Herbert Spencer

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) was an English philosopher, scientist, engineer, and political economist. In his day his works were important in popularizing the concept of evolution and played an important part in the development of economics, political science, biology, and philosophy.

Herbert Spencer was born in Derby on April 27, 1820. His childhood, described in An Autobiography (1904), reflected the attitudes of a family which was known on both sides to include religious nonconformists, social critics, and rebels. His father, a teacher, had been a Wesleyan, but he separated himself from organized religion as he did from political and social authority. Spencer's father and an uncle saw that he received a highly individualized education that emphasized the family traditions of dissent and independence of thought. He was particularly instructed in the study of nature and the fundamentals of science, neglecting such traditional subjects as history.

Spencer initially followed up the scientific interests encouraged by his father and studied engineering. For a few years, until 1841, he practiced the profession of civil engineer as an employee of the London and Birmingham Railway. His interest in evolution is said to have arisen from the examination of fossils that came from the rail-road cuts.

Spencer left the railroad to take up a literary career and to follow up some of his scientific interests. He began by contributing to The Non-Conformist, writing a series of letters called The Proper Sphere of Government. This was his first major work and contained his basic concepts of individualism and laissez-faire, which were to be later developed more fully in his Social Statics (1850) and other works. Especially stressed were the right of the individual and the ideal of noninterference on the part of the state. He also foreshadowed some of his later ideas on evolution and spoke of society as an individual organism.

A System of Evolution

The concept of organic evolution was elaborated fully for the first time in his famous essay "The Developmental Hypothesis," published in the Leader in 1852. In a series of articles and writings Spencer gradually refined his concept of organic and inorganic evolution and popularized the term itself. Particularly in "Progress: Its Law and Cause," an essay published in 1857, he extended the idea of evolutionary progress to human society as well as to the animal and physical worlds. All nature moves from the simple to the complex. This fundamental law is seen in the evolution of human society as it is seen in the geological transformation of the earth and in the origin and development of plant and animal species.

Natural selection, as described by Charles Darwin in the Origin of Species, published in 1859, completed Spencer's evolutionary system by providing the mechanism by which organic evolution occurred. Spencer enthusiastically elaborated on Darwin's process of natural selection, applying it to human society, and made his own contribution in the notion of "survival of the fittest." From the beginning Spencer applied his harsh dictum to human society, races, and the state—judging them in the process: "If they are sufficiently complete to live, they do live, and it is well they should live. If they are not sufficiently complete to live, they die, and it is best they should die."

Spencer systematically tried to establish the basis of a scientific study of education, psychology, sociology, and ethics from an evolutionary point of view. Although many of his specific ideas are no longer fashionable, Spencer went a long way in helping to establish the separate existence of sociology as a social science. His idea of evolutionary progress, from the simple to the complex, provided a conceptual framework that was productive and that justifies granting to him the title father of comparative sociology. His views concerning a science of sociology are elaborated in two major works, Descriptive Sociology (published in 17 volumes, 1873-1934) and The Study of Sociology (1873).

Spencer was particularly influential in the United States until the turn of the century. According to William Graham Sumner, who used The Study of Sociology as a text in the first sociology course offered in an American university, it was Spencer's work which established sociology as a separate, legitimate field in its own right. Spencer's demand that historians present the "natural history of society," in order to furnish data for a comparative sociology, is also credited with inspiring James Harvey Robinson and the others involved in the writing of the New History in the United States.

Economic Theories

Social philosophy in the latter part of the 19th century in the United States was dominated by Spencer. His ideas of laissez-faire and the survival of the fittest by natural selection fitted very well into an age of rapid expansion and ruthless business competition. Spencer provided businessmen with the reassuring notion that what they were doing was not just ruthless self-interest but was a natural law operating in nature and human society. Not only was competition in harmony with nature, but it was also in the interest of the general welfare and progress. Social Darwinism, or Spencerism, became a total view of life which justified opposition to social reform on the basis that reform interfered with the operation of the natural law of survival of the fittest.

Spencer visited the United States in 1882 and was much impressed by what he observed on a triumphal tour. He prophetically saw in the industrial might of the United States the seeds of world power. He admired the American industrialists and became a close friend of the great industrialist and steel baron Andrew Carnegie.

By the 1880s and 1890s Spencer had become a universally recognized philosopher and scientist. His books were published widely, and his ideas commanded a great deal of respect and attention. His Principles of Biology was a standard text at Oxford. At Harvard, William James used his Principles of Psychology as a textbook.

Although some of Spencer's more extreme formulations of laissez-faire were abandoned fairly rapidly, even in the United States, he will continue to exert an influence as long as competition, the profit motive, and individualism are held up as positive social values. His indirect influence on psychology, sociology, and history is too strong to be denied, even when his philosophical system as a whole has been discarded. He is a giant in the intellectual history of the 19th century.

Spencer spent his last years continuing his work and avoiding the honors and positions that were offered to him by a long list of colleges and universities. He died at Brighton on Dec. 8, 1903.

Further Reading on Herbert Spencer

By far the best source on Spencer's life, education, and the development of his major ideas is his own An Autobiography (2 vols., 1904). Two of the more reliable and critical biographical works are Josiah Royce, Herbert Spencer: An Estimate and Review (1904), and Hugh Elliot, Herbert Spencer (1917). For a careful study of Spencer's impact upon American intellectual history see Richard Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought (1944; rev. ed. 1955). Recommended for general historical background are Ernest Barker, Political Thought in England, 1848-1914 (1915; 2d ed. 1963), and William James Durant, The Story of Philosophy (1926; 2d ed. 1967).

Additional Biography Sources

Hudson, William Henry, An introduction to the philosophy of Herbert Spencer: with a biographical sketch, New York: Haskell House Publishers, 1974.

Kennedy, James Gettier, Herbert Spencer, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978.

Thomson, J. Arthur (John Arthur), Herbert Spencer, New York:AMS Press, 1976. Turner, Jonathan H., Herbert Spencer: a renewed appreciation, Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1985.