The Reading Room

OLL’s April Birthday: Herbert Spencer (April 27, 1820 – December 8, 1903)

April’s Birthday Essay is in honor of Herbert Spencer, a British polymath who was probably the most widely read intellectual in history, and who enjoyed tremendous fame during his lifetime, only to be largely forgotten after his death.
Herbert Spencer was the eldest of nine children, but the only one to survive into adulthood.  He was born in Derby, England, the son of William George Spencer (1790-1866), a schoolmaster and mathematician whose textbook on Geometry has been considered by modern mathematics instructors to have been years ahead of its time.  He was also a religious dissenter (a Methodist with strong Quaker sympathies) and secretary of the Derby Philosophical Society.  He imbued his son with his own proclivities for religious freedom as well as progressive and liberal ideas in general.  Herbert Spencer's well-educated, Benthamite, uncle, the Rev. Thomas Spencer, took an interest in his nephew’s education, instructing him in religion, science, and Latin, as well as the rudiments of the developing ideas of Classical Liberalism, to which both he and his brother were very much committed.  In addition to all this, young Herbert was an autodidact, learning through his own readings and conversations with his father’s friends in the Derby Philosophical Society.  
 As a young man he found it difficult to settle on a career.  From 1837-1841 he worked as a civil engineer on the railways, and contributed essays to various religiously dissenting, radical, and liberal periodicals.  By 1848, he was on the editorial board of The Economist and around the same time made the acquaintance of John Chapman, publisher of the Westminster Review, perhaps the leading radical, liberal periodical of the time.  In 1851, Chapman published Spencer’s first book, Social Statics, and also brought him into his circle of friends, which included most of the radical and liberal luminaries of the time, including John Stuart Mill, Harriet Martineau, Mary Ann Evans (who wrote under the nom de plume George Eliot) and Thomas Henry Huxley.  He went on to have a brief romantic affair with Evans (though he denied this in his later Autobiography), and a life-long friendship with Huxley.  These friendships and associations influenced him greatly.  In particular, they greatly bolstered his radical liberal proclivities, while at the same time introduced him to the new Positivism of August Comte, with which he seems to have been simultaneously intrigued and repelled.    
In 1853 Spencer inherited a legacy from his uncle, enabling him to resign from The Economist and devote himself to his own work. 1855 he published his second book, Principles of Psychology, and in 1857 an article (published in the Westminster Review) entitled “Progress:  Its Law and Cause.”  These two works, along with Social Statics, provide a good picture of the development of Spencer’s thought.  Influenced by the radical liberal ideas of his father and uncle, not to mention his friends in Chapman’s circle, as well as by the evolutionary theories of Lamarck and Schelling and (though he would probably have denied it) Comte’s Positivism, Spencer sketched out the outlines of what he called his “synthetic philosophy,” an attempt to devise a “universal law” which would apply to both the physical and natural sciences.  Drawing very heavily on Lamarck’s idea of “use-inheritance,” by which acquired characteristics can be passed on to other generations, Spencer developed an elaborate historical sociology to explain the development of human civilization. Indeed, his work represents an attempt to apply the principles of evolution to most of what we now call the Life and Social Sciences: anatomy, biology, zoology, psychology, and sociology, but also to political science and even morality.  According to his theory, everything in the universe, from galaxies, biological systems, organisms, and human societies (which he called “social organisms”) develop from conditions of “homogeneity” (i.e., simplicity) to “heterogeneity” (i.e., complexity).  He described these process as governed by two “Laws” which he named the “Law of the Persistence of Force,” and the “Law of the Multiplication of Effects.”   In his historical sociology/anthropology, he used this to develop his idea of social evolution from what he called “Militant” (i.e., primitive, homogeneous) societies characterized by violence and tyranny, to “Industrial” (i.e., advanced, individualistic) societies based on complex, peaceful social cooperation.  He also argued that the logic of social evolution meant that, as humans adapted to increasingly complex socio-economic orders (as the logic of evolution would seem to predict), they would become increasingly peaceful and cooperative until, at some future date, the State would no longer be necessary.  In 1858, he drafted his System of Synthetic Philosophy, which he intended to summarize and demonstrate his universal theory.  It ended up taking most of the rest of his life to complete and ran to ten volumes, completed in 1896 with the publication of his Principles of Sociology
 While Spencer was developing his “universal laws,” Charles Darwin published his revolutionary The Origin of Species in 1859.  Though Spencer is often called a “Social Darwinist,” and is most often known as the one who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” (in his Principles of Biology [1864]) Spencer, though an admirer of Darwin, had developed his own evolutionary ideas earlier, largely influenced by Larmarck.  Though he later embraced Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection, it always sat somewhat uneasily with Lamarckian “Use-Inheritance.”  Spencer also had other significant differences from Darwinian evolutionary theory.  Probably the most important of these was that Spencer, as noted above, had a clear conception of “evolution” as synonymous with “progress.” 
