinguished in the arts and sciences, and the X Club, a dining club of nine founded by T.H. Huxley that met every month and included some of the most prominent thinkers of the Victorian age (three of whom would become presidents of the Royal Society).

Members included physicist-philosopher John Tyndall and Darwin's cousin, the banker and biologist Sir John Lubbock. There were also some quite significant satellites such as liberal clergyman Arthur Stanley, the Dean of Westminster; and guests such as Charles Darwin and Hermann von Helmholtz were entertained from time to time. Through such associations, Spencer had a strong presence in the heart of the scientific community and was able to secure an influential audience for his views. Despite his growing wealth and fame he never owned a house of his own.

The last decades of Spencer's life were characterised by growing disillusionment and loneliness. He never married, and after 1855 was a perpetual hypochondriac who complained endlessly of pains and maladies that no physician could diagnose.[citation needed] By the 1890s his readership had begun to desert him while many of his closest friends died and he had come to doubt the confident faith in progress that he had made the center-piece of his philosophical system. His later years were also ones in which his political views became increasingly conservative. Whereas Social Statics had been the work of a radical democrat who believed in votes for women (and even for children) and in the nationalisation of the land to break the power of the aristocracy, by the 1880s he had become a staunch opponent of female suffrage and made common cause with the landowners of the Liberty and Property Defence League against what they saw as the drift towards 'socialism' of elements (such as Sir William Harcourt) within the administration of William Ewart Gladstone – largely against the opinions of Gladstone himself. Spencer's political views from this period were expressed in what has become his most famous work, The Man versus the state.

Tomb of Herbert Spencer in Highgate Cemetery

The exception to Spencer's growing conservativism was that he remained throughout his life an ardent opponent of imperialism and militarism. His critique of the Boer War was especially scathing, and it contributed to his declining popularity in Britain.[14]

Spencer also invented a precursor to the modern paper clip, though it looked more like a modern cotter pin[disambiguation needed]. This "binding-pin" was distributed by Ackermann & Company. Spencer shows drawings of the pin in Appendix I (following Appendix H) of his autobiography along with published descriptions of its uses.

In 1902, shortly before his death, Spencer was nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature. He continued writing all his life, in later years often by dictation, until he succumbed to poor health at the age of 83. His ashes are interred in the eastern side of London's Highgate Cemetery facing Karl Marx's grave. At Spencer's funeral the Indian nationalist leader Shyamji Krishnavarma announced a donation of £1,000 to establish a lectureship at Oxford University in tribute to Spencer and his work.[15]

Synthetic philosophy

The basis for Spencer's appeal to many of his generation was that he appeared to offer a ready-made system of belief which could substitute for conventional religious faith at a time when orthodox creeds were crumbling under the advances of modern science. Spencer's philosophical system seemed to demonstrate that it was possible to believe in the ultimate perfection of humanity on the basis of advanced scientific conceptions such as the first law of thermodynamics and biological evolution.

In essence Spencer's philosophical vision was formed by a combination of deism and positivism. On the one hand, he had imbibed something of eighteenth century deism from his father and other members of the Derby Philosophical Society and from books like George Combe's immensely popular The Constitution of Man (1828). This treated the world as a cosmos of benevolent design, and the laws of nature as the decrees of a 'Being transcendentally kind.' Natural laws were thus the statutes of a well governed universe that had been decreed by the Creator with the intention of promoting human happiness. Although Spencer lost his Christian faith as a teenager and later rejected any 'anthropomorphic' conception of the Deity, he nonetheless held fast to this conception at an almost sub-conscious level. At the same time, however, he owed far more than he would ever acknowledge to positivism, in particular in its conception of a philosophical system as the unification of the various branches of scientific knowledge. He also followed positivism in his insistence that it was only possible to have genuine knowledge of phenomena and hence that it was idle to speculate about the nature of the ultimate reality. The tension between positivism and his residual deism ran through the entire System of Synthetic Philosophy.

Spencer followed Comte in aiming for the unification of scientific truth; it was in this sense that his philosophy aimed to be 'synthetic.' Like Comte, he was committed to the universality of natural law, the idea that the laws of nature applied without exception, to the organic realm as much as to the inorganic, and to the human mind as much as to the rest of creation. The first objective of the Synthetic Philosophy was thus to demonstrate that there were no exceptions to being able to discover scientific explanations, in the form of natural laws, of all the phenomena of the universe. Spencer's volumes on biology, psychology, and sociology were all intended to demonstrate the existence of natural laws in these specific disciplines. Even in his writings on ethics, he held that it was possible to discover 'laws' of morality that had the status of laws of nature while still having normative content, a conception which can be traced to George Combe's Constitution of Man.

