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
Died8 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
Signature
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.

Biologist Scientist studying living organisms

A biologist is a scientist who has specialized knowledge in the field of biology, the scientific study of life. Biologists involved in fundamental research attempt to explore and further explain the underlying mechanisms that govern the functioning of living matter. Biologists involved in applied research attempt to develop or improve more specific processes and understanding, in fields such as medicine and industry.

An anthropologist is a person engaged in the practice of anthropology. Anthropology is the study of aspects of humans within past and present societies. Social anthropology, cultural anthropology, and philosophical anthropology study the norms and values of societies. Linguistic anthropology studies how language affects social life, while economic anthropology studies human economic behavior. Biological (physical), forensic, and medical anthropology study the biological development of humans, the application of biological anthropology in a legal setting, and the study of diseases and their impacts on humans over time, respectively.

Classical liberalism is a political ideology and a branch of liberalism which advocates civil liberties under the rule of law with an emphasis on economic freedom. Closely related to economic liberalism, it developed in the early 19th century, building on ideas from the previous century as a response to urbanisation and to the Industrial Revolution in Europe and the United States. Notable individuals whose ideas contributed to classical liberalism include John Locke, Jean-Baptiste Say, Thomas Robert Malthus and David Ricardo. It drew on the classical economic ideas espoused by Adam Smith in Book One of The Wealth of Nations and on a belief in natural law, utilitarianism and progress. The term classical liberalism has often been applied in retrospect to distinguish earlier 19th-century liberalism from social liberalism.

Contents

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]

Evolutionism is a term used to denote the theory of evolution. Its exact meaning has changed over time as the study of evolution has progressed. In the 19th century, it was used to describe the belief that organisms deliberately improved themselves through progressive inherited change (orthogenesis). The teleological belief went on to include cultural evolution and social evolution. In the 1970s the term Neo-Evolutionism was used to describe the idea "that human beings sought to preserve a familiar style of life unless change was forced on them by factors that were beyond their control".

Polymath Individual whose knowledge spans a significant number of subjects

A polymath is an individual whose knowledge spans a significant number of subjects, known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems. The term entered the lexicon in the 20th century and has now been applied to great thinkers living before and after the Renaissance.

Bertrand Russell British philosopher, mathematician, historian, writer, and activist

Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell, was a British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, writer, essayist, social critic, political activist, and Nobel laureate. At various points in his life, Russell considered himself a liberal, a socialist and a pacifist, although he also confessed that his sceptical nature had led him to feel that he had "never been any of these things, in any profound sense." Russell was born in Monmouthshire into one of the most prominent aristocratic families in the United Kingdom.

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]

Survival of the fittest Phrase to describe the mechanism of natural selection

"Survival of the fittest" is a phrase that originated from Darwinian evolutionary theory as a way of describing the mechanism of natural selection. The biological concept of fitness is defined as reproductive success. In Darwinian terms the phrase is best understood as "Survival of the form that will leave the most copies of itself in successive generations."

Charles Darwin British naturalist, author of "On the Origin of Species, by Means of Natural Selection"

Charles Robert Darwin, was an English naturalist, geologist and biologist, best known for his contributions to the science of evolution. His proposition that all species of life have descended over time from common ancestors is now widely accepted, and considered a foundational concept in science. In a joint publication with Alfred Russel Wallace, he introduced his scientific theory that this branching pattern of evolution resulted from a process that he called natural selection, in which the struggle for existence has a similar effect to the artificial selection involved in selective breeding.

<i>On the Origin of Species</i> A work of scientific literature by Charles Darwin which is considered to be the foundation of evolutionary biology

On the Origin of Species, published on 24 November 1859, is a work of scientific literature by Charles Darwin which is considered to be the foundation of evolutionary biology. Darwin's book introduced the scientific theory that populations evolve over the course of generations through a process of natural selection. It presented a body of evidence that the diversity of life arose by common descent through a branching pattern of evolution. Darwin included evidence that he had gathered on the Beagle expedition in the 1830s and his subsequent findings from research, correspondence, and experimentation.

Life

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.

Derby City and Unitary authority area

Derby is a city and unitary authority area in Derbyshire, England. It lies on the banks of the River Derwent in the south of Derbyshire, of which it was traditionally the county town. At the 2011 census, the population was 248,700. Derby gained city status in 1977.

