(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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.

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

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

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Biological and Social Evolution

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

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The Unknowable

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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.