The second objective of the Synthetic Philosophy was to show that these same laws led inexorably to progress. In contrast to Comte, who stressed only the unity of scientific method, Spencer sought the unification of scientific knowledge in the form of the reduction of all natural laws to one fundamental law, the law of evolution. In this respect, he followed the model laid down by the Edinburgh publisher Robert Chambers in his anonymous Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844). Although often dismissed as a lightweight forerunner of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species, Chambers' book was in reality a programme for the unification of science which aimed to show that Laplace's nebular hypothesis for the origin of the solar system and Lamarck's theory of species transformation were both instances (in Lewes' phrase) of 'one magnificent generalisation of progressive development.' Chambers was associated with Chapman's salon and his work served as the unacknowledged template for the Synthetic Philosophy.


Spencer first articulated his evolutionary perspective in his essay, 'Progress: Its Law and Cause', published in Chapman's Westminster Review in 1857, and which later formed the basis of the First Principles of a New System of Philosophy (1862). In it he expounded a theory of evolution which combined insights from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's essay 'The Theory of Life' – itself derivative from Friedrich von Schelling's Naturphilosophie – with a generalisation of von Baer's law of embryological development. Spencer posited that all structures in the universe develop from a simple, undifferentiated, homogeneity to a complex, differentiated, heterogeneity, while being accompanied by a process of greater integration of the differentiated parts. This evolutionary process could be found at work, Spencer believed, throughout the cosmos. It was a universal law, that was applying to the stars and the galaxies as much as to biological organisms, and to human social organisation as much as to the human mind. It differed from other scientific laws only by its greater generality, and the laws of the special sciences could be shown to be illustrations of this principle.

However, as Bertrand Russell stated in a letter to Beatrice Webb in 1923, this formulation has problems: 'I don't know whether [Spencer] was ever made to realise the implications of the second law of thermodynamics; if so, he may well be upset. The law says that everything tends to uniformity and a dead level, diminishing (not increasing) heterogeneity'.[16]

Spencer's attempt to explain the evolution of complexity was radically different from that to be found in Darwin's Origin of Species which was published two years later. Spencer is often, quite erroneously, believed to have merely appropriated and generalised Darwin's work on natural selection. But although after reading Darwin's work he coined the phrase 'survival of the fittest' as his own term for Darwin's concept,[5] and is often misrepresented as a thinker who merely applied the Darwinian theory to society, he only grudgingly incorporated natural selection into his preexisting overall system. The primary mechanism of species transformation that he recognised was Lamarckian use-inheritance which posited that organs are developed or are diminished by use or disuse and that the resulting changes may be transmitted to future generations. Spencer believed that this evolutionary mechanism was also necessary to explain 'higher' evolution, especially the social development of humanity. Moreover, in contrast to Darwin, he held that evolution had a direction and an end-point, the attainment of a final state of equilibrium. He tried to apply the theory of biological evolution to sociology. He proposed that society was the product of change from lower to higher forms, just as in the theory of biological evolution, the lowest forms of life are said to be evolving into higher forms. Spencer claimed that man's mind had evolved in the same way from the simple automatic responses of lower animals to the process of reasoning in the thinking man. Spencer believed in two kinds of knowledge: knowledge gained by the individual and knowledge gained by the race. Intuition, or knowledge learned unconsciously, was the inherited experience of the race.

Spencer in his book Principles of Biology (1864), proposed a pangenesis theory that involved "physiological units". These hypothetical hereditary units were similar to Darwin's gemmules.[17]


Portrait of Spencer

Spencer read with excitement the original positivist sociology of Auguste Comte. A philosopher of science, Comte had proposed a theory of sociocultural evolution that society progresses by a general law of three stages. Writing after various developments in biology, however, Spencer rejected what he regarded as the ideological aspects of Comte's positivism, attempting to reformulate social science in terms of his principle of evolution, which he applied to the biological, psychological and sociological aspects of the universe. Given the primacy with which Spencer placed on evolution in his work, Spencer's sociology might be described as socially Darwinistic (though strictly speaking he was a proponent of Lamarckism rather than Darwinism). Despite the popularity of this view, such a description of Spencer's sociology is mistaken. While Spencer's political and ethical writings had themes consistent with social Darwinism, such themes are not present in Spencer's sociological works, which focus on building a theory regarding how processes of societal growth and differentiation lead to changing amounts of complexity amongst the various forms of social organization [18]

The evolutionary progression from simple, undifferentiated homogeneity to complex, differentiated heterogeneity was exemplified, Spencer argued, by the development of society. He developed a theory of two types of society, the militant and the industrial, which corresponded to this evolutionary progression. Militant society, structured around relationships of hierarchy and obedience, was simple and undifferentiated; industrial society, based on voluntary, contractually assumed social obligations, was complex and differentiated. Society, which Spencer conceptualised as a 'social organism' evolved from the simpler state to the more complex according to the universal law of evolution. Moreover, industrial society was the direct descendant of the ideal society developed in Social Statics, although Spencer now equivocated over whether the evolution of society would result in anarchism (as he had first believed) or whether it pointed to a continued role for the state, albeit one reduced to the minimal functions of the enforcement of contracts and external defence.