(William) George Spencer (1790–1866) was an English schoolmaster and tutor, known as a mathematical writer.

Methodism Group of historically related denominations of Protestant Christianity

Methodism, also known as the Methodist movement, is a group of historically related denominations of Protestant Christianity which derive their practice and belief from the life and teachings of John Wesley. George Whitefield and John's brother Charles Wesley were also significant early leaders in the movement. It originated as a revival movement within the 18th-century Church of England and became a separate denomination after Wesley's death. The movement spread throughout the British Empire, the United States, and beyond because of vigorous missionary work, today claiming approximately 80 million adherents worldwide.

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]

Erasmus Darwin English physician, botanist; member of the Lunar Society

Erasmus Darwin was an English physician. One of the key thinkers of the Midlands Enlightenment, he was also a natural philosopher, physiologist, slave-trade abolitionist, inventor and poet.

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck French naturalist

Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, chevalier de Lamarck, often known simply as Lamarck, was a French naturalist. He was a soldier, biologist, and academic, and an early proponent of the idea that biological evolution occurred and proceeded in accordance with natural laws.

Hinton Charterhouse

Hinton Charterhouse is a small village and civil parish in the Bath and North East Somerset unitary authority, Somerset, England. The parish, which includes the village of Midford, has a population of 515.

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.

<i>The Economist</i> English weekly news and international affairs publication

The Economist is an English-language weekly magazine-format newspaper owned by the Economist Group and edited at offices in London. Continuous publication began under its founder James Wilson in September 1843. In 2015, its average weekly circulation was a little over 1.5 million, about half of which were sold in the United States. Pearson PLC held a 50% shareholding via The Financial Times Limited until August 2015. At that time, Pearson sold their share in the Economist. The Agnelli family's Exor paid £287m to raise their stake from 4.7% to 43.4% while the Economist paid £182m for the balance of 5.04m shares which will be distributed to current shareholders. Aside from the Agnelli family, smaller shareholders in the company include Cadbury, Rothschild (21%), Schroder, Layton and other family interests as well as a number of staff and former staff shareholders.

Social Statics, or The Conditions essential to Happiness specified, and the First of them Developed is an 1851 book by the British polymath Herbert Spencer. The book was published by John Chapman of London.

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]

As a young man Herbert Spencer 5.jpg
As a young man

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 [14] who complained endlessly of pains and maladies that no physician could diagnose at that time. [15] [ 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 Spencer Herbert grave.jpg
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. [16]

Spencer also invented a precursor to the modern paper clip, though it looked more like a modern cotter pin. 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, that was assigned to the German Theodor Mommsen. 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 Krishna Varma announced a donation of £1,000 to establish a lectureship at Oxford University in tribute to Spencer and his work. [17]

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.

Evolution

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.

The principles described by Herbert Spencer received different interpretations. Bertrand Russell stated in a letter to Beatrice Webb in 1923: 'I don't know whether [Spencer] was ever made to realize 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'. [18] The alleged contradiction between Spencer's theory and the second law of thermodynamics might arise from limiting the definition of homogeneity and heterogeneity to the homogeneity and heterogeneity of the spatial distribution of matter. For instance, according to the second law of thermodynamics, molecules of gas filling a room eventually fill the room at similar intervals. On the other hand, the directions of motion of the molecules become more heterogeneous. Increasing heterogeneity of this sort aligns with the increase of entropy, related to the number of microscopic configurations consistent with the macroscopic quantities characterizing the system. Herbert Spencer considers Evolution, defined as the integration of matter and the dissipation of motion, to be necessarily followed by Dissolution, defined as the dissipation of matter and the integration of motion. Therefore, the heterogeneity of matter alone is not claimed to be ever increasing. Additionally, Herbert Spencer states that Dissolution goes towards Equilibration, a state of the system with no differential Force between its parts. A comparison can be made of such state with Thermodynamic equilibrium, a state with no net macroscopic flows of matter or of energy.

