Spencer was an English philosopher and prominent liberal political
theorist. Although today he is chiefly remembered as the father
of Social Darwinism, a school of thought that applied the evolutionist
theory of survival of the fittest (a phrase coined by Spencer) to
human societies, he also contributed to a wide range of subjects,
including ethics, metaphysics, religion, politics, rhetoric, biology
was a close contemporary of many famous philosophers and scientists
of his period such as John Stuart Mill, Thomas Huxley and Charles
Darwin and was renowned for the long-reaching, accessible, and
profoundly sensible qualities of his work. Although he has often
been criticized as a perfect example of scientism, he was at the
time considered by many to be one of the most brilliant men of
Herbert Spencer was born in Derby, April 27, 1820, the son of
William George Spencer (he was called George), an officious but
respected educator. Coming from a family of teachers (including
his grandfather and uncle) he was encouraged to learn at an early
age. During his childhood he was exposed to and enjoyed the many
academic books and journals his father made use of.
he was 13 his father sent him to the Hinton Charterhouse near
Bath, where his uncle, the Reverend Thomas Spencer, could provide
him a more formal education. He did not get along with his uncle
at first, finding him to be a bore and resisting his lessons in
Latin and Greek and even going so far as to run away back to his
father’s home. However, he eventually came to co-exist with
his uncle, developing his earliest political and economic ideas
in response to Thomas’ radical reformist views.
1836 his uncle obtained for him a job as a civil engineer on a
railway, an experience that deterred him from pursuing a future
in professions where he felt bosses exploited the labour of overworked
staff. More notably, Spencer began committing his thoughts to
paper during this period and, upon visiting his uncle some years
later at the age of 22, he was encouraged to send a number of
letters on politics to a radical newspaper called The Nonconformist.
This was the beginning of his involvement in both journalistic
media and socio-political rhetoric and the letters would later
be published at Spencer’s expense as "On The Proper
Sphere of Government".
early works demonstrated a liberal view of workers' rights and
governmental responsibility. He continued in this vein by developing
a rationalist philosophy concerning the natural laws of progress.
These views would mature into his 1851 manuscript Social Statics,
a document that stressed the importance of looking at the long-term
effects of social policy with respect to the nature of man.
is often quoted out of context, making him seem uncompassionate
toward the poor and working class. In actuality he stressed "positive
beneficence" and man's evolving "moral faculty,"
and was ahead of his time in promoting the rights of women and
children. It was here that Spencer began developing his view of
civilization, not as an artificial construct of man, but as a
natural and organic product of social evolution. Since this "social
Darwinism" precedes "The Origin of Species," it
would be more accurate to refer to Darwin's ideas as "biological
a five-year stint as sub-editor of the London financial paper
The Economist that ended in 1853, Spencer began investing all
his time towards writing professionally. In the immediate years
following he would produce works concerning education, science,
the railway industry, population explosion and many other philosophical
and sociological topics.
1855 Spencer wrote the Principles of Psychology, which explored
a theory of the mind as a biological counterpart of the body rather
than as an estranged opposite. In this model human intelligence
was something that had slowly developed as a response to its physical
environment. Such an evolutionary standpoint on the origin of
man alienated conservative publishers, once again leaving Spencer
to publish his work at his own expense.
the writing of Principles of Psychology Spencer traveled about
Wales and France and it was during one of these trips that his
health underwent a decline from which it never fully recovered.
Although it couldn’t be said exactly what was wrong with
him, Spencer suffered from a constant tiredness that made his
sleeping patterns short and erratic and prevented him from long
periods of work. While he blamed stress and the possibility of
having underdeveloped lungs, the continued deterioration of his
health in later years was likely the result of a growing dependency
on morphine and opium. It is often commented on as ironic that
one who felt so passionately about the dominance of the strong
and healthy would suffer from such problems.
his growing weariness Spencer continued to write and in 1858 began
work on a large project that would cover his entire philosophy
on evolution and the laws of progress. He wished to publish the
work incrementally so that he could maintain a prolonged livelihood
from its composition, but again he was unable to secure a publisher
in any of the regular press.
by this time Spencer had endeared himself to the intellectual
community of England and a list of private subscriptions to his
theory funded his living expenses and his work. Amongst these
intellectuals was Thomas Henry Huxley, another prominent English
philosopher who would remain a close peer of Spencer throughout
his life. It was Huxley who included Spencer in the X Club, a
dinner club group that met regularly and included some of the
most prominent thinkers of their society (a number of which who
would become president of the Royal Society at various points
included philosopher John Tyndall and banker/archaeologist Sir
John Lubbock and often entertained guests such as Charles Darwin
and Wilhelm Helmholtz. Through such associations Spencer had a
strong presence within the heart of the scientific community and
was able to secure an influential audience for voicing his views.
1862 Spencer was able to publish First Principles, an exposition
of his evolutionary theory of the underlying principles of all
domains of reality, which had acted as the foundational beliefs
of his previous works. His definition of evolution explained it
as the ongoing process by which matter is refined into an increasingly
complex and coherent form. This was the main canon of Spencer’s
philosophy, a developed and coherently structured explanation
of evolution (that predated Darwin’s major works).
this time Spencer was achieving an international reputation of
great respect. His views on man's place in nature were very influential
and broadly accepted. While he had an interest in all the sciences,
Spencer never committed his time to a single field of study and
was not an experimentalist. Perhaps this broad range of knowledge
and lack of specialization made his views and writing so accessible
and popular. His X Club name was Xhaustive Spencer, denoting the
depth to which he would explore a given topic once committed to
it. However he was always shifting between eclectic projects,
making the influence of his work diverse and far reaching.
his sixties Spencer’s health continued to decline and he
became increasingly invalid. In 1882 he attended the funeral of
Charles Darwin, breaking a rule of his never to enter a church.
