Spencer at the age of 73
27 April 1820|
Derby, Derbyshire, England
8 December 1903
Brighton, Sussex, England
|School||Evolutionism, positivism, classical liberalism|
|Evolution, positivism, laissez-faire, utilitarianism|
|Social Darwinism, Survival of the fittest|
Spencer developed an all-embracing conception of Darwin did." As a polymath, he contributed to a wide range of subjects, including ethics, religion, anthropology, economics, political theory, philosophy, literature, biology, sociology, and psychology. During his lifetime he achieved tremendous authority, mainly in English-speaking academia. "The only other English philosopher to have achieved anything like such widespread popularity was Bertrand Russell, and that was in the 20th century." Spencer was "the single most famous European intellectual in the closing decades of the nineteenth century" but his influence declined sharply after 1900: "Who now reads Spencer?" asked Talcott Parsons in 1937.
Spencer is best known for the expression "survival of the fittest", which he coined in Principles of Biology (1864), after reading Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species. This term strongly suggests natural selection, yet as Spencer extended evolution into realms of sociology and ethics, he also made use of Lamarckism.
- Life 1
- Synthetic philosophy 2
- Evolution 3
- Sociology 4
- Agnosticism 5
Political views 6
- Social Darwinism 6.1
General influence 7
- Political influence 7.1
- Influence on literature 7.2
- Primary sources 8
- Philosophers' critiques 9
- See also 10
- Notes 11
- By Spencer 12.1
- External links 13
Spencer was born in Methodism to Quakerism, and who seems to have transmitted to his son an opposition to all forms of authority. He ran a school founded on the progressive teaching methods of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi and also served as Secretary of the Derby Philosophical Society, a scientific society which had been founded in the 1790s by Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin.
Spencer was educated in empirical science by his father, while the members of the Derby Philosophical Society introduced him to pre-Darwinian concepts of biological evolution, particularly those of Erasmus Darwin and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. His uncle, the Reverend Thomas Spencer, vicar of Hinton Charterhouse near Bath, completed Spencer's limited formal education by teaching him some mathematics and physics, and enough Latin to enable him to translate some easy texts. Thomas Spencer also imprinted on his nephew his own firm free-trade and anti-statist political views. Otherwise, Spencer was an autodidact who acquired most of his knowledge from narrowly focused readings and conversations with his friends and acquaintances.
As both an adolescent and a young man Spencer found it difficult to settle to any intellectual or professional discipline. He worked as a civil engineer during the railway boom of the late 1830s, while also devoting much of his time to writing for provincial journals that were nonconformist in their religion and radical in their politics. From 1848 to 1853 he served as sub-editor on the free-trade journal The Economist, during which time he published his first book, Social Statics (1851), which predicted that humanity would eventually become completely adapted to the requirements of living in society with the consequential withering away of the state.
Its publisher, Thomas Henry Huxley, who would later win fame as 'Darwin's Bulldog' and who remained his lifelong friend. However it was the friendship of Evans and Lewes that acquainted him with John Stuart Mill's A System of Logic and with Auguste Comte's positivism and which set him on the road to his life's work. He strongly disagreed with Comte.
The first fruit of his friendship with Evans and Lewes was Spencer's second book, Principles of Psychology, published in 1855, which explored a physiological basis for psychology. The book was founded on the fundamental assumption that the human mind was subject to natural laws and that these could be discovered within the framework of general biology. This permitted the adoption of a developmental perspective not merely in terms of the individual (as in traditional psychology), but also of the species and the race. Through this paradigm, Spencer aimed to reconcile the associationist psychology of Mill's Logic, the notion that human mind was constructed from atomic sensations held together by the laws of the association of ideas, with the apparently more 'scientific' theory of phrenology, which located specific mental functions in specific parts of the brain.
Spencer argued that both these theories were partial accounts of the truth: repeated associations of ideas were embodied in the formation of specific strands of brain tissue, and these could be passed from one generation to the next by means of the Lamarckian mechanism of use-inheritance. The Psychology, he believed, would do for the human mind what Isaac Newton had done for matter. However, the book was not initially successful and the last of the 251 copies of its first edition was not sold until June 1861.
Spencer's interest in psychology derived from a more fundamental concern which was to establish the universality of natural law. In common with others of his generation, including the members of Chapman's salon, he was possessed with the idea of demonstrating that it was possible to show that everything in the universe – including human culture, language, and morality – could be explained by laws of universal validity. This was in contrast to the views of many theologians of the time who insisted that some parts of creation, in particular the human soul, were beyond the realm of scientific investigation. Comte's Système de Philosophie Positive had been written with the ambition of demonstrating the universality of natural law, and Spencer was to follow Comte in the scale of his ambition. However, Spencer differed from Comte in believing it was possible to discover a single law of universal application which he identified with progressive development and was to call the principle of evolution.
