Liberty Matters

Spencer and Necessary Truths


Let me jump back in with a large interpretative puzzle. I think we all would agree that Spencer has been terribly misread. I hope I did not contribute to the misreading by linking Spencer with eugenics. A. R. Wallace’s linkage to Spencer is to the Adam Smith-influenced Social Statics. If what Sandra Peart and I have argued is correct, Spencer’s on the other side of the eugenics debate. Sympathy turning off “natural selection” is a good thing. W. R. Greg’s response to Wallace’s argument was that sympathy allowed the “unfit” to survive and “thus” we ought to deaden sympathy. That’s one of the starting points of eugenics.
We have a series of discussions over whether Spencer is an economist, a utilitarian, an informal modal logician. For me the first two are easy because he is recognized as such by others. In his time Wallace read him as a political economist. In our time George Stigler listed Spencer on the very short list of “Important English [Language] Economists 1766-1915.”[68] With the Mill-Spencer discussion, I think the utilitarianism is easy too. But the necessary-truth move is hard.
Where does this come from? I thought I had a way into this with the passage in Autobiography in which he writes about the Mill-Whewell disagreement:
It was when reading the System of Logic of Mr. J. S. Mill, that I was led to take, partly in opposition to him, the view I proposed to set forth. In passages controverting the doctrine enunciated by Dr. Whewell, he had, as it seemed to me, ignored that criterion of belief to which we all appeal in the last resort; and further, he had not recognized the need for any criterion.
But this is dated in Autobiography as 1853 and, of course, I need to have an explanation for Social Statics. Spencer doesn’t exactly say that he read Logic in 1853, but that would certainly be an obvious way to read that paragraph.
Why would Whewell be interesting? The part of the exchange between Mill and Whewell that might be relevant is the expansion of necessary truths.[69] What’s necessary changes over time, so what’s necessary is not necessarily necessary. Oh. That’s suggestive.  But, again, I need something he knew when he wrote Social Statics. 
I welcome guidance! Everyone knows about the large overlap between political economists and moral philosophers in the 18th and 19th centuries. There is another overlap between the political economists and the logicians, but I find this intersection much neglected.
[68.] George J. Stigler, Essays in the History of Economics, Chicago,  University of Chicago Press, 1965, pp. 34-6.
[69.] Sandra Peart and I write about  Whewell and Mill in our “Gordon Tullock on Motivated Inquiry,” Public Choice 152 (2012): 163-80; <>.