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Herbert Spencer (1820-1903)

Herbert Spencer
Born (1820-Template:MONTHNUMBER-27)27 1820
Derby, England
Died 8 1903(1903-Template:MONTHNUMBER-08) (aged 83)
Brighton, England
Nationality English
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
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Signature 128px

Herbert Spencer (27 April 1820 - 8 December 1903) was an English philosopher, biologist, 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. He was "an enthusiastic exponent of evolution" and even "wrote about evolution before Darwin did."[1] As a polymath, he contributed to a wide range of subjects, including ethics, religion, anthropology, economics, political theory, philosophy, 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."[2] Spencer was "the single most famous European intellectual in the closing decades of the nineteenth century"[3][4] but his influence declined sharply after 1900; "Who now reads Spencer?" asked Talcott Parsons in 1937.[5]

Spencer is best known for coining the concept "survival of the fittest", which he did in Principles of Biology (1864), after reading Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species.[6] This term strongly suggests natural selection, yet as Spencer extended evolution into realms of sociology and ethics, he also made use of Lamarckism.[1]


by Hugh Samuel Roger Elliot [7]

Youth and family[]

Spencer was born in Derby on 27 April 1820. The Spencer family had been settled for several centuries in the parish of Kirk Ireton in Derbyshire. All Spencer's four grandparents were among the early followers of John Wesley. His paternal grandfather, Matthew Spencer, settled in Derby as a schoolmaster; he had six sons, and on his death left his property in Kirk Ireton, consisting of a few cottages and two fields, to his eldest son, William George Spencer, the father of Herbert Spencer.

George Spencer, as he was commonly called to distinguish him from his youngest brother, who was also William, was a man of extremely strong individuality and advanced social and religious views. In 1819 he married Harriet Holmes, the only daughter of a plumber and glazier in Derby. On her mother's side a dash of Huguenot and Hussite blood was traceable. Of this, however, she showed little trace in her character, which was patient, gentle, and conforming. Neither in intellect nor in force of character was she able to cope with her somewhat overbearing husband, and the marriage was not a happy one.

Herbert was the eldest and only surviving child. 4 brothers and 4 sisters succeeded him (Duncan), but all died within a few days of their birth, with the exception of one sister, Louisa, who lived for nearly 3 years.

His father's energies were taken up with teaching, and Herbert's early education was somewhat neglected. Until the age of 13 he lived at Derby, with an interlude of 3 years in the neighbourhood of Nottingham; he attended a day school, but was particularly backward in Latin, Greek, and the other usual subjects of instruction.

On the other hand, in natural history, in physics, and in miscellaneous information of all kinds he was advanced for his age. He acquired some knowledge of science from the literature circulated by the Derby Philosophical Society, of which his father was honorary secretary. His father did everything to encourage him in the cultivation of his natural tastes for science and observation of nature.

At 13 he was sent to Hinton Charterhouse, near Bath, to live with his uncle, Thomas Spencer, an advanced radical and a leader of various social movements, such as temperance reform. From his strict regime the lad quickly ran away, walking to Derby in 3 days (48 miles the first day, 47 the next, and about 20 the third day), with little food and no sleep. He was sent back to his uncle, however, and for 3 years his education was carried on at Hinton Charterhouse with greater success.

===Early career At 16 he returned to Derby, with his education completed. A year later he commenced his career as assistant to a schoolmaster at Derby. After some 3 months, however, his uncle William obtained for him a post under (Sir) Charles Fox, resident engineer of part of the London and Birmingham railway. He was thus definitely launched in 1837 on the career of civil engineer, a profession which was recognised as well suited to him.

Fox soon perceived his capacities, and in less than a year he was promoted to a better post on the Birmingham and Gloucester railway (now absorbed by the Midland railway), with headquarters at Worcester. Capt. Moorsom, the engineer-in-chief, appointed him his private secretary for a few months. Spencer continued to work on the construction of the line till its completion in 1841, when his services were no longer required and he was discharged. "Got the sack — very glad" was the entry in his diary; and he refused a permanent appointment in the locomotive service, without asking what it was.

During this period of a little over 3 years' engineering his interest had centred largely on geometrical problems, which fill his letters to his father. He also published a few short articles in a technical newspaper, and made 1 or 2 inventions of considerable ingenuity, such as a velocimeter for determining velocities in the trials of engines.

Good-looking in appearance, but with brusque and unpolished manners, he was on the whole liked by his companions; but was probably somewhat hampered in promotion by his excessive self-assertiveness and tendency to argue with his chiefs.

After his discharge Spencer returned to Derby, and a period of miscellaneous speculation and activity commenced: natural history, mechanical inventions, phrenology, modelling, all occupied his attention. The following year his first serious literary attempt took the form of a series of letters to the Nonconformist, an organ of the advanced dissenters. There he urged the limitations of the functions of the State and displayed the extreme individualism which characterised the whole of his social writings in after life.

The same year he plunged into active politics, becoming associated with the "complete suffrage movement," which was closely connected with the chartist agitation, and was honorary secretary of the Derby branch. In 1843 he was sanguine enough to republish his letters to the Nonconformist as a pamphlet entitled The Proper Sphere of Government; but it attracted no attention, beyond a polite acknowledgment from Thomas Carlyle of a presentation copy.

One or two articles sent to reviews were refused ; but at last, in 1844, Spencer was selected as sub-editor to a newspaper called the Pilot, which was at that time being established in Birmingham as organ of the complete suffrage movement. In the anti-corn-law agitation, the anti-slavery agitation, and that for the separation of church and state he took an active part, and was described by one of his friends as "radical all over."

