Spencer, Herbert

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British philosopher and sociologist, Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) was born in Derby, England, on April 27, and became well known for developing and applying evolutionary theory to sociology, philosophy, and psychology. Following an informal education in the anti-establishment views of his father, he briefly trained as a civil engineer before becoming a journalist and political writer. Spencer began writing books in the early 1850s, and presented a systematic and comprehensive account of his views on ethics, sociology (government, politics, and education), and biology in the nine-volume A System of Synthetic Philosophy (1862–1893). Although his ideas were influential during the last few decades of the nineteenth century, his reputation subsequently waned. Spencer died in Brighton, England, on December 8.

Basic Ideas

Spencer's scientific and empirical method exhibits affinities with Auguste Comte's positivism. Central to his approach was the synthetic practice of deriving fundamental principles from disparate phenomena in many sciences and then demonstrating how the principles of one science interact with and affect the other fields of inquiry. Using Charles Darwin's evolutionary theory, Spencer thus constructed a general account of human progress that came to be known as "Social Darwinism."

For Spencer, natural progress was the necessary process of evolution from simple to more complex and heterogeneous forms, but this was not, he insisted, teleological or purpose-driven. Spencer coined the phrase "survival of the fittest," which Darwin employed in later editions of On the Origin of Species (first published in 1859), but neither thinker addressed the ambiguity (that is, are individuals, groups, or species the relevant unit of selection?) and near tautology of this phrase ("fitness" is often defined in terms of survival, so that survival of the fittest is akin to saying survival of that which survives the best). Although Darwin admired Spencer, the two disagreed on several aspects of evolutionary theory including the possible inheritance of acquired characteristics.

Human life is on a continuum with the evolutionary unfolding of the natural world, and, because progress toward complexity and individuation are necessary, human nature cannot be thought of as stable and unchanging. Rather, humans are collections of instincts and sentiments that must continually adapt to the changing societal context. Society is likewise an extension of the organic human body and nature. Finally Spencer argued that society too expresses evolutionary laws or principles that can serve as the foundation of morality and law. Evolutionary science, then, serves as the base of his comprehensive natural law philosophy of morality and politics and explains how The Principles of Biology (1864, 1867) flows naturally into the conclusions reached later in The Principles of Sociology (1882, 1898) and The Principles of Ethics (1892).

Spencer believed that modern evolutionary science had weakened traditional beliefs in ethics as a supernatural code of divine commandments. Science could fill this ethical vacuum left by religion, by providing the principles from which to deduce a naturalistic ethics of rational egoism. Science ought, therefore, to command the dominant position in education, displacing art and the humanities (1861). Spencer reconciled the apparent contradiction between his naturalized, a-teleological laws of society and morality, on one hand, and human freedom and purpose, on the other, by arguing that it is precisely individual freedom that alone can guarantee continued evolutionary progress. Indeed for Spencer, individual liberty is primary and relations with others are largely contractual, made from the realization that social life is necessary to reach certain individual goals.

Furthermore, in a move that is similar to John Stuart Mill and the logical commitment implied in Alan Gewirth's "principle of generic consistency," Spencer claimed that morality contains a "law of equal freedom." This law states that individuals must recognize the individuality of others and curtail their freedom so as not to infringe on the freedom of others. This sort of minimalist, contractual view of society underpins his laissez faire political philosophy from Social Statics (1851) to Man versus the State (1884). The state's function is condensed to dispensing justice, which amounts to protecting individual rights. These rights follow naturally from the law of equal freedom, because the recognition of others' individuality immediately implies the duty to recognize their rights.

Decline and Continuing Influence

Spencer's decline can be attributed to several inconsistencies in his work, growing social unease with founding society on evolution, social rejection of his strongly libertarian principles, and the demise of any residual scientific belief in the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Yet some of Spencer's voluminous thoughts continue to be of influence. His work on intellectual and physical education has left deep imprints on modern curricula. His political thought, especially his defense of natural rights, has been invoked by libertarian philosophers such as Robert Nozick. And Spencer's idea that nature shows a progressive trend toward increased complexity of organization has been revived by some biologists and social theorists. Robert Wright (2000) argues that evolution tends to produce ever more complex forms of life, because cooperation through expanded forms of organization produces selective advantages. In human social evolution, this explains the move from primitive hunting-gathering tribes to large states and finally to global systems. New technologies—such as the agricultural production of food or the transmission of information through computer networks—make possible wider forms of social cooperation.

The evolutionary theorist Stephen Jay Gould (1989) nevertheless rejected Spencer's idea of progressive evolution and argued instead that the history of life is a random process that could have turned out differently. By contrast paleobiologist Simon Conway Morris (2003) sees evidence for evolutionary patterns inclined to produce intelligent life. If Gould is right, then the human sense of purpose has no ontological support. If Conway Morris is right, human purposefulness might fulfil an end inherent in the universe from the beginning. The fundamental issue—with deep moral and religious implications—is whether the universe is pointless or purposeful. This was also the central tension underlying Spencer's lifelong attempts to bridge the natural and the human worlds.


SEE ALSO Evolutionary Ethics; Scientific Ethics; Social Darwinism.


Conway Morris, Simon. (2003). Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Contra Gould, Morris argues that the historical course of evolution is strongly selection-constrained and thus progress toward intelligent beings is inevitable.

Gould, Stephen Jay. (1989). Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. New York: W.W. Norton. Details the science behind different interpretations of the Burgess Shale formation in order to put forward his notion of biological contingency or the non-directedness of life's history, namely, that small initial differences could have made subsequent evolution radically different.

Spencer, Herbert. (1851). Social Statics. London: Chapman. Argues that civilization is a natural, continual process of humans adapting to changing circumstances and that progress toward perfection is the same as the achievement of a perfect adaptation to surroundings.

Spencer, Herbert. (1861). Education: Intellectual, Moral, and Physical. London: Williams and Norgate. Outlines Spencer's educational theory.

Spencer, Herbert. (1862–1893). A System of Synthetic Philosophy. 10 vols. London: Williams and Norgate. Contains all of Spencer's major works, including The Principles of Psychology (1855), First Principles (1862), The Principles of Biology (1864, 1867), The Principles of Sociology (1882, 1898), and The Principles of Ethics (1892).

Spencer, Herbert. (1884). Man versus the State. London: Williams and Norgate. Champions a laissez-faire state and free market toward the ultimate goals of freedom, peace, and justice.

Wright, Robert. (2000). Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny. New York: Pantheon. Uses game theory to argue that cultural evolution leads to higher levels of complexity just as biological evolution does.