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  • Herbert Spencer

    Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), English philosopher, was born at Derby on the 27th of April 1820. His father, William George Spencer, was a schoolmaster, and his parents' religious convictions familiarized him with the doctrines of the Methodists and Quakers. He declined an offer from his uncle, the Rev. Thomas Spencer, to send him to Cambridge, and so was practically self-taught. During 1837-1846 he was employed as an engineer on the London & Birmingham railway; 1848-1853 as sub-editor of the Economist. From about this time to 1860 he contributed a large number of articles to the Westminster Review, which contain the first sketches of his philosophic doctrines. He also published two larger works, Social Statics in 1850, and Principles of Psychology in 1855. In 1860 he sent out the syllabus of his Synthetic Philosophy in ten volumes, and in spite of frequent ill health had the satisfaction of completing it in 1896 with the third volume of the Principles of Sociology. He died on the 8th of December 1903.

    Herbert Spencer's significance in the history of English thought depends on his position as the philosopher of the great scientific movement of the second half of the 19th century, and on the friendship and admiration with which he was regarded by men like Darwin, G. H. Lewes and Huxley. Spencer tries to express in a sweeping general formula the belief in progress which pervaded his age, and to erect it into the supreme law of the universe as a whole. His labors coincided in time with the great development of biology under the stimulus of the Darwinian theory, and the sympathizers with the new views, feeling the need of a comprehensive survey of the world as a whole, very widely accepted Spencer's philosophy at its own valuation, both in England and, still more, in America. In spite of this, however, his heroic attempt at a synthesis of all scientific knowledge could not but fall short of its aim. Living at the commencement of an epoch of unparalleled scientific activity, Spencer could not possibly sum up and estimate its total production. To the specialists in sciences which were advancing rapidly and in divergent directions to results which often reacted on and transformed their initial assumptions, Spencer has often appeared too much of a philosopher and defective in specialist knowledge. To the technical philosophers, who strictly confine themselves to the logical collation and criticism of scientific methods, he has, contrariwise, not seemed philosophic enough. Hence his doctrines were open to damaging attacks from both sides, the more so as he always stood aloof from the academic spirit and its representatives. It seems unlikely, therefore, that as a system the Synthetic Philosophy will prove long-lived; but this hardly detracts from its fruitfulness as a source of suggestion, or from the historic influence of many of its conceptions on the culture of the age.

    This estimate of Spencerian philosophy may be substantiated by a brief survey of its origin and leading characteristics. Spencer claims, with some reason, that he was always an evolutionist. But his notions of what "evolution" is developed quite gradually. At first he seems to have meant by the word only the belief that progress is real, and that the existing order of nature is the result of a gradual process and not of a "special creation". In Social Statics (1851) he still regards the process teleologically, and argues after the fashion of William Paley that the "greatest happiness is the creative purpose" (ch. III, § 1), and that to "gag the moral sentiment" is "to balk creative design" (ch. XXXII, § 7). But this phraseology soon disappears, without his considering how, in default of some sort of teleology, it is legitimate to treat the world's history as a process. In The Development Hypothesis (1852) he objects strongly to the incredibility of the special creation of the myriad forms of life, without, however, suggesting how development has been effected. In Progress, its Law and Cause (1857) he adopted Von Baer's law, that the development of the individual proceeds from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous. This is at once connected with the nebular hypothesis, and subsequently "deduced" from the ultimate law of the "persistence of force", and finally supplemented by a counter-process of dissolution, all of which appears to Spencer only as "the addition of Von Baer's law to a number of ideas that were in harmony with it". It is clear, however, that Spencer's ideas as to the nature of evolution were already pretty definite when Darwin's Origin of Species (1859) revolutionized the subject of organic evolution by adding natural selection to the direct adaptation by use and disuse, and so suggesting an intelligible method of producing modifications in the forms of life. Spencer welcomed the Darwinian theory, and enriched it with the phrase "survival of the fittest"; but he did not give up the (Lamarckian) belief in the hereditary transmission of the modifications of organisms by the exercise of function. Shortly afterwards (1860) he sent out the prospectus of a systematic exposition of his Synthetic Philosophy, of which the first volume, First Principles, appeared in 1862. This work is divided into two parts; the first intended to show that while ultimate metaphysical questions are insoluble they compel to a recognition of an inscrutable Power behind phenomena which is called the Unknowable; the second devoted to the formulation and illustration of the Law of Evolution. In the first part Spencer's argument rests on Henry Longueville Mansel's Limits of Religious Thought and William Hamilton's "philosophy of the conditioned" (and so ultimately on Kant), and tries to show that alike in scientific and religious thought the ultimate terms are "inconceivable" (not by him distinguished from "unimaginable"). In science, the more we know the more extensive the "contact with surrounding nescience". In religion the really vital and constant element is the sense of mystery. This is illustrated by the difficulties inherent in the conception of Cause, Space, Time, Matter, Motion, the Infinite, and the Absolute, and by the "relativity of knowledge", which precludes knowledge of the Unknowable, since "thinking [is] relationing". Yet the Unknowable may exist, and we may even have an "indefinite knowledge" of it, positive, though vague and extralogical. Hence both science and religion must come to recognize as the "most certain of all facts—that the Power which the Universe manifests to us is utterly inscrutable". Thus to be buried side by side in the Unknowable constitutes their final reconciliation, as it is the refutation of irreligion which consists of "a lurking doubt whether [the] Incomprehensible Cause ... is really incomprehensible".