The insecurity of the Pilot and some of its promoters' dislike of his anti-religious views, which were becoming manifest, made him welcome an opportunity of returning to his old profession. For the next 2 years Spencer was engaged in one capacity or other in the work of railway construction. The railway mania was at its height. He continued to improve his position with his colleaguess; but with the failure of some of his chief's schemes his appointment was again brought to an end — this time permanently — through no fault of his own.

In 1846-1847 he was occupied with various mechanical inventions and projects, including one for a sort of flying machine; but only on one of them did he succeed in making a little money — a binding-pin for binding together loose sheets of music or printed periodicals.

The Economist[]

At last the nomadic period of his life came to an end, when in 1848 he was appointed sub-editor of the Economist at a salary of 100 guineas a year, with free lodgings and attendance. The Economist was the property of James Wilson, M.P. (1805-60), who had under his own editorship brought it to a high degree of prosperity.

The years during which Spencer was at the Economist were fruitful in laying the foundations of many of the friendships which profoundly affected his later life. John Chapman carried on a publishing business just opposite the Economist office in the Strand, and through Chapman's soirees Spencer made many acquaintances. Among these was George Henry Lewes, first met in the spring of 1850, who afterwards became one of his most intimate friends. Among them also was Miss Mary Ann or Marian Evans, then chiefly known as the translator of Strauss, and afterwards famous as "George Eliot."

By Lewes, Spencer was introduced to Carlyle; but their temperaments were too much opposed to permit the acquaintanceship to endure. With "George Eliot" Spencer's relations were so intimate as to excite gossip about the likelihood of their marriage. Though in the abstract he was very desirous of marrying, and regarded "George Eliot" "as the most admirable woman, mentally, I ever met," yet he did not embark upon a suit which, in all probability, would have been successful. Apparently the absence of personal beauty restrained the growth of his affection Autobiography ii. 445).

Another acquaintance, made in 1852, was that of Thomas Henry Huxley, still quite unknown. By Huxley he was introduced the following year to Tyndall, the physicist; and with both Huxley and Tyndall there commenced friendships which ripened into close friendship.

The comparative liberty which Spencer's duties at the 'Economist' office afforded gave him an opportunity of writing his first book, Social Statics; or, The conditions essential to human happiness specified, and the first of them developed. The main object of this work, which appeared at the beginning of 1851, was to set forth the doctrine that "every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man."

From this general principle he deduced the public claims to freedom of speech, to property, &c. He went so far as to assert the right of the citizen to refuse to pay taxes, if he surrendered the advantages of protection by the state. The functions of the state were limited solely to the performance of police duties at home, and to protection against foreign aggression by the maintenance of an army and navy. National education, poor laws, sanitary supervision are all explicitly condemned, as well as every other branch of state activity that is not included in the above formula.

Social Statics was unexpectedly successful. The extreme individualism which characterised it fitted in well with the views of the philosophical radicals and the Manchester school, then reaching the height of their influence.

He was asked by Lewes, who was literary editor of a radical paper called the Leader, to contribute articles ; and wrote several anonymously which have since been republished in his essays. Most important of these was that on the "Development Hypothesis" in March 1852, in which the theory of organic evolution was defended (7 years prior to the publication of the Origin of Species). For the Westminster Review, now in the hands of Chapman, he elaborated a "Theory of Population" which adumbrated one of the doctrines subsequently embodied in the Principles of Biology. Relations were also established with the British Quarterly Review and the North British Review.

In 1853 his uncle Thomas Spencer died, leaving Herbert Spencer a little over 500l. With this sum in hand, and the literary connections he had formed, he felt he could safely sever his connection with the Economist, and in July of that year he brought his engagement to an end.

Principles of Psychlogy[]

Increased freedom enabled Spencer to cultivate friends, already made, who lived in the country. Mr. and Mrs. Richard Potter, of Standish House, on the Cotswold Hills, and Mr. Octavius Smith, of Ardtomish in Argyllshire, where Spencer paid a long series of visits, thenceforth furnished him with his chief pleasures and holidays.

A visit to Switzerland at this time, involving physical over-exertion, produced cardiac disturbances of disastrous effect hereafter.

Further articles were written for reviews on diverse subjects before Spencer again gathered his energies for another book — The Principles of Psychology, published in 1855. To this work Spencer gave astonishingly little preparation. He was never a large reader, and rarely read through a serious book. He had read 1 or 2 books, like Lewes's Biographical History of Philosophy, which chanced to come his way; but neither then nor afterwards did he ever read the philosophical classics; and he was fond of relating how he had always thrown down Kant with disgust on finding he disagreed with the first 2 or 3 pages.

The Principles of Psychology exhibits the results of this habit ; for it had little connection with previous psychological results, but was an independent excursion into an almost new line of inquiry. Later editions of this book formed an integral portion of Spencer's Philosophy, which is described below.

Naturally the sale was small. Richard Holt Hutton attacked it in an article entitled "Modern Atheism" in the National Review, a quarterly organ of the unitarians, and the anti-religious tone of the book caused much adverse criticism.

During the writing of The Principles of Psychology Spencer's health finally gave way. While engaged upon it, he stayed at various country places, and the continuous hard work, unrelieved by society, caused a nervous breakdown from which he never afterwards recovered. The disorder took the form of a peculiar sensation in the head, which came on when he tried to think, as a result of cerebral congestion, and led to inveterate insomnia.