Though Spencer made some valuable contributions to early sociology, not least in his influence on structural functionalism, his attempt to introduce Lamarckian or Darwinian ideas into the realm of sociology was unsuccessful. It was considered by many, furthermore, to be actively dangerous. Hermeneuticians of the period, such as Wilhelm Dilthey, would pioneer the distinction between the natural sciences (Naturwissenschaften) and human sciences (Geisteswissenschaften). In the United States, the sociologist Lester Frank Ward, who would be elected as the first president of the American Sociological Association, launched a relentless attack on Spencer's theories of laissez-faire and political ethics. Although Ward admired much of Spencer's work he believed that Spencer's prior political biases had distorted his thought and had led him astray.[19] In the 1890s, Émile Durkheim established formal academic sociology with a firm emphasis on practical social research. By the turn of the 20th century the first generation of German sociologists, most notably Max Weber, had presented methodological antipositivism. However, it should be noted that Spencer's theories of laissez-faire, survival-of-the-fittest and minimal human interference in the processes of natural law had an enduring and even increasing appeal in the social science fields of economics and political science, and one writer has recently made the case for Spencer's importance for a sociology that must learn to take energy in society seriously.[20]


Spencer's reputation among the Victorians owed a great deal to his agnosticism. He rejected theology as representing the 'impiety of the pious.' He was to gain much notoriety from his repudiation of traditional religion, and was frequently condemned by religious thinkers for allegedly advocating atheism and materialism. Nonetheless, unlike Thomas Henry Huxley, whose agnosticism was a militant creed directed at 'the unpardonable sin of faith' (in Adrian Desmond's phrase), Spencer insisted that he was not concerned to undermine religion in the name of science, but to bring about a reconciliation of the two. The following argument is a summary of Part 1 of his First Principles (2nd ed 1867).

Starting either from religious belief or from science, Spencer argued, we are ultimately driven to accept certain indispensable but literally inconceivable notions. Whether we are concerned with a Creator or the substratum which underlies our experience of phenomena, we can frame no conception of it. Therefore, Spencer concluded, religion and science agree in the supreme truth that the human understanding is only capable of 'relative' knowledge. This is the case since, owing to the inherent limitations of the human mind, it is only possible to obtain knowledge of phenomena, not of the reality ('the absolute') underlying phenomena. Hence both science and religion must come to recognise as the 'most certain of all facts that the Power which the Universe manifests to us is utterly inscrutable.' He called this awareness of 'the Unknowable' and he presented worship of the Unknowable as capable of being a positive faith which could substitute for conventional religion. Indeed, he thought that the Unknowable represented the ultimate stage in the evolution of religion, the final elimination of its last anthropomorphic vestiges.

Political views

Spencerian views in 21st century circulation derive from his political theories and memorable attacks on the reform movements of the late 19th century. He has been claimed as a precursor by libertarians and anarcho-capitalists. Economist Murray Rothbard called Social Statics "the greatest single work of libertarian political philosophy ever written."[21] Spencer argued that the state was not an "essential" institution and that it would "decay" as voluntary market organisation would replace the coercive aspects of the state.[22] He also argued that the individual had a "right to ignore the state."[23] As a result of this perspective, Spencer was harshly critical of patriotism. In response to being told that British troops were in danger during the Second Afghan War (1878-1880) he replied: "When men hire themselves out to shoot other men to order, asking nothing about the justice of their cause, I don't care if they are shot themselves."[24]

Politics in late Victorian Britain moved in directions that Spencer disliked, and his arguments provided so much ammunition for conservatives and individualists in Europe and America that they are still in use in the 21st century. The expression 'There Is No Alternative' (TINA), made famous by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, may be traced to its emphatic use by Spencer.[25]