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" assumed to be related to specific body parts and responsible for the transmission of characteristics to offspring. These hypothetical hereditary units were similar to Darwin's gemmules. [19]

Sociology

In his 70s Herbert Spencer 4.jpg
In his 70s

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 which Spencer placed on evolution, his sociology might be described as social Darwinism mixed with Lamarckism. However, despite its popularity, this view of Spencer's sociology is mistaken. While his political and ethical writings had themes consistent with social Darwinism, such themes are absent in Spencer's sociological works, which focus on how processes of societal growth and differentiation lead to changing degrees of complexity in social organization [20]

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. [21] 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, 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. [22]

Ethics

The end point of the evolutionary process would be the creation of 'the perfect man in the perfect society' with human beings becoming completely adapted to social life, as predicted in Spencer's first book. The chief difference between Spencer's earlier and later conceptions of this process was the evolutionary timescale involved. The psychological – and hence also the moral – constitution which had been bequeathed to the present generation by our ancestors, and which we in turn would hand on to future generations, was in the process of gradual adaptation to the requirements of living in society. For example, aggression was a survival instinct which had been necessary in the primitive conditions of life, but was maladaptive in advanced societies. Because human instincts had a specific location in strands of brain tissue, they were subject to the Lamarckian mechanism of use-inheritance so that gradual modifications could be transmitted to future generations. Over the course of many generations the evolutionary process would ensure that human beings would become less aggressive and increasingly altruistic, leading eventually to a perfect society in which no one would cause another person pain.

Portrait of Spencer by Burgess, 1871-72 Herbert Spencer by John Bagnold Burgess.jpg
Portrait of Spencer by Burgess, 1871–72

However, for evolution to produce the perfect individual it was necessary for present and future generations to experience the 'natural' consequences of their conduct. Only in this way would individuals have the incentives required to work on self-improvement and thus to hand an improved moral constitution to their descendants. Hence anything that interfered with the 'natural' relationship of conduct and consequence was to be resisted and this included the use of the coercive power of the state to relieve poverty, to provide public education, or to require compulsory vaccination. Although charitable giving was to be encouraged even it had to be limited by the consideration that suffering was frequently the result of individuals receiving the consequences of their actions. Hence too much individual benevolence directed to the 'undeserving poor' would break the link between conduct and consequence that Spencer considered fundamental to ensuring that humanity continued to evolve to a higher level of development.

Spencer adopted a utilitarian standard of ultimate value – the greatest happiness of the greatest number – and the culmination of the evolutionary process would be the maximization of utility. In the perfect society individuals would not only derive pleasure from the exercise of altruism ('positive beneficence') but would aim to avoid inflicting pain on others ('negative beneficence'). They would also instinctively respect the rights of others, leading to the universal observance of the principle of justice – each person had the right to a maximum amount of liberty that was compatible with a like liberty in others. 'Liberty' was interpreted to mean the absence of coercion, and was closely connected to the right to private property. Spencer termed this code of conduct 'Absolute Ethics' which provided a scientifically-grounded moral system that could substitute for the supernaturally-based ethical systems of the past. However, he recognized that our inherited moral constitution does not currently permit us to behave in full compliance with the code of Absolute Ethics, and for this reason we need a code of 'Relative Ethics' which takes into account the distorting factors of our present imperfections.

Spencer's distinctive view of musicology was also related to his ethics. Spencer thought that the origin of music is to be found in impassioned oratory. Speakers have persuasive effect not only by the reasoning of their words, but by their cadence and tone – the musical qualities of their voice serve as "the commentary of the emotions upon the propositions of the intellect," as Spencer put it.

Music, conceived as the heightened development of this characteristic of speech, makes a contribution to the ethical education and progress of the species. "The strange capacity which we have for being affected by melody and harmony, may be taken to imply both that it is within the possibilities of our nature to realize those intenser delights they dimly suggest, and that they are in some way concerned in the realization of them. If so the power and the meaning of music become comprehensible; but otherwise they are a mystery." [23]

Spencer's last years were characterized by a collapse of his initial optimism, replaced instead by a pessimism regarding the future of mankind. Nevertheless, he devoted much of his efforts in reinforcing his arguments and preventing the mis-interpretation of his monumental theory of non-interference.