For 18 months he travelled in various country places, avoiding all kinds of work and excitement, spending some of his time in fishing. At length it became necessary for him to earn money ; and, though little improved, he returned to London at the end of 1856, and wrote the article on "Progress: Its law and cause' for the Westminster Review, foreshadowing 1 of the doctrines of First Principles. Other articles followed: and although his health remained disorganised, he was able with frequent breaks to carry on a certain amount of work.

First Principles and Education[]

It was in 1857 that the idea of writing a system of philosophy first occurred to Spencer. In that year he was engaged in revising his essays to be re-published in a single volume; and the successive reading of the scattered ideas embodied in them revealed to him a marked unity of principle. They all adopted a naturalistic interpretation of phenomena, they were nearly all founded upon the doctrine of evolution.

In the early days of 1858 he drew up a plan for a system of philosophy in which these fundamental principles were to be set forth, and their applications traced. To obtain the necessary leisure, he endeavoured to obtain various official posts, with the help of strong testimonials from John Stuart Mill and others; but finding his efforts fruitless, he at length hit upon the plan of issuing the work by subscription.

In 1860 the program of the Philosophy was published, and subscriptions invited at the rate of 10s. a year for four quarterly instalments. With the help of friends a strong backing of weighty names was secured, and over 1,400 subscribers were registered in England; while in America Professor E.L. Youmans helped to obtain about 200 more.

With this arrangement Spencer commenced to write First Principles; but he soon found difficulties in his way. A nervous breakdown involved a delay of a month or 2 in the issue of the initial installment. Repetition of these attacks before long caused him to abandon all attempt to keep regular intervals between the issues. Subscribers moreover did not pay up as well as was hoped; but the death of his uncle William Spencer, bringing a legacy, saved the situation.

The book was at last completed in 1862. It was received with little attention; the few notices were mainly devoted to adverse criticism of the metaphysical portion.

During the writing of' First Principles Spencer collected together 4 essays written for reviews, to form the 4 chapters of his book on Education, of which the first edition appeared in 1861. This famous work, now translated into all the chief languages of the world and into many of the minor languages such as Arabic and Mohawk, strongly urged the claims of science, both as intrinsically the most useful knowledge, and as the best mental discipline. The method of education advocated resembles that of Pestalozzi in aiming at a natural development of the intelligence, and creating pleasurable interest. The child is to be trained, not by the commands and prohibitions of its parents, enforced by punishments, but by giving it the greatest possible amount of freedom, and allowing the natural consequences of wrong actions to be felt by it, without parental interference.

The Education has had an enormous influence, and is still recognised as a leading text-book.

Principles of Biology[]

The 2 years following the publication of First Principles were devoted to the first volume of the Principles of Biology, published in 1864. Since Spencer had not a specialist's knowledge of biology, he arranged with his friends Huxley and Sir Joseph Hooker to read the proofs. The publication evoked little notice: a fate which likewise befell a second series of Essays, which he re-published the previous year.

Other occupations of 1864 were the essay on the Classification of the Sciences, published as a separate brochure, to which was appended "Reasons for dissenting from the Philosophy of M. Comte." Spencer's branched classification undoubtedly represents a great advance on the linear classification of the older philosopher.

The 2nd volume of the Biology was commenced immediately on the conclusion of the 1st, and published in 1867. But before it was completed, Spencer's financial position obliged him to give subscribers notice of cessation. The diminution in the number of subscribers, and the difficulty of collecting their subscriptions, together with the fact that he had now to give support to his aged father, rendered the continuance of the issues impossible.

In vain did John Stuart Mill offer to indemnify his publishers against possible future losses. A movement was set on foot by Mill, Huxley, Tyndall, Busk, and Lubbock (now Lord Avebury) for obtaining subscribers for a large number of extra copies; but the death of Spencer's father in 1866 greatly improved his position, and enabled him to continue the issues without the help of friends.

Already, however, his vehement adherent Youmans had been active in America, with the result that Spencer's admirers in that continent presented him with a valuable gold watch, and invested 7,000 dollars in his name in public securities, so as to deprive him of the option of refusal.

The 2nd volume of the Principles of Biology was not sent round to the critical journals, and was therefore ignored by the press. But Spencer's name was by this time widely known. He was a member of the celebrated x club, to which Huxley, Tyndall, and other of his friends belonged. In 1866 he was, in common with most of the other leading evolutionists, an active member of the Jamaica committee for the prosecution of Governor Eyre.

The death of his father revived his inventive faculties; and he invented a new kind of invalid bed which obtained the approval of medical men. In 1866, for the first time, he fixed upon a settled abode at a boarding-house in Queen's Gardens, Lancaster Gate, with a room in the vicinity to serve as a study.


In appearance Spencer betokened nothing of his years of invalidism. He was 5 ft. 10 in. in height, of almost ruddy complexion, but thin and spare. His face with unwrinkled forehead showed no effects of his long life of thought, and his walk and general bearing were vigorous. Naturally of a robust constitution, he never lost a tooth, and his eyes were so strong throughout life that he never had to wear spectacles for reading. The damage to his nervous system was displayed by his irritability in later life, his morbid fear of misrepresentation, and various eccentricities which gave rise to many false and exaggerated stories. Among the peculiarities which nervous invalidism wrought in him was the use of ear-stoppers, with which he closed his ears when an exciting conversation to which he was listening threatened him with a sleepless night. The extreme originality of mind and contempt of authority, the habit of driving principles to their minutest applications, naturally gave rise to eccentricities, but these toned down in later life.

