Spencer, Herbert (1820–1903)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC076-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 17, 2024, from

Article Summary

Herbert Spencer is chiefly remembered for his classical liberalism and his evolutionary theory. His fame was considerable during the mid- to late-nineteenth century, especially in the USA, which he visited in 1882 to be lionized by New York society as the prophetic philosopher of capitalism. In Britain, however, Spencer’s reputation suffered two fatal blows towards the end of his life. First, collectivist legislation was introduced to protect citizens from the ravages of the industrial revolution, and Spencer’s spirited defence of economic laissez-faire became discredited. Second, his evolutionary theory, which was based largely on the Lamarckian principle of the inheritance of organic modifications produced by use and disuse, was superseded by Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Nearly a century after his death, however, there is renewed interest in his ideas, partly because the world has become more sympathetic to market philosophies, and partly because the application of evolutionary principles to human society has become fashionable once more.

Spencer was born into a Nonconformist family in Derby, England, and never lost the individualistic temperament conferred by his upbringing. Trained as a civil engineer working for a railway company during the boom years of railway expansion, Spencer’s fertile mind soon spread to social and economic issues, and he joined the Economist as a sub-editor in 1848. In 1851 the publication of his first book, Social Statics, established his reputation as a thinker of extraordinary power and originality. In it he deduced the features of a civilized society from the central principle of justice – the law of equal freedom – that ‘every person has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man’ (1851: 103). This principle of equal freedom, which has been regarded ever since as the cornerstone of classical liberalism, led Spencer to insist on a very narrow role for the state (see Liberalism; State, the §§1–2). The state was at best a necessary evil to prevent one person from violating the rights of another – that is, to defend natural rights. Social Statics is the definitive text of the minimal or ‘nightwatchman’ theory of the state.

Spencer subsequently embarked upon an ambitious task of creating a wholly new understanding of philosophy, at the heart of which was the theory of evolution. In Social Statics an idea of the evolutionary progress of humanity had been implicitly assumed but not developed.Spencer explicitly applied evolutionary theory in his essay ‘The Development Hypothesis’ ([1890] 1852). He rejected the religious notion of ‘special creation’ – that each of the 10 million species had been individually created by God – arguing instead, like Lamarck, that new species emerged as a result of modifications in existing species, brought about by exposure to new conditions. Spencer elaborated this evolutionary theory in his essay ‘Progress: its Law and Cause’ ([1890] 1857) where he introduced the word ‘evolution’. Following Von Baer, Spencer claimed that progress was defined in terms of a change from the homogenous to the heterogeneous. His originality lay in the fact that he saw this ‘law’ at work across the whole range of natural and human phenomena. The ten volumes of Spencer’s magnum opus, the ‘Synthetic Philosophy’, traced the operation of evolutionary principles successively in psychology, metaphysics, biology, sociology and ethics.

In his Principles of Psychology (1855), Spencer put forward a Lamarckian explanation of mental development. For example, intelligence was a faculty developed as a result of cumulative modifications of the mind in successive generations of organisms responding to their environment. In First Principles (1862), he addressed the vexed question for his Victorian readership of the relation between science and religion. For Spencer, science entailed the deduction of general laws, such as the conservation of energy, which were not empirical generalizations, but necessary truths about empirical phenomena. But these truths could never be completely grasped. We could never know, for example, why energy was conserved. Such ultimate questions about the nature of reality formed what Spencer called ‘the Unknowable’. Religion yielded similarly unanswerable questions about fundamental issues – such as ‘does God exist, and if so, how did He come into existence?’ These issues were also part of the Unknowable; Spencer was an agnostic, not an atheist – he rejected anti-evolutionary religious doctrines, but God’s existence was not incompatible with his theory of evolution.

In his Principles of Biology (1864, 1867) Spencer acknowledged the centrality of Darwinian natural selection, but insisted that Lamarckian modifications played their part in the evolution of organisms from simple to complex structures. In Principles of Sociology (1876–96) he explained how, as humanity advanced, a process of differentiation of functions occurred, and society was gradually transformed from the ‘militant’ type, which was characterized by authoritarianism, uniformity and status, to the ‘industrial’ type, which was characterized by liberty, diversity and contract. He made use of the organic analogy (likening society to an organism) to sustain his laissez-faire theory, by interpreting organisms as made up of individualistic parts. Finally, in Principles of Ethics (1879–93) he gave the law of equal freedom an evolutionary dimension by linking it to the principle that each person ought to experience the full consequences of their actions, both good and bad – a principle which entailed that the fittest survived.

Spencer has left two enduring contributions to philosophy. The first is a highly cogent analysis of the philosophical foundations of classical liberalism. Social Statics is a masterpiece of argumentation, not far short of the stature of a Hobbesian or Lockeian text. The second is the evolutionary idea: it was Spencer, not Darwin, who was the founder of the philosophy later known as Social Darwinism, and who coined the term ‘the survival of the fittest’. Although Spencer failed to answer many questions raised by his theory of evolution, it cannot be denied that his evolutionary vision marks an important stage in our understanding of social development.

Citing this article:
Gray, Tim S.. Spencer, Herbert (1820–1903), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC076-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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