    Such are the foundations of Spencer's metaphysic of the Unknowable, to which he resorts in all the fundamental difficulties which he subsequently encounters. Whatever its affinities with that version of "faith" which regards it as antagonistic to knowledge, it can hardly be deemed philosophically satisfactory. A failure to solve the problems of metaphysics must always remain a failure, in spite of all protestations that it was inevitable; and it in no wise justifies an advance to so self-contradictory an asylum ignorantiae as the Unknowable. In the edition of his First Principles, published in 1900, Spencer adds a "postscript" which shows some consciousness of the contradiction involved in his knowledge of the Unknowable, and finally contends that his account of the Knowable in part II will stand even if part I be rejected. Even this, however, understates the case, seeing that a really inscrutable Unknowable would destroy all confidence in the order of nature and render all knowledge entirely precarious.

    In part II Spencer recognizes successively likenesses and unlikenesses among phenomena (the effects of the Unknowable), which are segregated into manifestations, vivid (object, non-ego) or faint (subject, ego), and then into space and time, matter and motion and force, of which the last is symbolized for us by the experience of resistance, and is that out of which our ideas of matter and motion are built. Hence the Persistence of Force is the ultimate basis of knowledge. From it Spencer proceeds to deduce the indestructibility of matter and energy, the equivalence and transformation of forces, the necessity of a rhythm, of Evolution (i.e. integration of matter with concomitant dissipation of motion) and Dissolution, and finally reaches the statement of the Law of Evolution as "an integration of matter and concomitant dissipation of motion, during which the matter passes from an indefinite incoherent homogeneity to a definite coherent heterogeneity, and during which the retained motion undergoes a parallel transformation". This process of evolution is due to "the instability of the homogeneous", the "multiplication of effects" and their "segregation", continuing until it ceases in complete "equilibration". Sooner or later, however, the reverse process of Dissolution, with its absorption of motion and disintegration of matter, which indeed has always been going on to some extent, must prevail, and these oscillations of the cosmic process will continue without end.

    It appears, therefore, that Spencer ultimately describes the Knowable in terms of the mechanical conceptions of matter and motion, and that this must give a materialistic coloring to his philosophy. There are, however, other flaws also in his procedure. The presence of Force, i.e. his version of the methodological assumption of constancy in the quantitative aspects of phenomena, seems a very unsuitable basis for a philosophy of progress. To such a philosophy a consideration of the conditions, if any, under which progress can be conceived as ultimately real, seems a necessary preliminary, which Spencer omits. He also assumes that "Evolution" is a real, nay, an ultimate law of nature, but his evidence only goes to show that it is a result, in some cases, of the complex interaction of laws, which, like Rhythm, Segregation, etc., are in their turn only tendencies, and may be, and often are, counteracted. By the afterthought of a "dissolution" process (2nd ed. of First Principles) Spencer in a way admits this, but introduces fresh difficulties as to its relation to "Evolution". If the two processes go on together both are tendencies, and whether there is on the whole progress or not will depend on their relative strength; neither can be universal, nor the "law" of cosmic existence, unless its coexisting rival is regarded as essentially secondary. But if so it ceases to be available as evidence of a coming reversal of the dominant process. If, on the other hand, the processes are strictly alternative, a world which ex hypothesi exemplifies the one can never justify us in inferring the other. Spencer appeals alternately to the "instability of the homogeneous" and the impossibility of complete equilibration to keep up the cosmic see-saw, but he can do so only by confining himself to a part of the universe. A world wholly homogeneous or equilibrated could no longer change, while so long as a part only is in process, the process cannot be represented as universal. Again, an infinite world cannot be wholly engaged either in evolution or in dissolution, so that it is really unmeaning to discuss the universality of the cosmic process until it is settled that we have a universe at all, capable of being considered as a whole. In the last resort, therefore, Spencer fails to deduce philosophically not only the necessity of progress, but also its compatibility with the evolution-dissolution oscillation, and even the general possibility of conceiving the world as a process. In other words, in spite of his intentions he does not succeed in giving a metaphysic of evolutionism.