Agnosticism

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." [24] 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. [25] He also argued that the individual had a "right to ignore the state." [26] 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." [27]

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. [28]

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), [29] 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. [30]

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. [31]

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), [32] 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. [33] 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. [34]

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. [35]

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." [36]

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." [37] 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. [38] 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. [39]

Portrait of Spencer by Hamilton, ca. 1895 Herbert Spencer by John McLure Hamilton.jpg
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", [40] and the historian Richard Hofstadter called him "the metaphysician of the homemade intellectual, and the prophet of the cracker-barrel agnostic." [41] 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, [42] as well as a still highly negative estimate. [43]

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." [44]

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. [45] Spencerism was so influential in China that it was synthesized into the Chinese translation of the Origin of Species, in which Darwin’s branching view of evolution was converted into a linear-progressive one. [46] 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. [47] He also corresponded with Kaneko Kentaro, warning him of the dangers of imperialism. [48] 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. [49]

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

See also Spencer, Herbert (1904). An Autobiography. D. Appleton and Company.

Essay Collections:

Philosophers' critiques

See also

Notes

  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. 1 2 "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. Steven Shapin (13 August 2007). "Man with a plan". newyorker.com . Archived from the original on 30 April 2015. A lifelong hypochondriac, he had come for his health, to reinvigorate his “greatly disordered nervous system,” and he withstood all inducements to what he called “social excitement.”
  15. M. Francis (23 December 2014). Recension of Herbert Spencer's life. Routledge. pp. 7–8. Archived from the original on 30 December 2018. Retrieved 30 December 2018 via ndpr.nd.edu.
  16. Duncan, Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer p. 464
  17. Duncan, Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer, p. 537
  18. quoted in Egan, Kieran (2002). Getting it wrong from the beginning . Retrieved 14 June 2013.
  19. Deichmann, Ute. (2010). Darwinism, Philosophy, and Experimental Biology. Springer. pp. 41–42. ISBN   978-90-481-9901-3
  20. Turner, Jonathan H. (1985). Herbert Spencer. Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE Publications. ISBN   0-8039-2244-2.
  21. Popular Science Monthly, Volume 44
  22. 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.
  23. "Essays: Scientific, Political and Speculative, Vol. 2 - Online Library of Liberty". oll.libertyfund.org.
  24. Doherty, Brian, Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement , p. 246.
  25. Stringham, Edward. Anarchy and the Law. Transaction Publishers, 2007. p. 387.
  26. Stringham, Edward. Anarchy and the Law. Transaction Publishers, 2007. p. 388.
  27. Herbert Spencer, Facts and comments, p. 126.
  28. Social Statics (1851), pp. 42, 307.
  29. The Man vs the State, 1884 at the Constitution Society
  30. Ronald F. Cooney, "Herbert Spencer: Apostle of Liberty" Freeman (January 1973)online
  31. Chris Matthew Sciabarra, "Libertarianism", in International Encyclopedia of Economic Sociology, ed. Jens Beckert and Milan Zafirovski (2006), pp. 403–07 online.
  32. "Herbert Spencer on the Land Question: A Criticism, by Alfred Russel Wallace". people.wku.edu.
  33. "Herbert Spencer Anti-Defamation League (Part 423 of ???)".
  34. Offer, John (2006). An Intellectual History of British Social Policy. Bristol: Policy Press. pp. 38, 142. ISBN   1-86134-530-5.
  35. 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.
  36. Hearn, Lafcadio (2012). Japan: an Attempt at Interpretation Kindle Edition. pp. Appendix. ISBN   1406722383.
  37. James, William. "Herbert Spencer". The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. XCIV (1904), p. 104.
  38. Quoted in John Offer, Herbert Spencer: Critical Assessments (London: Routledge, 2004), p. 612.
  39. 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.
  40. 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.
  41. Richard Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought (1944; Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), p. 32.
  42. Mark Francis, Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life (Newcastle, UK: Acumen Publishing, 2007).
  43. Stewart (2011).
  44. Plekhanov, Georgiĭ Valentinovich (1912), trans. Aveling, Eleanor Marx. Anarchism and Socialism, p. 143. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company. (See here.)
  45. Benjamin Schwartz, In Search of Wealth and Power (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1964).
  46. Jin, Xiaoxing (27 March 2019). "Translation and transmutation: the Origin of Species in China". The British Journal for the History of Science. 52 (1): 117–141. doi:10.1017/S0007087418000808 via Cambridge Core.
  47. Kenneth Pyle, The New Generation in Meiji Japan (Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 1969).
  48. Spencer to Kaneko Kentaro, 26 August 1892 in The Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer ed. David Duncan (1908), p. 296.
  49. Savarkar, Vinayak Damodar. Inside the Enemy Camp. p. 35.

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