Although predominantly intellectual, he showed an emotional side, especially in his strong affection for his father. Throughout the greater part of his life he was obsessed by the execution of the Synthetic Philosophy, which absorbed the main intellectual and emotional powers of his mind. One of his least pleasant traits was the tendency to assert his own priority in scientific and philosophic ideas. The claim was never made unjustly, but the animosity with which he defended it showed, as in the case of Newton, that the mere advancement of knowledge was not his sole end. He persistently declined all honours, academic or otherwise. The list of those offered is detailed in Duncan's Life (Appendix D), but it would undoubtedly have been much longer had not his rule of refusing them become generally known.

System of Synthetic Philosophy[]

Henceforward Spencer's life becomes a mere record of the publication of his books. He was elected a member of the Athenaeum Club by the committee in 1868, and went there regularly in the afternoons to play billiards and see his friends. Ill-health negatived any extended social relationships, as well as every other mode of activity beyond that of completing the Synthetic Philosophy.

Every autumn there was a visit to Scotland. Once he made a tour in Italy, once in Switzerland, once in the Riviera, once in Egypt. Signs of public appreciation were soon manifest ; the first in 1871 when he was offered the lord rectorship of St. Andrews University. But neither this nor any other honour could he be induced to accept.

His works, which had hitherto been a dead loss, began to pay; and since he had adopted the principle of publishing on commission, he obtained the full benefit of their sale.

Spencer's first business on concluding the Biology was to re-cast First Principles, in the first edition of which he now recognised sundry imperfections. He then turned his attention to the Principles of Psychology, the next portion of the 'Philosophy.' By adding various divisions he brought his previously published work on Psychology into line with the plan of the rest of the 'philosophy.' The first volume was published in 1870, and the second in 1872.

The next step was to deal with The Principles of Sociology. As early as 1867 Spencer had recognised that it would be necessary for him to collect large masses of facts on which to found his sociological generalisations. Accordingly, he secured the services of Mr. David Duncan (afterwards his biographer) to read books of travel and accounts of primitive peoples, selecting all statements of sociological significance, and classifying them according to a plan drawn up by Spencer. 2 other gentlemen, Mr. James Collier and Dr. Richard Scheppig, were subsequently engaged for the same purpose; and Spencer, thinking the collections of facts might be useful to other social inquirers besides himself, decided to publish them. Financially the scheme was a complete failure; but he persisted, in spite of heavy losses, and by 1881 the Descriptive Sociology had reached 8 volumes, when its issue was suspended, not to be revived till after Spencer's death.

One other work published in 1873 was the Study of Sociology. Spencer had assisted his friend Youmans to found the International Scientific Series, and found himself now compelled to yield to Youmans' pressure to contribute a volume to it himself. The Study of Sociology was devoted to setting forth the difficulties, objective and subjective, that confront the student of the social science. The many varieties of bias which are likely to perturb his judgment were discussed in full. The book, being of a comparatively popular character, was immensely successful; and the preliminary publication of its chapters in the Contemporary Review in England and the Popular Science Monthly in America did much to assist the sale of Spencer's works.

Spencer's next task was the preparation of the 1st volume of the Principles of Sociology, published in 1877. Hitherto the serial method of publication had been adhered to, but with the conclusion of this volume Spencer sent to subscribers a notice of discontinuance, determining in future to publish the volumes as they were completed.

He began the 2nd volume of the Principles of Sociology, but finding his health still very precarious abandoned it to write the Data of Ethics. Any form of continuous application brought on symptoms due to cerebral congestion, and many expedients were tried to prevent them. He would dictate to his secretary while rowing on the Serpentine or playing games of racquets. Dictating for 20 minutes or so at a time, he then broke off to row or play vigorously and relieve the brain. When able to do nothing else he would dictate his autobiography; and the bulkiness of that work is a concrete result of Spencer's efforts to kill time.

The Data of Ethics, which subsequently formed part I of the Principles of Ethics, was published in 1879 ; and Ceremonial Institutions, the first instalment of the 2nd volume of the Principles of Sociology, was published shortly afterwards. Having set forth the foundations of his views on ethics, Spencer felt at liberty to revert to the original order of his philosophy, and conclude the 2nd volume of the Sociology; and Political Institutions was published in 1882.

The foundation in the same year, in conjunction with Mr. Frederic Harrison, Mr. John Morley, and others less known, of an Anti-aggression League, in opposition to aggressive war, greatly over-taxed Spencer's energies. In 1882 he paid a visit to America, resisting the numerous attempts to fete him, save in one instance where a dinner in his honour was given in New York. Thenceforward the decline in health proceeded steadily.

In 1884 appeared 4 articles from the Contemporary Review, now bound together to form The Man versus The State. Spencer had been watching with alarm the gradual encroachment of the state upon the liberty of the individual, and its ever-widening sphere of activity. The purpose of these essays was to propose a new creed for liberals — the limitation of state-functions to protection against foreign aggression and the maintenance of justice at home.

He refused an invitation to become parliamentary candidate for Leicester in 1884. Ecclesiastical Institutions, with which the 3rd volume of 'The Principles of Sociology' opens, was published in 1885. Thereafter Spencer once again turned to the Principles of Ethics, in order to elaborate his final beliefs on the functions of government in Justice. From Justice he passed on to the other divisions of the Principles of Ethics, and published the whole of that work before reverting to the final volume of the Sociology.

In 1889 he took a house in Avenue Road, St. John's Wood, in conjunction with three maiden ladies. For a few years the arrangement worked well; but, after a time, disputes arose; and in 1898 he moved to 5 Percival Terrace, Brighton, where he remained till his death. In 1896 the last volume of The Principles of Sociology was published, and with it the Synthetic Philosophy was completed.