By the 1880s he was denouncing "the new Toryism" (that is, the "social reformist wing" of the Liberal party – the wing to some extent hostile to Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, this faction of the Liberal party Spencer compared to the interventionist "Toryism" of such people as the former Conservative party Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli). In The Man versus the State (1884),[26] he attacked Gladstone and the Liberal party for losing its proper mission (they should be defending personal liberty, he said) and instead promoting paternalist social legislation (what Gladstone himself called "Construction" – an element in the modern Liberal party that he opposed). Spencer denounced Irish land reform, compulsory education, laws to regulate safety at work, prohibition and temperance laws, tax funded libraries, and welfare reforms. His main objections were threefold: the use of the coercive powers of the government, the discouragement given to voluntary self-improvement, and the disregard of the "laws of life." The reforms, he said, were tantamount to "socialism", which he said was about the same as "slavery" in terms of limiting human freedom. Spencer vehemently attacked the widespread enthusiasm for annexation of colonies and imperial expansion, which subverted all he had predicted about evolutionary progress from 'militant' to 'industrial' societies and states.[27]

Spencer anticipated many of the analytical standpoints of later libertarian theorists such as Friedrich Hayek, especially in his "law of equal liberty", his insistence on the limits to predictive knowledge, his model of a spontaneous social order, and his warnings about the "unintended consequences" of collectivist social reforms.[28]

While often caricatured as ultra-conservative, Spencer had been more radical earlier in his career – opposing private property in land and claiming that each person has a latent claim to participate in the use of the earth (views that influenced Georgism),[29] calling himself "a radical feminist" and advocating the organisation of trade unions as a bulwark against "exploitation by bosses", and favoured an economy organised primarily in free worker co-operatives as a replacement for wage-labor.[30] Although he retained support for unions, his views on the other issues had changed by the 1880s. He came to predict that social welfare programmes would eventually lead to socialisation of the means of production, saying "all socialism is slavery"; Spencer defined a slave as a person who "labours under coercion to satisfy another's desires" and believed that under socialism or communism the individual would be enslaved to the whole community rather than to a particular master, and "it means not whether his master a single person or society"

Social Darwinism

For many, the name of Herbert Spencer would be virtually synonymous with Social Darwinism, a social theory that applies the law of the survival of the fittest to society; humanitarian impulses had to be resisted as nothing should be allowed to interfere with nature's laws, including the social struggle for existence.

Spencer's association with Social Darwinism might have its origin in a specific interpretation of his support for competition. Whereas in biology the competition of various organisms can result in the death of a species or organism, the kind of competition Spencer advocated is closer to the one used by economists, where competing individuals or firms improve the well being of the rest of society. Spencer viewed private charity positively, encouraging both voluntary association and informal care to aid those in need, rather than relying on government bureaucracy or force. He further recommended that private charitable efforts would be wise to avoid encouraging the formation of new dependent families by those unable to support themselves without charity.[31]

Focusing on the form as well as the content of Spencer's "Synthetic Philosophy", one writer has identified it as the paradigmatic case of "Social Darwinism", understood as a politically motivated metaphysic very different in both form and motivation from Darwinist science.[32]

In a letter to the Japanese government regarding intermarriage with Westerners, Spencer stated that "if you mix the constitution of two widely divergent varieties which have severally become adapted to widely divergent modes of life, you get a constitution which is adapted to the mode of life of neither—a constitution which will not work properly". He goes on to say that America has failed to limit the immigration of Chinese and restrict their contact, especially sexual, with the presumed European stock. He states "if they mix they must form a bad hybrid" regarding the issue of Chinese and (ethnically European) Americans. Spencer ends his letter with the following blanket statement against all immigration: "In either case, supposing the immigration to be large, immense social mischief must arise, and eventually social disorganization. The same thing will happen if there should be any considerable mixture of European or American races with the Japanese."[33]

General influence

While most philosophers fail to achieve much of a following outside the academy of their professional peers, by the 1870s and 1880s Spencer had achieved an unparalleled popularity, as the sheer volume of his sales indicate. He was probably the first, and possibly the only, philosopher in history to sell over a million copies of his works during his own lifetime. In the United States, where pirated editions were still commonplace, his authorised publisher, Appleton, sold 368,755 copies between 1860 and 1903. This figure did not differ much from his sales in his native Britain, and once editions in the rest of the world are added in the figure of a million copies seems like a conservative estimate. As William James remarked, Spencer "enlarged the imagination, and set free the speculative mind of countless doctors, engineers, and lawyers, of many physicists and chemists, and of thoughtful laymen generally."[34] The aspect of his thought that emphasised individual self-improvement found a ready audience in the skilled working class.

