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Herbert Spencer intended First Principles to be an introduction to his comprehensive study of the world, entitled The Synthetic Philosophy (1862-1896). However, he made it an independent work, complete in itself, that not merely announced the principles of evolutionary naturalism but illustrated them amply with examples from all fields of knowledge. For good measure, he also raised the issue of science and religion and proposed an amicable solution.

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Spencer shared the classical positivist conviction that knowledge consists solely of empirical generalizations or laws. Particular sciences, he held, have the task of formulating the laws that govern special classes of data; however, inasmuch as there are phenomena common to all branches of knowledge, a special science is needed to gather them up into laws. This, he claimed, was the business of philosophy. In his view, that business was now completed. The synthetic philosophy included not only general laws but also one law from which all other laws, both general and specific, could be deduced a priori. He therefore offered a new definition of philosophy: It is “completely unified knowledge.”

Evolution and Dissolution

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Two highly general principles of natural philosophy were already well-established in Spencer’s day, namely, the continuity of motion and the indestructibility of matter. Work in the field of thermodynamics had more recently shown that matter and motion are, in fact, different forms of energy, making it possible to combine these principles into one, which Spencer called the principle of the persistence of force. Here, in his opinion, was a fundamental truth from which all other principles could be deduced. The first principle that Spencer inferred from it was that of the persistence of relations of force, more commonly known as the uniformity of law. The second was that of the transformation of forces, namely, that every loss of motion is attended by an accretion of matter, and vice versa. The third was that motions follow the line of least resistance.

None of these principles, however, sufficed to explain the origin and structure of the ordered world of our experience. What Spencer needed was a unifying principle that applies equally to the burning candle, the quaking earth, and the growing organism. All these events he saw as instances of one vast “transformation.” The problem was to find the dynamic principle that governs this metamorphosis as a whole and in all its details. The answer he found in the principle of evolution and dissolution.

Spencer regarded it as his special contribution to philosophy that he was able to show deductively what others (notably the embryologist K. E. von Baer) had concluded experimentally and on a limited scale: that change is always from a state of homogeneity to a state of heterogeneity. According to Spencer, it is self-evident that homogeneity is a condition of unstable equilibrium. At least this is true of finite masses—though if centers of force were diffused uniformly through infinite space, it might possibly be otherwise; however, Spencer held such a state of affairs to be inconceivable. It follows that, because of the inequality of exposure of its different parts, every finite instance of the homogeneous must inevitably lapse into heterogeneity.

Primarily, according to Spencer, evolution was a passing from the less to the more coherent form of energy, for example, the formation of the solar system out of a gaseous nebula. However, because the same instability is found in each part of the universe as is found in the whole, the differentiation process will be recapitulated within each new aggregate, giving rise to a secondary evolution, for example, the stratification of the surface of the earth. Primary evolution is a process of integration, the passage from a less to a more coherent form with the dissipation of motion and the concentration of matter. Secondary evolution adds to this a process of differentiation, in the course of which the mass changes from a homogeneous to a heterogeneous state.

However, not all heterogeneity is constructive, for example, a tumorous growth. Thus, Spencer had to qualify his law of change: Evolution is change from the indefinite to the definite, from the confused to the ordered. Finally, the same process that has hitherto been stated in terms of matter might equally well be stated in terms of motion: Evolution is a concentration of molecular motion with a dissipation of heat. In sum:Evolution is an integration of matter and concomitant dissipation of motion; during which the matter passes from an indefinite, incoherent homogeneity to a definite, coherent heterogeneity; and during which the retained motion undergoes a parallel transformation.

It was clear to Spencer, however, that evolution cannot go on forever. The redistribution of matter and motion must eventually reach a limit beyond which a simplification takes place: lesser movements are integrated into greater ones, as when the secondary gyrations of a spinning top subside into the main motion. Spencer called this tendency “equilibration.” In a harmonious environment, suitably integrated motions continue indefinitely without undergoing noticeable change. Nevertheless, a change is taking place. Resistance, ever so minor, must in time produce its effect upon the system, wearing it down, causing it to dissipate its force without adding to its organization. Even the solar system, which is nearly a perfectly equilibrated system, is losing its energy and must continue to do so until in the distant future it no longer radiates light or heat.