Congratulations poured in from all quarters; among others an influentially signed document, asking permission to employ an artist to take his portrait for presentation to one of the national collections. The portrait was ultimately painted by Sir Hubert von Herkomer.

Last years[]

But Spencer could not rest, now that his work was completed. 2 further books, entitled Various Fragments and Facts and Comments were issued before his death, each consisting of short essays on a great variety of subjects.

The latter work attracted special attention on account of the vehement language with which Spencer denounced the policy of the Boer war. The increasing militarism which he believed he saw everywhere around him largely embittered his later years. Both this and the tendency to increase the functions of government were in close conflict with the social doctrines of his philosophy, which constituted Spencer's strongest sentiments.

The chronicle of the last years of his life shows that his nervous system was shattered beyond repair. Everywhere he was trying to correct misrepresentations of his views, or to maintain his priority in some theory or idea. Death at Brighton at the age of 83 on 8 December 1903 was a welcome relief from his sufferings.

He was cremated at Golder's Green, an address by Mr. Leonard (afterwards Lord) Courtney taking the place of a religious ceremony. The ashes were subsequently buried in Highgate cemetery. In his will he left the bulk of his property in trust for carrying on the publication of the Descriptive Sociology.


The following is a summary of his philosophical works : —

First Principles is divided into 2 parts, of which the 1st, or metaphysical part, is an attempt at a reconciliation between science and religion by postulating a belief in the "Unknowable," as the cause and origin of all phenomenal existence. The doctrine has found scarcely more favor on the side of science than it has on the side of religion, and may be regarded as the least important part of the philosophy. Part ii. sets forth the fundamental principles of the "Synthetic Philosophy," as Spencer has named his system. Defining the business of philosophy as the formulation of truths which hold good for all orders of phenomena, as distinct from those of the special sciences, which hold good only for limited departments, he founds his system upon the physical principles of the indestructibility of matter, and the continuity of motion, unified under the general heading of the Persistence of Force. From this is deduced the Uniformity of Law. Spencer then proceeds, in his attempt at the unification of knowledge, to seek for a law of the continuous redistribution of matter and motion, as comprising every department of the "Knowable." He finally reaches his famous law : — Evolution is an integration of matter and concomitant dissipation of motion; during which the matter passes from a relatively indefinite, incoherent homogeneity to a relatively definite, coherent heterogeneity; and during which the contained motion undergoes a parallel transformation. Evolution is supplemented by the reverse process of Dissolution ; and these formulas express the law of the entire cycle of changes passed through by every existence and at every instant, with no limitations of time or space. Evolution, however, tends ultimately to equilibrium, in which the incessant changes come to an end.

In The Principles of Biology Spencer applied the law of evolution to animate existence. He defined life in the same manner as in his Principles of Psychology. As factors of evolution he not only named natural selection, or (to use Spencer's own term) survival of the fittest, but he argued strongly in favour of the direct modification of organisms by the environmental action, and also in favour of the inheritance of functionally-produced modifications. In this latter belief he is at variance with the best, though not the unanimous, opinion of modern biologists. In the second volume he promulgated the interesting theory that the shapes of animals and plants are an expression of the environmental forces which act upon them. He sets forth also his well-known law of the antagonism between individuation and reproduction. His attempt to facilitate the comprehension of heredity by supposing the existence of 'constitutional units' (first named physiological units) has attracted wide attention, and is probably not very remote from the truth.

The Principles of Psychology was materialistic in its general point of view for, although Spencer emphatically affirmed the existence of mind and its total distinction from matter, yet his efforts were devoted to interpreting mental manifestations by reference to physical and chemical laws. He defined life as "the continuous adjustment of internal relations to external relations" and argued that the degree of life was proportional to the degree of correspondence between these two sets of relations. The development of memory, instinct, &c., was explained on the very questionable hypothesis that the results upon an organism of the direct action of the environment could be transmitted to its descendants. But although this attempted explanation cannot stand, it is remarkable that an evolutionary basis is given to the whole work, of which the 1st edition had appeared 4 years before Darwin published his great book. In the analytical portions he attributes all acts of intelligence to the variously compounded consciousnesses of relations of likeness and unlikeness. Finally he sets forth his famous "Universal Postulate" to the effect that the criterion of the truth of a proposition is the inconceivability of its negation. Opinion still differs as to the merits of many parts of this work. Doubtless much of the detail and some of the principles are erroneous; but much has become generally accepted; and in view of the state of knowledge at the time when it was written, it must be considered a masterpiece.

The Principles of Sociology begins by an exposition of the so-called "Ghost Theory," in which Spencer regards all primitive mythological beliefs as modified forms of ancestor-worship. In the part dealing with 'The Inductions of Sociology' he minutely draws the analogy between the social and physical organism. The remaining volumes of the work deal with ceremonial institutions, political institutions, ecclesiastical institutions, professional institutions, industrial institutions. The general result is to distinguish between two main types of society, the militant resting on a basis of status, and the industrial resting on a basis of contract.

The Principles of Ethics was considered by Spencer as the flower of the whole philosophy. His system is hedonistic, in so far as it regards happiness as the object to be attained; it is evolutionary, in so far as it represents that evolution is carrying us to a state in which happiness will far exceed what we now experience. The utilitarians are attacked on the ground that, in their enthusiasm for altruism, they attach insufficient importance to a rational egoism. In the second volume, part iv., 'Justice,' is Spencer's final and most philosophic statement of the duties of the state. As in his earliest book, he limits state functions to the maintenance of justice at home, and the repelling of aggression abroad. His formula of justice is stated by him in the words: "Every man is free to do that which he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man." Two further divisions indicate the duties of men towards one another, which are not, however, to be enforced by law.