In 1902, shortly before his death, he was nominated for the Nobel
Prize for literature. He continued to write throughout his life,
often by dictation in his later years, until he succumbed to his
poor health at the age of 83.
Spencer’s works were widely read during his lifetime and
by 1869 he was able to support himself solely on the profit of
book sales. Translations of his various works were made in German,
Italian, Spanish, French, Russian, Japanese and Chinese and he
was offered honours and awards from all over Europe and North
philosophy proved most useful for political conservatives, not
only for its application towards the hierarchy of social classes,
but also for its conception of social justice, which emphasized
the responsibility of individuals for their nature and actions.
Spencer was a supporter of the “law of equal liberty”,
a basic tenet of libertarianism that says that each individual
should be allowed to do as he or she wills as long as it doesn’t
infringe on the rights of another person.
American Supreme Court Justices were advocates of his theories
and applied them to their decisions concerning the restriction
of corporate labour practices by the government (in favour of
the corporations). However, it wasn’t just conservatives
that used Spencer’s theories to promote their views. Many
socialists cited his notion of survival of the fittest to incite
people towards class wars and anarchists applied his autonomy
of the individual to their own beliefs. Spencer has often been
described as a quasi-anarchist as well as an outright anarchist.
example, George Plechanoff, in his 1909 Anarchism and Socialism
labeled Spencer a "conservative Anarchist." David Hart,
in Radical Liberalism of Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer describes
Spencer's political philosophy as "liberal anarchism."
In Right to Ignore the State Spencer says: "If every man
has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not
the equal freedom of any other man, then he is free to drop connection
with the state — to relinquish its protection, and to refuse
paying toward its support."
of Political Influence
Spencer's influence across a large range of political opposites
may seem to point to contradictory ideas within Spencer's writings.
However, most of the difference is best understood as how different
ideologies applied different aspects of Spencer's wide influence
to defend their varying beliefs. This is further complicated by
the changing general perception of Spencer from a respected authority
to one often criticized as allegedly a precursor to the Eugenics
two main areas of influence were the scientific evolutionary ideas
of survival of the fittest, and his political ideas of radical
classical liberalism. To Spencer, these ideas did not contradict.
Survival of the fittest was understood to explain the perceived
human progress from the Industrial Revolution to his day. Further,
Spencer viewed the success of liberalism in reducing the power
of the state as progress and evidence of evolution within human
culture. He considered natural rights as a concept through which
survival of the fittest acted most effectively in human culture.
during Spencer's lifetime liberalism itself was changing from
its classical version of laissez-faire and goal of decreasing
state power, to modern liberalism that began to increase the power
and scope of the state. At this point, Spencer's belief in natural
rights, natural law, and classical liberalism stopped matching
his understood evidence for them in citing the progress of survival
of the fittest to human civilization.
is also at this point where the followers of his ideas took opposite
paths. Those that supported his understanding of linear progress
and survival of the fittest looked positively at the increasing
power of government as progress, though Spencer never agreed.
This included those who rejected Spencer's concepts of natural
rights and strictly limited government such as the progressive
and eugenics supporting Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes,
who did not believe in a natural law limitation for the application
of survival of the fittest to human civilization.
that supported Spencer's political writings, classical liberalism,
or natural rights philosophy such as H.L. Mencken were opposed
to the Eugenics movement even when it was politically popular.
Most of the current supporters or defenders of Herbert Spencer,
including classical liberals, anarchists, libertarians, and perhaps
some conservatives do so for his political philosophy. Some may
believe in Spencer's survival of the fittest within the confines
of a natural rights philosophy, but others have rejected his ideas
of linear progress and replaced them with the paradigm shift ideas
of Thomas Kuhn.
Spencer also had a great impact on literature and rhetoric. His
1852 essay “The Philosophy of Style” explored a growing
trend of formalist approaches to writing. Highly focused on the
proper placement and ordering of the parts of an English sentence,
he created a guide for effective composition. Spencer’s
aim was to free prose writing from as much ‘friction and
inertia’ as possible, so that the reader would not be slowed
by strenuous deliberations concerning the proper context and meaning
of a sentence.
making the meaning as readily accessible as possible the writer
would achieve the greatest possible communicative efficiency.
This was accomplished, according to Spencer, by placing all the
subordinate clauses, objects and phrases before the subject of
a sentence so that when readers reached the subject they had all
the information they needed to completely perceive its significance.
While the overall influence that “The Philosophy of Style”
had on the field of rhetoric was not as far reaching as his contribution
to other fields, Spencer’s voice lent authoritative support
to formalist views of rhetoric.
also had an impact on literature, as many novelists would come
to address his ideas through their work. Leo Tolstoy, George Eliot,
Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence were all known to reference Spencer.
Arnold Bennett greatly praised First Principles and the influence
it had on him can be seen in his many novels. Jack London went
so far as to create a character, Martin Eden, who was a staunch
Spenserian. It is perhaps the best testament to the influence
of Spencer’s beliefs and writing that his impact was so
diverse. Not only did he influence the administrators who shaped
their societies’ inner workings, but also the artists who
helped shape their ideals and beliefs.