Spencer's influence among leaders of thought was also immense, though it was most often expressed in terms of their reaction to, and repudiation of, his ideas. As his American follower John Fiske observed, Spencer's ideas were to be found "running like the weft through all the warp" of Victorian thought.[35] Such varied thinkers as Henry Sidgwick, T.H. Green, G.E. Moore, William James, Henri Bergson, and Émile Durkheim defined their ideas in relation to his. Durkheim's Division of Labour in Society is to a very large extent an extended debate with Spencer, from whose sociology, many commentators now agree, Durkheim borrowed extensively.[36]

Portrait of Spencer by Hamilton, ca. 1895

In post-1863-Uprising Poland, many of Spencer's ideas became integral to the dominant fin-de-siècle ideology, "Polish Positivism". The leading Polish writer of the period, Bolesław Prus, hailed Spencer as "the Aristotle of the nineteenth century" and adopted Spencer's metaphor of society-as-organism, giving it a striking poetic presentation in his 1884 micro-story, "Mold of the Earth", and highlighting the concept in the introduction to his most universal novel, Pharaoh (1895).

The early 20th century was hostile to Spencer. Soon after his death, his philosophical reputation went into a sharp decline. Half a century after his death, his work was dismissed as a "parody of philosophy",[37] and the historian Richard Hofstadter called him "the metaphysician of the homemade intellectual, and the prophet of the cracker-barrel agnostic."[38] Nonetheless, Spencer's thought had penetrated so deeply into the Victorian age that his influence did not disappear entirely.

In recent years, much more positive estimates have appeared,[39] as well as a still highly negative estimate.[40]

Political influence

Despite his reputation as a Social Darwinist, Spencer's political thought has been open to multiple interpretations. His political philosophy could both provide inspiration to those who believed that individuals were masters of their fate, who should brook no interference from a meddling state, and those who believed that social development required a strong central authority. In Lochner v. New York, conservative justices of the United States Supreme Court could find inspiration in Spencer's writings for striking down a New York law limiting the number of hours a baker could work during the week, on the ground that this law restricted liberty of contract. Arguing against the majority's holding that a "right to free contract" is implicit in the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote: "The Fourteenth Amendment does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer's Social Statics." Spencer has also been described as a quasi-anarchist, as well as an outright anarchist. Marxist theorist Georgi Plekhanov, in his 1909 book Anarchism and Socialism, labelled Spencer a "conservative Anarchist."[41]

Spencer's ideas became very influential in China and Japan largely because he appealed to the reformers' desire to establish a strong nation-state with which to compete with the Western powers. His thought was introduced by the Chinese scholar Yen Fu, who saw his writings as a prescription for the reform of the Qing state.[42] Spencer also influenced the Japanese Westernizer Tokutomi Soho, who believed that Japan was on the verge of transitioning from a "militant society" to an "industrial society," and needed to quickly jettison all things Japanese and take up Western ethics and learning.[43] He also corresponded with Kaneko Kentaro, warning him of the dangers of imperialism.[44] Savarkar writes in his Inside the Enemy Camp, about reading all of Spencer's works, of his great interest in them, of their translation into Marathi, and their influence on the likes of Tilak and Agarkar, and the affectionate sobriquet given to him in Maharashtra – Harbhat Pendse.[45]

Influence on literature

Spencer greatly influenced literature and rhetoric. His 1852 essay, "The Philosophy of Style", explored a growing trend of formalist approaches to writing. Highly focused on the proper placement and ordering of the parts of an English sentence, he created a guide for effective composition. Spencer aimed to free prose writing from as much "friction and inertia" as possible, so that the reader would not be slowed by strenuous deliberations concerning the proper context and meaning of a sentence. Spencer argued that writers should aim "To so present ideas that they may be apprehended with the least possible mental effort" by the reader.

He argued that by making the meaning as readily accessible as possible, the writer would achieve the greatest possible communicative efficiency. This was accomplished, according to Spencer, by placing all the subordinate clauses, objects and phrases before the subject of a sentence so that, when readers reached the subject, they had all the information they needed to completely perceive its significance. While the overall influence that "The Philosophy of Style" had on the field of rhetoric was not as far-reaching as his contribution to other fields, Spencer's voice lent authoritative support to formalist views of rhetoric.

Spencer influenced literature inasmuch as many novelists and short story authors came to address his ideas in their work. George Eliot, Leo Tolstoy, Thomas Hardy, George Bernard Shaw, Bolesław Prus, Abraham Cahan, D. H. Lawrence, Machado de Assis, Richard Austin Freeman, and Jorge Luis Borges all referenced Spencer. Arnold Bennett greatly praised First Principles, and the influence it had on Bennett may be seen in his many novels. Jack London went so far as to create a character, Martin Eden, a staunch Spencerian. It has also been suggested[by whom?] that the character of Vershinin in Anton Chekhov's play The Three Sisters is a dedicated Spencerian. H.G. Wells used Spencer's ideas as a theme in his novella, The Time Machine, employing them to explain the evolution of man into two species. It is perhaps the best testimony to the influence of Spencer's beliefs and writings that his reach was so diverse. He influenced not only the administrators who shaped their societies' inner workings, but also the artists who helped shape those societies' ideals and beliefs. In Rudyard Kipling's novel Kim, the Anglophile Bengali spy Hurree Babu admires of Herbert Spencer and quotes him to comic effect: "They are, of course, dematerialised phenomena. Spencer says." "I am good enough Herbert Spencerian, I trust, to meet little thing like death, which is all in my fate, you know." "He thanked all the Gods of Hindustan, and Herbert Spencer, that there remained some valuables to steal."

