Article abstract: Best known as the leading Social Darwinist of the nineteenth century, Spencer was a broad-ranging thinker who epitomized the scientific mentality of his age. He coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” and attempted to build a comprehensive philosophical synthesis based on evolution.
Herbert Spencer was born on April 27, 1820, in Derby, England. An only child, he was educated until the age of ten by his father, a private tutor. His unorthodox father, a Dissenter, and the lack of peers molded the young Spencer into an intellectual introvert. He was reared amid discussions of the great political and philosophical issues of the day, and his father’s associates consisted primarily of Quakers and Unitarians. Spencer received further education, mostly in mathematics and mechanics, from his uncle, Thomas Spencer, who headed a school near Bath. The enormous learning which he later demonstrated was acquired principally through his own efforts.
Declining an offer from his uncle to send him to Cambridge, in 1837 Spencer took a job as a civil engineer with the London and Birmingham railway company. He worked for a number of different railways, traveled widely, introduced several technical innovations, and advanced in his career. He had, however, developed a deep interest in politics, and in 1841 he left his engineering career and returned to Derby to live on his savings while writing political commentary.
Initially, Spencer dabbled in radical politics rather unselectively, but some of his early pieces in the Nonconformist reveal that his narrow view of the role of the state had already developed. In 1843, he moved to London, where he believed he could advance his literary career He did very poorly, selling only a few items, most of them on phrenology. Soon, his funds depleted, he returned to his engineering work. He quickly became disillusioned with the world of business, and he left it in 1846, exposing railway fraud in an essay in the Edinburgh Review.
At the age of twenty-six, Spencer had largely failed in engineering, politics, and journalism. He was both lonely and alone in his increasingly deep meditations. His dedication to philosophical inquiry and his serious reading precluded a social life, and he never married. His dark brown hair was beginning to recede, and in later life he was partially bald, a feature he sought to counter by wearing his hair long on the sides, with bushy sideburns. His face was calm, but pale, and in general his slight figure suggested frailness and delicacy. He was an excellent conversationalist but somewhat abrupt and quite fixed in his opinions.
In 1848, Spencer’s career took a turn for the better when his schoolmaster uncle assisted him in securing a position in London as subeditor of The Economist. With this position, Spencer had not only a modest level of financial security but also the spare time to work on the great philosophical project he had been contemplating. At The Economist Spencer found like-minded individualists, and his laissez-faire attitude hardened into the rigidness for which he would become famous.
The serious writing effort on which Spencer had been working for some time was completed in the summer of 1850 and published the following year under the title Social Statics. With his job and his book, Spencer enjoyed a wider social life, but he continued his father’s traditions of nonconformity and he enjoyed being something of an eccentric who flaunted convention. In 1853, the death of his uncle, who had aided him so greatly, brought him a legacy, which was small but sufficient for him to leave The Economist and...
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live independently as an author. That same year, however, he suffered the first of a series of physical and nervous ailments which plagued him for the rest of his life. He traveled widely in search of better health, argued with his friends, remained lonely and unhappy, and became a confirmed hypochondriac.
Spencer continued, however, to write prolifically. In 1855, he published The Principles of Psychology, and in 1860 he announced his plan to produce a ten-volume work with the general title The Synthetic Philosophy. He suffered a serious nervous breakdown and treated himself with opium, but the work was finally completed in 1896. He financed his work by selling subscriptions, with the subscribers receiving installments of about ninety pages every three months. Some interest in the work was expressed in Great Britain, but it was support from the United States that actually gave Spencer the financial wherewithal to complete his work. An inheritance from his father, along with the proceeds from the sale of his books, allowed him to live comfortably for the rest of his life. He died on December 8, 1903, and the remains of his cremation are at Highgate Cemetery.
At the basis of Spencer’s philosophy lay two fundamentals: first, the tremendous importance given to science that was characteristic of his age; second, the sanctity of political and economic laissez-faire that he acquired from his Dissenter and radical background. In fact, Spencer combined these two to make laissez-faire a natural law. He was not, however, the only one to do this. Both science and the idea of laissez-faire were dominant in the mid-nineteenth century, as was the idea of progress, also very important to him. Spencer, however, was the foremost spokesman of these ideas, and he set them forth in his volumes in a way that convinced his contemporaries.