    In the Principles of Biology the most notable points are the definition of life as the continuous adjustment of internal to external relations, and the consequent emphasis on the need of adapting the organism to its environment. This exaggerates the passivity of life, and does not sufficiently recognize that the higher organisms largely adjust external to internal relations and adapt their environment to their needs. His universal process of Evolution seems to give Spencer a criterion of "higher" and "lower" "progression" and "degeneration", independent of the accidents of actual history, and unattainable by strictly Darwinian methods. The higher (at least in times of "evolution") is the more complex and differentiated, whether it invariably survives or not. On the other hand, he advances too easily from the maxim that function is prior to, and makes, structure to the conclusion that the results of use and disuse are therefore immediately incarnated in structural adaptations capable of hereditary transmission. This inference has involved him in much controversy with the ultra-Darwinians of Weismann's school, who deny the possibility of the inheritance of acquired characteristics altogether. And though Spencer's general position—that it is absurd to suppose that organisms after being modified by their life should give birth to offspring showing no traces of such modifications—seems the more philosophic, yet it does not dispose of the facts which go to show that most of the evidence for the direct transmission of adaptations is illusory, and that beings are organized to minimize the effects of life on the reproductive tissues, so that the transmission of the effects of use and disuse, if it occurs, must be both difficult and rare—far more so than is convenient for Spencer's psychology.

    In his Principles of Psychology Spencer advocates the genetic explanation of the phenomena of the adult human mind by reference to its infant and animal ancestry. On the fundamental question, however, of the psychophysical connection and the derivation of mind from matter, his utterances are neither clear nor consistent. On the one hand, his whole formulation of Evolution in mechanical terms urges him in the direction of materialism, and he attempts to compose the mind out of homogeneous units of consciousness (or "feeling") "similar in nature to those which we know as nervous shocks; each of which is the correlative of a rhythmical motion of a material unit or group of such units" (§ 62). On the other hand, when pressed by his disciple, Fiske (Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy vol. II, p. 444), he is ready to amend nervous into psychical shocks, which is no doubt what he ought to have meant but could not say without ruining the illusory bridge between the psychical and the physiological which is suggested in the phrase "nervous shock". And he admits (§ 63) that if we were compelled to choose between translating mental phenomena into physical and its converse, the latter would be preferable, seeing that the ideas of matter and motion, merely symbolic of unknowable realities, are complex states of consciousness built out of units of feeling. But easiest of all is it to leave the relation of the unknowable "substance of Mind" to the unknowable "substance of Matter" (substance he throughout conceives as the unknowable substrate of phenomena) to the Unknowable, as he finally does. To the theory of knowledge Spencer contributes a "transfigured realism", to mediate between realism and idealism, and the doctrine that "necessary truths", acquired in experience and congenitally transmitted, are a priori to the individual, though a posteriori to the race, to mediate between empiricism and apriorism. It has already been explained, however, that the biological foundations of the latter doctrine are questionable.

    In the Principles of Sociology Spencer's most influential ideas have been that of the social organism, of the origination of religion out of the worship of ancestral ghosts, of the natural antagonism between nutrition and reproduction, industrialism and warfare. Politically, Spencer is an individualist of an extreme laissez faire type, and it is in his political attitude that the consequences of his pre-Darwinian conception of Evolution are most manifest. But for this he would hardly have established so absolute an antithesis between industrial and military competition, and have shown himself readier to recognize that the law of the struggle for existence, just because it is universal and equally (though differently) operative in every form of society, cannot be appealed to for guidance in deciding between the respective merits of an industrial or military and of an individualist or socialist organization of society.