Primary sources

  • Papers of Herbert Spencer in Senate House Library, University of London
  • Most of Spencer's books are available online
  • "On The Proper Sphere of Government" (1842)
  • Social Statics: or, The Conditions Essential to Human Happiness Specified, and the First of Them Developed (1851)
    • "The Right to Ignore the State", Chapter XIX of the first edition of Social Statics(p)
    • Social Statics: Abridged and Revised (1892)
  • "A Theory of Population" (1852)
  • Principles of Psychology (1855), first edition, issued in one volume
  • Education (1861)
  • System of Synthetic Philosophy',' in ten volumes
    • First Principles ISBN 0-89875-795-9 (1862)
    • Principles of Biology (1864, 1867; revised and enlarged: 1898), in two volumes
      • Volume I – Part I: The Data of Biology; Part II: The Inductions of Biology; Part III: The Evolution of Life; Appendices
      • Volume II – Part IV: Morphological Development; Part V: Physiological Development; Part VI: Laws of Multiplication; Appendices
    • Principles of Psychology (1870, 1880), in two volumes
      • Volume I – Part I: The Data of Psychology; Part II: The Inductions of Psychology; Part III: General Synthesis; Part IV: Special Synthesis; Part V: Physical Synthesis; Appendix
      • Volume II – Part VI: Special Analysis; Part VII: General Analysis; Part VIII: Congruities; Part IX: Corollaries
    • Principles of Sociology, in three volumes
      • Volume I (1874–75; enlarged 1876, 1885) – Part I: Data of Sociology; Part II: Inductions of Sociology; Part III: Domestic Institutions
      • Volume II – Part IV: Ceremonial Institutions (1879); Part V: Political Institutions (1882); Part VI [published here in some editions]: Ecclesiastical Institutions (1885)
      • Volume III – Part VI [published here in some editions]: Ecclesiastical Institutions (1885); Part VII: Professional Institutions (1896); Part VIII: Industrial Institutions (1896); References
    • The Principles of Ethics (1897), in two volumes
      • Volume I – Part I: The Data of Ethics (1879); Part II: The Inductions of Ethics (1892); Part III: The Ethics of Individual Life (1892); References
      • Volume II – Part IV: The Ethics of Social Life: Justice (1891); Part V: The Ethics of Social Life: Negative Beneficence (1892); Part VI: The Ethics of Social Life: Positive Beneficence (1892); Appendices
  • The Study of Sociology (1873, 1896)
  • An Autobiography (1904), in two volumes
See also Spencer, Herbert (1904). An Autobiography. D. Appleton and Company. 
  • v1 Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer by David Duncan (1908)
  • v2 Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer by David Duncan (1908)
  • Descriptive Sociology; or Groups of Sociological Facts, parts 1–8, classified and arranged by Spencer, compiled and abstracted by David Duncan, Richard Schepping, and James Collier (London, Williams & Norgate, 1873–1881).

Essay Collections:

  • Illustrations of Universal Progress: A Series of Discussions (1864, 1883)
  • The Man Versus the State (1884)
  • Essays: Scientific, Political, and Speculative (1891), in three volumes:
    • Volume I (includes "The Development Hypothesis," "Progress: Its Law and Cause," "The Factors of Organic Evolution" and others)
    • Volume II (includes "The Classification of the Sciences", The Philosophy of Style (1852), The Origin and Function of Music," "The Physiology of Laughter," and others)
    • Volume III (includes "The Ethics of Kant", "State Tamperings With Money and Banks", "Specialized Administration", "From Freedom to Bondage", "The Americans", and others)
  • Various Fragments (1897, enlarged 1900)
  • Facts and Comments (1902)
  • Great Political Thinkers (1960)

Philosophers' critiques

  • Herbert Spencer: An Estimate and Review (1904) by Josiah Royce.
  • Lectures on the Ethics of T.H. Green, Mr. Herbert Spencer, and J. Martineau (1902) by Henry Sidgwick.
  • Spencer-smashing at Washington (1894) by Lester F. Ward.
  • A Perplexed Philosopher (1892) by Henry George.
  • A Few Words with Mr Herbert Spencer (1884) by Paul Lafargue.
  • Remarks on Spencer's Definition of Mind as Correspondence (1878) by William James.