Evolution, therefore, according to Spencer, is only one aspect of the process; it is paralleled by its opposite, dissolution, about which, however, he had little to say because he found it lacking in the interesting features that attend evolution. Still, it is not to be ignored, nor is it a stranger to us. The death of any living organism is “that final equilibration which precedes dissolution, is the bringing to a close of all those conspicuous integrated motions that arose during evolution.” The process of organic decay is dissolution. Particular systems decay while more general systems are still in the state of integration, and Spencer was far from being of the opinion that the evolution of the planetary system has reached its height.

This bare skeleton of Spencer’s argument remains unconvincing without the illustrations that he used. To show that the principle of coherence governs even such matters as the evolution of human speech, he pointed out that the primitive Pawnee Indians used a three-syllable word, ashakish, to designate the animal that the civilized English called by the one-syllable word “dog.” The history of the English language offers illustrations of the same tendency toward coherence and integration: witness the passage from the Anglo-Saxon sunu through the semi-Saxon sune to the English son; or, again, from cuman to cumme to come. Other examples are taken from politics, industry, art, religion—not to mention the physical sciences. A characteristic one is the following, which shows the change toward heterogeneity in manufactures:Beginning with a barbarous tribe, almost if not quite homogeneous in the functions of its members, the progress has been, and still is, toward an economic aggregation of the whole human race; growing ever more heterogeneous in respect of the separate functions assumed by separate nations, the separate functions assumed by the local sections of each nation, the separate functions assumed by the many kinds of makers and traders in each town, and the separate functions assumed by the workers united in producing each community.

Biological and Social Evolution

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It was in connection with his argument that homogeneous masses are always unstable that Spencer gave his most explicit account of biological evolution. Given a homogeneous mass of protoplasm, the surface will be subject to different forces from those of the interior, and consequently the two will be modified in different ways. Moreover, one part of the surface is exposed differently from another, so that the ventral features will differ from the dorsal. Again, two virtually identical blobs of protoplasm that chance to arise in different environments—for example, moist and dry—will be modified in different ways. Spencer’s theories in these matters had already been published before Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) appeared, and he saw no reason to change them afterward. In his view, the real cause of differentiation between species lay in the environmental influences. He thought it probable that modifications in the parent are transmitted through heredity to their offspring. However, in any case, it must sometimes happenthat some division of a species, falling into circumstances which give it rather more complex experiences, and demand actions that are more involved, will have certain of its organs further differentiated in proportionately small degrees. . . . Hence, there will from time to time arise an increased heterogeneity both of the Earth’s flora and fauna, and of individual races included in them.

No doubt Darwin’s principle of natural selection facilitates the differentiation, he explained in a footnote, but the varieties can be accounted for without it; and without the changes caused by the environment, natural selection would accomplish little.

Spencer’s theory of social evolution paralleled his account of biological origins. In his view, society is a kind of superorganism, which exemplifies the same principles of differentiation as those that appear on the inorganic and the organic planes. His was a system of strict determinism that explained social dynamics in terms of universal laws and denied any role to human purpose or endeavor. His guiding principle was the formula that motion follows lines of least resistance. Thus, migrations and wars result from the reaction of societies to climate, geography, and the like. Likewise, internal movements, such as the division of labor and the development of public thoroughfares, arise from the effort to fulfill human desires in the most economical manner. To the objection that this was only a metaphorical way of viewing social change, Spencer replied that it was not: People are, he said, literally impelled in certain directions, and social processes are in fact physical ones.

Psychology provides further instances. What we think of as mental processes are, from a more fundamental point of view, material ones. Spencer cited as an example the processes of thought engaged in by a botanist who is classifying plants. Each plant examined yields a complex impression; and when two plants yield similar impressions, this “set of molecular modifications” is intensified, “generating an internal idea corresponding to these similar external objects.” It is a special case of the general principle called by Spencer “segregation,” which states that like units of motion will produce like units of motion in the same or similar aggregates, and unlike will produce unlike.

