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Spencer, Herbert (1820–1903)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC076-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved September 26, 2020, 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based largely on the Lamarckian principle of the inheritance of organic modifications produced by use and disuse, was superseded by Darwin’s theory of natural selection.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.

Citing this article:
Gray, Tim S.. Spencer, Herbert (1820–1903), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC076-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2020 Routledge.

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