See also


  1. ^ Richards, Peter (4 November 2010) Herbert Spencer: Social Darwinist or Libertarian Prophet?, Mises Institute
  2. ^ Thomas Eriksen and FinnNielsen, A history of anthropology (2001) p. 37
  3. ^ "Spencer became the most famous philosopher of his time," says Henry L. Tischler, Introduction to Sociology (2010) p. 12
  4. ^ Talcott Parsons, The Structure of Social Action (1937; New York: Free Press, 1968), p. 3; quoting from C. Crane Brinton, English Political Thought in the Nineteenth Century (London: Benn, 1933).
  5. ^ a b "Letter 5145 – Darwin, C. R. to Wallace, A. R., 5 July (1866)". Darwin Correspondence Project. Retrieved 12 January 2010. 
     Maurice E. Stucke. "Better Competition Advocacy" (PDF). Retrieved 29 August 2007. Herbert Spencer in his Principles of Biology of 1864, vol. 1, p. 444, wrote "This survival of the fittest, which I have here sought to express in mechanical terms, is that which Mr. Darwin has called 'natural selection', or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life." 
  6. ^ Riggenbach, Jeff (24 April 2011) The Real William Graham Sumner, Mises Institute
  7. ^ Rev. Thomas Spencer (14 October 1796 – 26 January. 1853) – See: http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/26138/?back=,36208
  8. ^ Duncan, Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer pp. 53–55
  9. ^ Duncan, Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer p. 113
  10. ^ In 1844, Spencer published three articles on phrenology in The Zoist: A Journal of Cerebral Physiology & Mesmerism, and Their Applications to Human Welfare: "A New View of the Functions of Imitation and Benevolence" (Vol.1, No.4, (January 1844), pp. 369–85); "On the Situation of the Organ of Amativeness" (Vol.2, No.6, (July 1844), pp. 186–89); and "A Theory concerning the Organ of Wonder" (Vol.2, No.7, (October 1844), pp. 316–25).
  11. ^ Duncan, Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer p. 75
  12. ^ Duncan, Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer p. 537
  13. ^ Duncan, Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer p. 497
  14. ^ Duncan, Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer p. 464
  15. ^ Duncan, Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer, p. 537
  16. ^ quoted in Egan, Kieran (2002). Getting it wrong from the beginning. Retrieved 14 June 2013. 
  17. ^ Deichmann, Ute. (2010). Darwinism, Philosophy, and Experimental Biology. Springer. pp. 41–42. ISBN 978-90-481-9901-3
  18. ^ Turner, Jonathan H. (1985). Herbert Spencer. Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE Publications. ISBN 0-8039-2244-2. 
  19. ^ Popular Science Monthly, Volume 44
  20. ^ McKinnon, AM. (2010). 'Energy and society: Herbert Spencer’s ‘energetic sociology’ of social evolution and beyond'. Journal of Classical Sociology, vol 10, no. 4, pp. 439–55. [1]
  21. ^ Doherty, Brian, Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement, p. 246.
  22. ^ Stringham, Edward. Anarchy and the Law. Transaction Publishers, 2007. p. 387.
  23. ^ Stringham, Edward. Anarchy and the Law. Transaction Publishers, 2007. p. 388.
  24. ^ Herbert Spencer, Facts and comments, p. 126.
  25. ^ Social Statics (1851), pp. 42, 307.
  26. ^ The Man vs the State, 1884 at the Constitution Society
  27. ^ Ronald F. Cooney, "Herbert Spencer: Apostle of Liberty" Freeman (January 1973)online
  28. ^ Chris Matthew Sciabarra, "Libertarianism", in International Encyclopedia of Economic Sociology, ed. Jens Beckert and Milan Zafirovski (2006), pp. 403–07 online.
  29. ^ [2]
  30. ^ http://radgeek.com/gt/2008/04/02/herbert_spencer/
  31. ^ Offer, John (2006). An Intellectual History of British Social Policy. Bristol: Policy Press. pp. 38, 142. ISBN 1-86134-530-5. 
  32. ^ Stewart, Iain (2011). "Commandeering Time: The Ideological Status of Time in the Social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer". Australian Journal of Politics and History. 57 (3): 389–402. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8497.2011.01604.x. 
  33. ^ Hearn, Lafcadio (2012). Japan: an Attempt at Interpretation Kindle Edition. pp. Appendix. ISBN 1406722383. 
  34. ^ James, William. "Herbert Spencer". The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. XCIV (1904), p. 104.
  35. ^ Quoted in John Offer, Herbert Spencer: Critical Assessments (London: Routledge, 2004), p. 612.
  36. ^ Perrin, Robert G. (1995). "Émile Durkheim's Division of Labor and the Shadow of Herbert Spencer". Sociological Quarterly. 36 (4): 791–808. doi:10.1111/j.1533-8525.1995.tb00465.x. 
  37. ^ Gertrude Himmelfarb, Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution, 1968, p. 222; quoted in Robert J. Richards, Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), p. 243.
  38. ^ Richard Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought (1944; Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), p. 32.
  39. ^ Mark Francis, Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life (Newcastle, UK: Acumen Publishing, 2007).
  40. ^ Stewart (2011).
  41. ^ Plekhanov, Georgiĭ Valentinovich (1912), trans. Aveling, Eleanor Marx. Anarchism and Socialism, p. 143. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company. (See here.)
  42. ^ Benjamin Schwartz, In Search of Wealth and Power (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1964).
  43. ^ Kenneth Pyle, The New Generation in Meiji Japan (Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 1969).
  44. ^ Spencer to Kaneko Kentaro, 26 August 1892 in The Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer ed. David Duncan (1908), p. 296.
  45. ^ Savarkar, Vinayak Damodar. Inside the Enemy Camp. p. 35. 