    In the Principles of Ethics Spencer, though relying mainly on the objective order of nature and the intrinsic consequences of actions for the guidance of conduct, conceives the ethical end in a manner intermediate between the hedonist and the evolutionist. The transition from the evolutionist criterion of survival—which in itself it is difficult to regard as anything but non-moral—to the criterion of happiness is effected by means of the psychological argument that pleasure promotes function and that living beings must, upon pain of extinction, sooner or later take pleasure in actions which are conducive to their survival. Hence pleasure is, on the whole, good, and asceticism reprehensible, although in man's case there has arisen (owing to the rapidity of evolution) a certain derangement and divergence between the pleasant and the salutary (§ 39). Nevertheless pleasure forms an "inexpugnable element" of the moral aim (§ 16). Conduct being the adjustment of acts to ends, and good conduct that which is conducive to the preservation of a pleasurable life in a society so adjusted that each attains his happiness without impeding that of others, life can be considered valuable only if it conduces to happiness. On the other hand, life must in the long run so conduce, whatever its present value may appear to be, because a constant process of adjustment is going on which is bound sooner or later to lead to a complete adjustment which will be perfect happiness. This is the refutation of pessimism, which ultimately agrees with optimism in making pleasure the standard of value. In this reasoning Spencer appears to have overlooked the possibility of an expansion of the ethical environment. If this is as rapid as (or more rapid than) the rate of adaptation, there will be no actual growth of adaptation and so no moral progress. Complete adaptation to an infinitely receding ideal is impossible, and relative adaptation depends on the distance between the actual and the ideal. Spencer, however, considers that he can not only anticipate such a state of complete adjustment, but even lay down the rules obtaining in it, which will constitute the code of "Absolute Ethics" and the standard for discerning the "least wrong" actions of relative ethics. He conceives it as a state of social harmony so complete that in it even the antagonism between altruism and egoism will have been overcome. Both of these are original and indispensable, but egoism has the priority, since there must be egoistic pleasure somewhere before there can be altruistic sympathy with it. And so in the ideal state everyone will derive egoistic pleasure from doing such altruistic acts as may still be needed. In it, too, the sense of duty will have become otiose and have disappeared, being essentially a relic of the history of the moral consciousness. Originally the socially salutary action was in the main that which was enjoined on the individual by his political and religious superiors and by social sentiment; it was also in the main that to which his higher, more complex and re-representative feelings prompted. Hence the fear with which the political, religious and social controls were regarded came to be associated also with the specifically moral control of lower by higher feelings, and engendered the coercive element in the feeling of obligation. Its authoritativeness depends on the intrinsic salutariness of self-control, and must cease to be felt as the resistance of the lower feelings relaxes. Hence Spencer concludes that the sense of duty is transitory and must diminish as moralization increases. In the preface to the last part of his Ethics (1893) Spencer regrets that "the Doctrine of Evolution has not furnished guidance to the extent he had hoped", but his contributions to ethics are not unlikely to be the most permanently valuable part of his philosophy.

    After completing his system (1896) Spencer continued to revise it, and brought out new editions of the Biology (1898-1899) and First Principles (1900). The dates of his chief works are as follows: 1842, Letters to the Nonconformist, "The Proper Sphere of Government". 1851, Social Statics. 1852, The Theory of Population (cf. part vi of Biology); "The Development Hypothesis" (in Essays, vol. i) 1853. The Universal Postulate (cf. Psychology, part vii.). 1854, "the Genesis of Science" (in Essays, vol. ii). 1855, Principles of Psychology (1 vol.). 1857, Progress, its Law and Cause (Essays, vol. i). 1858, Essays (containing most of his contributions to the Westminster Review; 1863, vol. ii; 1885, vol. iii). 1861, Education: Intellectual, Moral, Physical. 1862, First Principles (2nd ed., 1867; 6th, 1900). 1864-1867, Principles of Biology (2 vols.). 1872, Principles of Psychology (2nd ed., in 2 vols.). 1873, The Study of Sociology. 1876, vol. i, The Principles of Sociology; vol. ii, Ceremonial Institutions, 1879, Political Institutions, 1882; vol. iii, Ecclesiastical Institutions, 1885, completed 1896. 1879, The Data of Ethics (part i of Principles of Ethics in 2 vols.; part iv, Justice, 1891; parts ii and iii, Inductions of Ethics and Ethics of Individual Life, 1892; parts v and vi, Negative and Positive Beneficence, 1893). 1884, Man versus the State. 1886, Factors of Organic Evolution. 1893, Inadequacy of Natural Selection. 1894, A Rejoinder to Professor Weismann and Weismannism once more. 1897, Fragments. 1902, Facts and Comments. An Autobiography in 2 vols. appeared posthumously in 1904. For a full bibliography of his works see W. H. Hudson's Introduction to the Philosophy of Herbert Spencer (up to 1895); and for a useful summary of his chief doctrines by Spencer himself, his preface to Collins's Epitome of the Synthetic Philosophy. He also supervised the compilation of a comprehensive series of volumes by various writers on Descriptive Sociology, of which by 1881 eight parts on different racial areas had been published (at a loss to him of £3250) as the result of fourteen years of labor. He then suspended this undertaking, but resolved that at his death it should be continued at the cost of his estate. In his will he appointed trustees, who were to entrust the supervision to Mr. H. R. Tedder, librarian of the Athenaeum Club; and the work was resumed accordingly after his death, five more parts being arranged for, one of which was published in 1910.

    (Ferdinand Canning Scott Schiller)


    Fiske, John. Outlines of Cosmic Phlosophy, Based on the Doctrine of Evolution, with Criticisms on the Positive Philosophy, vol. II. London: MacMillan and Co., 1874.

    Spencer, Herbert. Social Statics, or The Conditions essential to Happiness specified, and the First of Them Developed. London: John Chapman, 1851.

    _, First Principles. London: Williams and Norgate, 1862.

    _, First Principles, second edition. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1870.

    _, The Principles of Psychology, second edition, volume I. London: Williams and Norgate, 1870.

    _, The Data of Ethics. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1879.

    This article is derived from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition article "Spencer, Herbert" published in 1911, which is in the public domain.