The following is a list of the volumes published by Spencer: 1. 'Social Statics,' 1850; abridged and revised edition (together with 'The Man versus The State'), 1892. 2. 'The Principles of Psychology,' 1 vol. 1855; 2nd edit. vol. i. 1870, vol. ii. 1872; 4th edit. 1899. 3. 'Essays,' 1st series, 1857; 2nd series, 1863; 3rd series, 1874; American reprints of the first two series; final edit, (in three volumes) 1891. 4. 'Education,' 1861; cheap reprint, 1878. 5. 'First Principles,' 1862; 6th edit. 1900; 3rd impression, 1910. 'The Principles of Biology,' vol. i. 1864, vol. ii. 1867; revised and enlarged edit. vol. i. 1898, vol. iL 1899. 7. 'The Study of Sociology ('International Scientific Series'), 1873; library edit. 1880. 8. 'The Principles of Sociology,' vol. i. 1876; 3rd edit. 1885; part iv. 'Ceremonial Institutions,' 1879; part v. 'Political Institutions,' 1882; parts iv. and v. were subsequently bound together to form vol. ii. of 'The Principles of Sociology,' 1882; part vi. 'Ecclesiastical Institutions,' 1885; part vi. was subsequently bound up with two further divisions and issued as vol iii. of 'The Principles of Sociology' in 1896. 9. 'The Principles of Ethics': part i. 'The Data of Ethics,' 1879; new edit. 1906; part i. was afterwards bound up with two more divisions to form vol. i. of 'The Principles of Ethics,' 1892; part iv. 'Justice,' 1891; part iv. was similarly bound up subsequently with two more divisions and issued as vol. ii. of 'The Principles of Ethics' in 1893. 10. 'The Man versus The State,' 1884; 2nd edit, (bound together with 'Social Statics') 1892. 11. 'The Nature and Reality of Religion,' 1885. This work, published in America, embodied a controversy on the Positivist religion that had taken place between Spencer and Mr. Frederic Harrison. Owing to copyright difficulties raised by Mr. Harrison, Spencer suppressed the book soon after its publication. It was however reissued the same year without his knowledge under the title 'The Insuppressible Book.' 12. 'Various Fragments,' 1897; enlarged edit. 1900. One of these 'fragments,' entitled 'Against the Metric System' (1896), was reissued separately in 1904 with additions, under a provision in Spencer's will. 13. 'Facts and Comments,' 1902. 14. 'Autobiography,' 1904. Portions of various of these works are on sale separately. 'Education,' 'Man versus the State,' 'Social Statics,' and 'Selected Essays' have been issued in sixpenny editions by the RationaUst Press Association, while the trustees contemplate the issue of a complete popular edition of Spencer's 'Philosophy,' and have already published shilling editions of 'First Principles,' 2 vols., 'Education,' and 'The Data of Ethics.' In addition to the above list of works, Spencer issued during his lifetime eight instalments of the 'Descriptive Sociology,' viz.: No. 1, 'English,' 1873; No. 2, 'Ancient Mexicans, Central Americans, Chibchas, and Ancient Peruvians,' 1874; No. 3, 'Types of Lowest Races, Negritto Races, and Malayo-Polynesian Races,' 1874; No. 4, 'African Races,' 1875; No. 5, 'Asiatic Races,' 1876; No. 6, 'American Races,' 1878; No. 7, 'Hebrews and Phoenicians,' 1880; No. 8, 'French,' 1881. Since Spencer's death further instalments have been issued, and No. 9, 'Chinese,' and No. 10, 'Greeks: Hellenic Era,' appeared in 1910. The series is now in regular progress, the intention being to bring the number to some 24 parts. Spencer reissued his father's 'Inventional Geometry' with a preface in 1892; and he also published his father's 'System of Lucid Shorthand' in 1893

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 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 generalization of progressive development.' Chambers was associated with Chapman's salon and his work served as the unacknowledged template for the Synthetic Philosophy.


The first clear articulation of Spencer's evolutionary perspective occurred 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 generalization 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, applying to the stars and the galaxies as much as to biological organisms, and to human social organization 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.

This 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 generalized 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,[6] 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 recognized 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 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 evolutionary biology. One might broadly describe Spencer's sociology as socially Darwinistic (though strictly speaking he was a proponent of Lamarckism rather than Darwinism).

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 conceptualized 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 defense.

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 social science 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 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.


File:Herbert Spencer 4.jpg

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.

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." [8]

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.


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 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.

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 recognize 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[]

File:Herbert Spencer by John Bagnold Burgess.jpg

Portrait of Spencer by Burgess, 1871–72

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."[9] Spencer argued that the state was not an "essential" institution and that it would "decay" as voluntary market organization would replace the coercive aspects of the state.[10] He also argued that the individual had a "right to ignore the state."[11] 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, 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."[12]

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 still are 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.[13]

By the 1880's 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),[14] 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.[15]

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.[16]

While often caricatured as ultra-conservative, Spencer had opposed private property in land, claiming that each person has a latent claim to participate in the use of the earth. He was sympathetic to Georgism,[17] which also took such a view. He called himself "a radical feminist" and advocated the organization of voluntary labor unions as a bulwark against "exploitation by bosses", and favored an economy organized primarily in free worker co-operatives as a replacement for wage-labor.[18]

Social Darwinism[]

Spencer is sometimes credited for the Social Darwinist model that applied 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.