Spencer was, moreover, the only one of his time to attempt a synthesis of all thought, based on science and especially evolution, and which included philosophies of education, biology, psychology, sociology, and ethics, as well as politics. Such a comprehensive system was possible only to the nineteenth century mind, which embraced science in such an enthusiastic and general fashion. Most of Spencer’s proofs rested on mere analogies, usually biological, and by the time of his death such generalizations were outdated in a world which had become highly technical and specialized. Having been the most popular thinker of his time, especially in the United States, Spencer fell from favor as rapidly as he had risen, and by the early years of the twentieth century he was largely forgotten, dismissed by philosophers as not being sufficiently philosophical and by scientists as being too much the generalist. Spencerian thought, however, remains well worth studying, not only for what it suggests about the nineteenth century mind but also for what it reveals about the origins of the modern social sciences.
Spencer is always linked, and rightly so, to Darwinian evolution, but it is not merely as a disciple of Charles Darwin that he is important. The evolutionary perspective was current before Darwin produced his famous On the Origin of Species in 1859. Geological evidence supported evolution, and Spencer was aware of these investigations and had been moved to that view by his own observations during excavations for railways. Moreover, his own writings on competition in business influenced Darwin, and while Darwin’s work revolutionized Spencer’s thinking, as it did that of so many others, it was Spencer who coined the term “survival of the fittest.” Spencer, it should be noted, never became a complete Darwinist; for example, he continued to hold to the pre-Darwinian notion of the inheritability of acquired characteristics. It was Spencer, though, who was the most energetic in applying the principles of evolution and natural selection to society, and in doing so he became the archetypal Social Darwinist.
The great work, The Synthetic Philosophy, that Spencer announced in 1860 took nearly forty years to complete and is divided into several separately titled parts. First Principles appeared in 1862 and is typically metaphysical with its insistence on the existence of an ultimate Unknowable, which could be appreciated but never understood, and typically scientific with its assertion on evolution as the motor of all development, change, and progress. The Principles of Biology, a work of two volumes published in 1864 and 1867, was both a survey of developmental physiology and an assertion of the iron law of evolution in the movement from lower to higher forms. He followed his evolutionary theme in the reworking of The Principles of Psychology (originally published in 1855), which appeared in a second edition in 1870 and 1872, by insisting that consciousness, too, had gone through successive stages.
Spencer’s most influential thesis came in The Principles of Sociology, which appeared in three volumes from 1876 to 1896. Here, he provided his organic view of society, that is, that a society is like an organism. In making this analogy, Spencer introduced the study of structure and function into the field of sociology, as well as proving the value of comparative analysis. He also stated in the strongest terms his extreme individualism and negative view of government. From such attitudes has come the tradition that Spencer was rather brutal and pessimistic. In fact, he viewed progress as a natural process, but progress involved the elimination of the weak and unfit. The last portion of the great synthesis was The Principles of Ethics, of which one volume was published in 1892 and the other in 1893, and here he took the lessons from nature to create a moral code. In the preface to the last volume of The Principles of Ethics, he included a note indicating that evolution had not been the absolute principle, at least in ethics, that he had hoped. In addition to these works, he completed an autobiography in 1889 (published in 1904), and in 1902, a year before his death, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Enormously popular in his day, by the middle of the twentieth century Herbert Spencer was entirely neglected by serious scholars, except to be mentioned as the classic proponent of Social Darwinism, an honor which served only to strengthen his negative image. Nevertheless, Spencer made important contributions in the study of society, particularly in the areas of social evolution and the problem of the individual versus the state. If nothing else, his version of natural selection, which he expressed in the phrase “surival of the fittest,” has secured for him a permanent historical significance.
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 and Co., 1917. Interesting because of the early date and because it clearly shows that Spencer’s decline had already begun.
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 Publishers, 1978. A brief but useful and available survey of Spencer’s life and thought.
MacRae, Donald G., ed. The Man Versus the State. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1969. An excellent essay assessing Spencer’s importance regarding individualism vis-à-vis big government; introduces eight pieces by Spencer.
Peel, J. D. Y. Herbert Spencer: The Evolution of a Sociologist. New York: Basic Books, 1971. Excellent on Spencer’s contributions to sociology.
Spencer, Herbert. An Autobiography. 2 vols. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1904.
Spencer, Herbert. Herbert Spencer on Education. Edited by Andreas M. Kazamias. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966. With a lengthy introduction, these selections from Spencer’s writings focus on one of his least-known areas of concern.
Turner, Jonathan H. Herbert Spencer: A Renewed Appreciation. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1985. A sympathetic view, citing Spencer’s contributions to modern sociological methodology and theory.
Wiltshire, David. The Social and Political Thought of Herbert Spencer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978. A good biographical overview which concentrates on political theory.