The Unknowable

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Such is the tenor of Spencer’s system. Philosophy in the traditional sense hardly concerned him. His objective, like that of French philosopher René Descartes, was to put all knowledge on a deductive basis, and his First Principles, like Descartes’s Meditationes de prima philosophia (1641; Meditations on First Philosophy, 1680), merely laid the foundation for the superstructure that was to follow. Unlike Descartes, however, Spencer pleaded ignorance of the underlying nature of things. Following philosophers David Hume and Immanuel Kant, he professed that what we know are only appearances, ideas, or impressions in the mind. Reality is unknowable.

Spencer had no intention of wasting his energies on the transcendental problems that concerned Kant and the German speculative philosophers. However, he did devote the first hundred pages of his book to “The Unknowable.” In this section, he dealt, very much in the manner of T. H. Huxley, with the limits of human understanding, especially with the claims of revealed religion and of scientific metaphysics. He found it conveniently admitted by Canon H. L. Mansel of the Church of England that the object of religious devotion cannot be thought. In Mansel’s opinion, this belief was due to the relativity of human knowledge, whereas God is, by definition, absolute. Of course, said Spencer, it is not merely the object of religion that is unknowable. The reality that science describes is also unknowable, if one tries to think of it absolutely. Kant’s paralogisms and antinomies make it clear that such concepts as space, time, motion, consciousness, and personality have meaning only in the limited world of experience and tell us nothing about reality.

Nevertheless, said Spencer, the notion of the Absolute is not entirely negative: There is something that defines and limits the knowable; we have a vague, indefinite notion of a being more and other than what we know. Perhaps our closest approach to it is by analogy to the feeling of “power” that we experience in our own muscles. The true function of religion is to witness nature from its mysterious side, as the true function of science is to discover its knowable side. Here, as elsewhere, Spencer discerned a process of differentiation. The conflict within culture between science and religion is due to “the imperfect separation of their spheres and functions. . . . A permanent peace will be reached when science becomes fully convinced that all its explanations are proximate and relative, while religion becomes fully convinced that the mystery it contemplates is ultimate and absolute.”

However, according to Spencer, writing and talking about the problem will not do any good. Cultural changes are not furthered by discussion alone. As presently constituted, people are not ready morally or socially to do without theology: They still need to believe that the Absolute is a person like themselves in order to strengthen their resolve to act rightly. By the time science and religion have differentiated themselves completely, people will presumably have evolved morally to the point that they do good spontaneously.


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Additional Reading

Duncan, David. The Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer. London: Methuen, 1908. Useful because of the primary sources included.

Elliot, Hugh. Herbert Spencer. London: Constable, 1917. Interesting because of the early date and because it clearly shows that Herbert Spencer’s decline had already begun.

Gray, Tim. The Political Philosophy of Herbert Spencer: Individualism and Organicism. Brookfield, Vt.: Avebury, 1996. A clear introduction to Spencer’s political beliefs and thoughts.

Hofstadter, Richard. Social Darwinism in American Thought. Rev. ed. Boston: Beacon Press, 1955. An excellent examination of Spencer’s considerable influence in the United States.

Kennedy, James G. Herbert Spencer. Boston: Twayne, 1978. A brief but useful and available survey of Spencer’s life and thought.

MacRae, Donald G., ed. The Man Versus the State. Baltimore, Md.: Penguin Books, 1969. An excellent essay assessing Spencer’s importance regarding individualism vis-à-vis big government; introduces eight pieces by Spencer.

Paxton, Nancy L. George Eliot and Herbert Spencer: Feminism, Evolutionism, and the Reconstruction of Gender. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991. Analyzes Spencer’s views and his influence on Eliot’s views on the place of gender in the Victorian debates about nature, religion, and evolutionary theory.

Taylor, Michael W. Man Versus the State: Herbert Spencer and Late Victorian Individualism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. A study of Spencer’s political philosophy and of his influence on the ideas of the British Individualist group of political theorists in the late nineteenth century.

Turner, Jonathan H. Herbert Spencer: A Renewed Appreciation. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1985. A sympathetic view, citing Spencer’s contributions to modern sociological methodology and theory.

Weinstein, David. Equal Freedom and Utility: Herbert Spencer’s Liberal Utilitarianism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. A very readable analysis of Spencer’s political philosophy.

Wiltshire, David. The Social and Political Thought of Herbert Spencer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978. A good biographical overview that concentrates on political theory.

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