According to a review by Geoffrey M. Hodgson, the term "social Darwinism" was first used in an English-language academic journal in an 1895 book review by the Harvard economist Frank Taussig (it had been used as early as 1877 in Europe). Hodgson's data indicates that term was only used 21 times before 1931. The first time Spencer was associated with "social Darwinism" was in a 1937 book review by Leo Rogin.[19]

Spencer's reputation as a Social Darwinist can be largely traced to Richard Hofstadter's book Social Darwinism in American Thought 1860–1915, "a hostile critique of Spencer's work, published in 1944, [which] sold in large numbers and was very influential, especially in academic circles. It claimed that Spencer had used evolution to justify economic and social inequality, and to support a political stance of extreme conservatism, which led, amongst other things, to the eugenics movement. In simple terms, it is as if Spencer's phrase, 'the survival of the fittest,' had been claimed by him as the basis of a political doctrine."[2] While Hofstadter is generally credited with popularizing the term in his book "Social Darwinism in American Life" it was Talcott Parsons who paved the way for Hofstadter. In his hugely influential book The Structure of Social Action (1937) Parsons wrote that "Spencer is dead" and then put the question: "Who killed him and how?".[20] Hodgson finds that Parsons "extended the usage of 'Social Darwinism' from its previous ideological associations to anyone who believed in 'the application of Darwinian concepts of variation and selection to social evolution'. But it is not clear whom he had in mind."[21]

Use of the term skyrocketed after Hofstader's book was published in 1944, and Hofstader is frequently cited in the secondary literature as an authoritative account of the Synthetic Philosophy. Princeton University economist Tim Leonard (2009) has argued, in the article Origins of the Myth of Social Darwinism, that Hofstadter's influential characterization of Spencer is flawed.[22] According to Roderick Long, Leonard argues that "Hofstadter is guilty of distorting Spencer's free market views and smearing them with the taint of racist Darwinian collectivism."[2][23] Leonard suggests that, through constant repetition, Hofstadter's Spencer has taken on a life of its own, his views and arguments represented by the same few passages, usually cited not directly from the source but from Hofstadter's rather selective quotations. While Spencer did advocate "survival of the fittest" in the competition among men, Leonard emphasizes that it is inaccurate to call Spencer a Social Darwinist, because he actually held Lamarckian views: he believed that parents acquire traits through voluntary exertion and then pass them on to their progeny.[24] This is understandable as the book in which he expressed this viewpoint, Social Statics was published in 1851, 8 years before The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin.

The claim that Spencer was a Social Darwinist might have its origin in a flawed understanding 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. Furthermore, Spencer viewed charity and altruism positively, as he believed in voluntary association and informal care as opposed to using government machinery.[25]

Focusing on the form as well as the content of Spencer's "Synthetic Philosophy", it has recently been identified as the paradigmatic case of "Social Darwinism", understood as a politically motivated metaphysic very different in both form and motivation from Darwinist science.[26]


Several portraits of Spencer are in existence. That by Sir Hubert von Herkomer, painted when Spencer was seventy-seven and had just completed the 'Synthetic Philosophy,' is at Edinburgh in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. The portrait by J. B. Burgess, painted in 1872, hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London, while the copy of it made by J. Hanson Walker is in the Public Library of Derby. In the Derby Museum there is a plaster cast of his hands, and several relics. The marble bust made by Sir Edgar Boehm in 1884 is in the National Portrait Gallery. A bronze bust by E. Onslow Ford was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1897. Mrs. Meinertzhagen owns a portrait painted by Miss Alice Grant in the last year of Spencer's life, mainly from photographs taken in 1898. A cartoon portrait by ’C. G.' appeared in 'Vanity Fair' in 1879.


Spencer's place in the history of thought must be ranked high. His influence in the latter half of the 19th century was immense : indeed it has so woven itself into our modern methods of thinking that its driving and revolutionary energy is nearly spent, and there is little likelihood of its being hereafter renewed. It was the best synthesis of the knowledge of his times; and by that very fact was from the beginning destined to be replaced and to lose much of its utility when new branches of knowledge were opened up. The central doctrines of the philosophy were, in its social side, individualism and opposition to war ; on its scientific side, evolution and the explanation of phenomena from the materialistic standpoint. It has been said that the advancement of knowledge depends mainly on interrogating nature in the right way. Spencer may be said to have nearly always asked nature the right questions ; but not infrequently his answers to the questions were wrong. He concentrated the attention of mankind on the problems of fundamental importance. The main deficiency of his reasoning was a too free use of the deductive method, more especially in his biological and sociological writings, where this method is always attended by grave dangers. Huxley correctly singled out Spencer's weakness when he laughingly said that Spencer's definition of a tragedy was the spectacle of a deduction killed by a fact.

Spencer's fame extended far throughout the world. In France, Russia, and other European nations he was widely studied. In America his books had a very large circulation, and his fame was certainly not less than in England. During the awakening of Japan, he was one of the authors most studied by the young Japanese ; and probably his opinion was held in higher esteem than that of any other foreign writer whatever. His works were also held in high esteem by the Indian nationalists ; and, shortly after his death, one of them, Mr. Shyamaji Krishna varma, founded a 'Herbert Spencer Lectureship' at Oxford University, by which a sum of not less than 20l. a year was to be paid to the annually appointed lecturer.

