English social philosopher and pioneer sociologist;b. Derby, April 27, 1820; d. Brighton, Dec. 8, 1903. His father was William George Spencer, a Quaker schoolmaster; his mother, Harriet Holmes, was of Huguenot and Hussite ancestry. After a sketchy private education, Spencer taught for a year at the age of 16, worked as a railroad engineer from 1837 to 1848, except for a period in journalism between 1841 and 1844, then became sub-editor of the Economist from 1848 to 1853 before resigning to do freelance writing. He remained unmarried.
Works. As early as 1843, Spencer published a pamphlet of essays entitled The Proper Sphere of Government. His first book, Social Statics (1851), attracted considerable attention. Thereafter, despite dyspepsia, neurasthenia, and insomnia in later life, he published a wide variety of books and essays. His second book, Principles of Psychology (1855), was later incorporated in his ambitious ten-volume Synthetic Philosophy, first publicized in 1860. This included First Principles (1862), The Principles of Biology (2 v. 1864–67), The Principles of Psychology (rev. 2 v. 1870–72), The Principles of Sociology (3 v. 1876–82), and The Principles of Ethics (2 v. 1879–93). Besides writing, revising, and enlarging several editions of each of these large works, Spencer published collections of essays in 1858, 1863, and 1874, as well as several other books. After Education (1861) and The Study of Sociology (1873), there appeared Descriptive Sociology (8 v. 1873–81), in which Spencer classified and arranged data compiled by others on various historical and primitive peoples; additional volumes were compiled after his death with money he left for that purpose. His last works were The Man versus the State (1884), Facts and Comments (1902), and An Autobiography (2 v. 1904), published posthumously.
Religious and Ethical Views. Spencer called himself an agnostic, considering God unknowable. In Principles of Sociology he propounded his well-known theory of the "ghost origin" of religion (manism), holding that early man feared the spirits of nature, practiced nature worship, and then adopted successively ancestor worship, polytheism, and eventually monotheism. He maintained that fear of the dead is the root of religious control, and fear of the living, the root of political control.
Spencer adopted the ethics of utilitarianism. In additon, he was passionately in favor of individual liberty and went to great lengths to develop and defend a doctrine of laissez faire. In politics he espoused "radical" reformist ideas. In his view man was solitary by nature and compelled only by population growth to live in organized social life. Not only did he reduce the function of the State to minimal protective duties, but he denied the State's right to provide for education and welfare, looking forward to the time when human progress would make the State superfluous.
Social Evolutionism. Spencer's extreme individualism was associated with both evolutionary and organic views of society. He accepted Lamarck's belief in the inheritance of acquired characteristics, and in Social Statics, nine years before Darwin's Origin of Species, he proposed human perfection as the outcome of a long process of adaptation to the environment by means of natural selection. In psychology he tried to combine the empiri cism of locke, maintaining that the mind derives all knowledge from experience through the senses, and the rationalism of descartes, who considered ideas to be innate. In Spencer's view, ideas transcend the experience of the individual, being transmitted by inheritance from the experience of the race.
The guiding principle of Spencer's philosophy was evolutionism. Later he invented the term, often associated with Darwin, of the "survival of the fittest." According to his view of the evolutionary adaptive process, the organic nature of society made cooperation inevitable and necessary for progress, as no part of society can develop faster than another. He opposed state welfare programs not only in the name of individual liberty but because he believed that they impeded the operation of the law of natural selection and because they necessitated taxation, thus depriving individuals of the means to take part in productive enterprise. His economic individualism
did not always make him callous, however, for he extolled sympathy and in developing his argument held that government aid to the poor would usurp the role of natural sympathy and private charity.
Influence. Spencer popularized individualism and laissez-faire economics in England and the United States. He inspired many sociologists to adopt an organismic conception of society, promoted the idea of unilinear evolution, and contributed to the development of what is known as social Darwinism. He called attention to problems of methodology involved in the inductive study of society. His analysis of institutions and especially ceremonies proved to be very fruitful in sociology. Indeed, he influenced a number of sociologists, including L. T. Hobhouse in England, Emile Durkheim in France, Franz Müller-Lyer in Germany, and W. G. Sumner in the United States, to use anthropological and other cultural data and to adopt the comparative method of studying society. Some value may still be derived by examining Spencer's work, now chiefly of historical interest.
Bibliography: e. barker, Political Thought in England from Herbert Spencer to the Present Day (New York 1915). d. duncan, The Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer, 2 v. (New York 1908). h. s. r. elliot, Herbert Spencer (London 1917). f. j. c. hearnshaw, ed., The Social and Political Ideas of Some Representative Thinkers of the Victorian Age (London 1933). j. rumney, Herbert Spencer's Sociology (London 1934). a. w. tillett, Spencer's Synthetic Philosophy (London 1914); Herbert Spencer Betrayed (London 1939).
[e. j. ross]