 In any case, Spencer’s epithet of “Social Darwinist” is based on some eye-brow raising statements in arguments to be found in Social Statics.  Among the most egregious of these is where he seems to argue that poverty is due to the lazy and improvident habits of the poor.  As individuals who are manifestly unable to adapt to their environment, it would be best if they were simply allowed to die off, lest they continue to breed and retard the evolution of the ”social organism.”  
 Spencer himself later back-tracked on the brutal implications of these ideas, and his defenders have been quick to point out that he never opposed individual acts of kindness or private charity to help the poor, but only objected to publicly funded or government welfare.  This observation in fact ties in with one of the constants of Spencer’s work, namely his strong dedication to liberal principles.  Through his life, he consistently championed free-trade, individual liberty, and limited, constitutional government and opposed socialism, war, and imperialism. 
 In any case, Spencer, by 1870 had become possibly the most famous intellectual in history, before or since.  His books sold probably, all together, over a million copies, a staggering accomplishment, and were translated into all the major European languages as well as Chinese and Japanese, in which they were eagerly consumed by the modernizing reformers in both China and Japan.  He was inducted into all the major philosophical and scientific societies, joining the American Philosophical Society in 1883.  In the meantime, he became interested in studying pedagogy and in 1861 published Education: Intellectual, Moral, and Physical, which proposed a radical rethinking of current pedagogical practices.  It emphasized self-development, sympathetic and constructive teachers (instead of mere disciplinarians), problem solving, and physical exercise.  It was tremendously influential and was eventually adopted as a textbook by most teacher-training colleges in England.
 Yet, around the same time, his influence and popularity, and indeed his own work, had begun to change.  After around 1884 with publication of The Man versus the State, he seemed to abandon his earlier radical, liberal ideas and policy prescriptions for increasingly conservative ones.  He repudiated his earlier radical ideas supporting women’s suffrage, for example, and his general faith in the inevitable progress of human society toward peace and individual freedom was gradually replaced by an increasingly pessimistic view of the future, which would be characterized by socialism, slavery, and war.  In one area he remained consistent, however:  His staunch opposition to militarism and imperialism.  His vociferous condemnation of the Boer War further reduced his already waning popularity in the United Kingdom.  
 Spencer had always suffered from a nervous temperament and chronic hypochondria, which worsened even more by the late 1850s.  His distraught mental and physical states were certainly not helped by his own declining popularity and his growing conviction that human society was somehow heading backwards, in contradiction to his own theories of synthetic philosophy.  He remained well regarded enough, however, to be nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1902 (which he lost to the German historian Theodor Mommsen).  Never married, his final years were, by the accounts of his friend Beatrice Potter Webb, sad and lonely.  He finally succumbed to his poor health in 1903.  He was buried in Highgate Cemetery, in a tomb facing that of Karl Marx.
 Herbert Spencer’s legacy remains mixed.  While most of his ideas about universal evolution and the inevitable progress of the “social organism” are no longer taken seriously, and his association with “social Darwinism” casts a very dark shadow on his work, his writings on the importance of peace, the free market, and individual liberty continue to resonate.  The great libertarian economist Murray Rothbard, for example, called Social Statics, "the greatest single work of libertarian political philosophy ever written," and other modern libertarian thinkers, notably Robert Nozick, have been influenced by his moral arguments against the Welfare State.  On a more prosaic note, Spencer is also regarded as the inventor of the paperclip, a version of which he described in an appendix to his posthumously published Autobiography.