  • Carneiro, Robert L. and Perrin, Robert G. "Herbert Spencer's 'Principles of Sociology:' a Centennial Retrospective and Appraisal." Annals of Science 2002 59(3): 221–261 online at Ebsco
  • Duncan, David. The Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer (1908) online edition
  • Elliot, Hugh. Herbert Spencer. London: Constable and Company, Ltd., 1917
  • Elwick, James. "Herbert Spencer and the Disunity of the Social Organism." History of Science 41, 2003, pp. 35–72.
  • Elliott, Paul. 'Erasmus Darwin, Herbert Spencer and the Origins of the Evolutionary Worldview in British Provincial Scientific Culture', Isis 94 (2003), 1–29
  • Francis, Mark. Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life. Newcastle UK: Acumen Publishing, 2007 ISBN 0-8014-4590-6
  • Harris, Jose. "Spencer, Herbert (1820–1903)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004) online, a standard short biography
  • Hodgson, Geoffrey M. "Social Darwinism in Anglophone Academic Journals: A Contribution to the History of the Term" (2004) 17 Journal of Historical Sociology 428.
  • Hofstadter, Richard. Social Darwinism in American Thought. (1944) Boston: Beacon Press, 1992 ISBN 0-8070-5503-4.
  • Kennedy, James G. Herbert Spencer. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1978
  • Mandelbaum, Maurice. History, Man, and Reason: A Study in Nineteenth-century Thought. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971.
  • Parsons, Talcott. The Structure of Social Action. (1937) New York: Free Press, 1968.
  • Rafferty, Edward C. "The Right to the Use of the Earth". Herbert Spencer, the Washington Intellectual Community, and American Conservation in the Late Nineteenth Century.
  • Richards, Robert J. Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
  • Smith, George H. (2008). "Spencer, Herbert (1820–1903)". In Hamowy, Ronald. The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE; Cato Institute. pp. 483–85. ISBN 978-1-4129-6580-4. LCCN 2008009151. OCLC 750831024. doi:10.4135/9781412965811.n295. 
  • Stewart, Iain. "Commandeering Time: The Ideological Status of Time in the Social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer" (2011) 57 Australian Journal of Politics and History 389.
  • Taylor, Michael W. Men versus the State: Herbert Spencer and Late Victorian Individualism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
  • Taylor, Michael W. The Philosophy of Herbert Spencer. London: Continuum, 2007.
  • Turner, Jonathan H. Herbert Spencer: A Renewed Appreciation. Sage Publications, 1985. ISBN 0-8039-2426-7
  • Versen, Christopher R. Optimistic Liberals: Herbert Spencer, the Brooklyn Ethical Association, and the Integration of Moral Philosophy and Evolution in the Victorian Trans-Atlantic Community. Florida State University, 2006.

By Spencer

  • Duncan, David. The Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer (1908) online edition
  • Spencer, Herbert. Spencer: Political Writings (Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought) edited by John Offer (1993) excerpt and text search
  • Spencer, Herbert. Social Statics: The Man Versus the State
  • Spencer, Herbert. The Study of Sociology excerpt and text search; also full text online free
  • Spencer, Herbert. The Principles of Psychology excerpt and text search; full text online
  • Spencer, Herbert. Social Statics, Abridged and Revised: Together with the Man Versus the State (1896), highly influential among libertarians full text online free
  • Spencer, Herbert. Education: Intellectual, Moral, and Physical (1891) 283pp full text online
  • Spencer, Herbert. An Autobiography (1905, 2 vol) full text online
  • Online writings of Spencer

External links

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