General influence[]

File:Herbert Spencer by John McLure Hamilton.jpg

Portrait of Spencer by Hamilton, ca. 1895

While most philosophers fail to achieve much of a following outside the academy of their professional peers, by the 1870's and 1880's 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 authorized 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."[27] The aspect of his thought that emphasized 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.[28] 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.[29]

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",[30] and the historian Richard Hofstadter called him "the metaphysician of the homemade intellectual, and the prophet of the cracker-barrel agnostic."[31] 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,[32] as well as a still highly negative estimate.[26]

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, labeled Spencer a "conservative Anarchist."[33]

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.[34] 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.[35] He also corresponded with Kaneko Kentaro, warning him of the dangers of imperialism.[36] 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.[37]

Influence on literature[]

Spencer also exerted a great influence on 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's aim was 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 it is the writer's ideal "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 also had an influence on literature, as many novelists and short story authors came to address his ideas in their work. George Eliot, Leo Tolstoy, Thomas Hardy, 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 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.


  • Papers of Herbert Spencer in Senate House Library, University of London
  • "On The Proper Sphere of Government" (1842)
  • Social Statics: or, The Conditions Essential to Human Happiness Specified, and the First of Them Developed (1851)
  • "A Theory of Population" (1852)
  • Principles of Psychology (1855), first edition, issued in 1 volume
  • Education (1861)
  • System of Synthetic Philosophy, in 10 volumes
    • First Principles ISBN 0-89875-795-9 (1862)
    • Principles of Biology (1864, 1867; revised & enlarged 1898), in 2 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 2 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 3 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 2 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.,M2.

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)

Philosophers' critiques[]

By Spencer[]


See also[]

  • Auberon Herbert
  • Classical liberalism
  • Cultural evolution
  • Eugenics
  • Liberalism
  • Contributions to liberal theory
  • Libertarianism
  • "Mold of the Earth" (a story by Bolesław Prus, inspired by a concept of Spencer's)
  • Pharaoh (a novel by Bolesław Prus, partly inspired by a concept of Spencer's)
  • Scientism and positivism


  1. 1.0 1.1 Riggenbach, Jeff (2011-04-24) The Real William Graham Sumner, Mises Institute
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Richards, Peter (2010-11-04) Herbert Spencer: Social Darwinist or Libertarian Prophet?, Mises Institute
  3. Thomas Eriksen and FinnNielsen, A history of anthropology (2001) p. 37
  4. "Spencer became the most famous philosopher of his time," says Henry L. Tischler, Introduction to Sociology (2010) p. 12
  5. 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).
  6. 6.0 6.1 "Letter 5145 – Darwin, C. R. to Wallace, A. R., 5 July (1866)". Darwin Correspondence Project. Retrieved 2010-01-12.
     Maurice E. Stucke. "Better Competition Advocacy" (PDF). Retrieved 2007-08-29. "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.""
  7. Hugh Samuel Roger Elliot, "Herbert Spencer, Dictionary of National Biography supplement 1912. Wikisource, Web, June 29, 2017.
  8. "The Origin and Function of Music" 1857
  9. Doherty, Brian, Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement, p. 246.
  10. Stringham, Edward. Anarchy and the Law. Transaction Publishers, 2007. p. 387.
  11. Stringham, Edward. Anarchy and the Law. Transaction Publishers, 2007. p. 388.
  12. Herbert Spencer, Facts and comments, p. 126.
  13. Social Statics (1851), pp. 42, 307.
  14. The Man vs the State, 1884 at the Constitution Society
  15. Ronald F. Cooney, "Herbert Spencer: Apostle of Liberty" Freeman (January 1973)online
  16. Chris Matthew Sciabarra, "Libertarianism", in International Encyclopedia of Economic Sociology, ed. Jens Beckert and Milan Zafirovski (2006), pp. 403–407 online.
  17. [1]
  19. Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (2004). "Social Darwinism in Anglophone Academic Journals: A Contribution to the History of the Term". Journal of Historical Sociology 17 (4): 428–463. Template:Citation error.
  20. Parsons (1937), p. 3.
  21. Hodgson (2004), pp. 441–442.
  22. Leonard, Thomas C. (2009). "Origins of the myth of social Darwinism: The ambiguous legacy of Richard Hofstadter's Social Darwinism in American Thought". Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 71 (1): 37–51. Template:Citation error.
  23. Long, Roderick (July/August 2004). "Herbert Spencer: Libertarian Prophet". The Freeman.
  24. Leonard (2009).
  25. Offer, John (2006). An Intellectual History of British Social Policy. Bristol: Policy Press. pp. 38, 142. ISBN 1-86134-530-5.
  26. 26.0 26.1 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. Template:Citation error. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Stewart" defined multiple times with different content
  27. James, William. "Herbert Spencer". The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. XCIV (1904), p. 104.
  28. Quoted in John Offer, Herbert Spencer: Critical Assessments (London: Routledge, 2004), p. 612.
  29. Robert G. Perrin, "Émile Durkheim's Division of Labor and the Shadow of Herbert Spencer," Sociological Quarterly 36#4, pp. 791–808.
  30. 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.
  31. Richard Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought (1944; Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), p. 32.
  32. Mark Francis, Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life (Newcastle, UK: Acumen Publishing, 2007).
  33. Plekhanov, Georgiĭ Valentinovich (1912), trans. Aveling, Eleanor Marx. Anarchism and Socialism, p. 143. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company. (See here.)
  34. Benjamin Schwartz, In Search of Wealth and Power (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1964).
  35. Kenneth Pyle, The New Generation in Meiji Japan (Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 1969).
  36. Spencer to Kaneko Kentaro, 26 August 1892 in The Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer ed. David Duncan (1908), p. 296.
  37. 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.
  • 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.

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