In 1858 Spencer produced an outline of what was to become the System of Synthetic Philosophy. This immense undertaking, which has few parallels in the English language, aimed to demonstrate that the principle of evolution applied in biology, psychology, sociology (Spencer appropriated Comte's term for the new discipline) and morality. Spencer envisaged that this work of ten volumes would take twenty years to complete; in the end it took him twice as long and consumed almost all the rest of his long life.
Despite Spencer's early struggles to establish himself as a writer, by the 1870s he had become the most famous philosopher of the age. His works were widely read during his lifetime, and by 1869 he was able to support himself solely on the profit of book sales and on income from his regular contributions to Victorian periodicals which were collected as three volumes of Essays. His works were translated into German, Italian, Spanish, French, Russian, Japanese and Chinese, and into many other languages and he was offered honours and awards all over Europe and North America. He also became a member of the Athenaeum, an exclusive Gentleman's Club in London open only to those distinguished in the arts and sciences, and the X Club, a dining club of nine founded by T.H. Huxley that met every month and included some of the most prominent thinkers of the Victorian age (three of whom would become presidents of the Royal Society).
Members included physicist-philosopher John Tyndall and Darwin's cousin, the banker and biologist Sir John Lubbock. There were also some quite significant satellites such as liberal clergyman Arthur Stanley, the Dean of Westminster; and guests such as Charles Darwin and Hermann von Helmholtz were entertained from time to time. Through such associations, Spencer had a strong presence in the heart of the scientific community and was able to secure an influential audience for his views. Despite his growing wealth and fame he never owned a house of his own.
The last decades of Spencer's life were characterised by growing disillusionment and loneliness. He never married, and after 1855 was a perpetual hypochondriac who complained endlessly of pains and maladies that no physician could diagnose. By the 1890s his readership had begun to desert him while many of his closest friends died and he had come to doubt the confident faith in progress that he had made the center-piece of his philosophical system. His later years were also ones in which his political views became increasingly conservative. Whereas Social Statics had been the work of a radical democrat who believed in votes for women (and even for children) and in the nationalisation of the land to break the power of the aristocracy, by the 1880s he had become a staunch opponent of female suffrage and made common cause with the landowners of the Liberty and Property Defence League against what they saw as the drift towards 'socialism' of elements (such as Sir William Harcourt) within the administration of William Ewart Gladstone – largely against the opinions of Gladstone himself. Spencer's political views from this period were expressed in what has become his most famous work, The Man versus the state.
The exception to Spencer's growing conservativism was that he remained throughout his life an ardent opponent of imperialism and militarism. His critique of the Boer War was especially scathing, and it contributed to his declining popularity in Britain.
Spencer also invented a precursor to the modern paper clip, though it looked more like a modern cotter pin. This "binding-pin" was distributed by Ackermann & Company. Spencer shows drawings of the pin in Appendix I (following Appendix H) of his autobiography along with published descriptions of its uses.
In 1902, shortly before his death, Spencer was nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature. He continued writing all his life, in later years often by dictation, until he succumbed to poor health at the age of 83. His ashes are interred in the eastern side of London's Highgate Cemetery facing Karl Marx's grave. At Spencer's funeral the Indian nationalist leader Shyamji Krishnavarma announced a donation of £1,000 to establish a lectureship at Oxford University in tribute to Spencer and his work.
The basis for Spencer's appeal to many of his generation was that he appeared to offer a ready-made system of belief which could substitute for conventional religious faith at a time when orthodox creeds were crumbling under the advances of modern science. Spencer's philosophical system seemed to demonstrate that it was possible to believe in the ultimate perfection of humanity on the basis of advanced scientific conceptions such as the first law of thermodynamics and biological evolution.
In essence Spencer's philosophical vision was formed by a combination of Robert Chambers in his anonymous Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844). Although often dismissed as a lightweight forerunner of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species, Chambers' book was in reality a programme for the unification of science which aimed to show that Laplace's nebular hypothesis for the origin of the solar system and Lamarck's theory of species transformation were both instances (in Lewes' phrase) of 'one magnificent generalisation of progressive development.' Chambers was associated with Chapman's salon and his work served as the unacknowledged template for the Synthetic Philosophy.
Spencer first articulated his evolutionary perspective in his essay, 'Progress: Its Law and Cause', published in Chapman's Westminster Review in 1857, and which later formed the basis of the First Principles of a New System of Philosophy (1862). In it he expounded a theory of evolution which combined insights from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's essay 'The Theory of Life' – itself derivative from Friedrich von Schelling's Naturphilosophie – with a generalisation of von Baer's law of embryological development. Spencer posited that all structures in the universe develop from a simple, undifferentiated, homogeneity to a complex, differentiated, heterogeneity, while being accompanied by a process of greater integration of the differentiated parts. This evolutionary process could be found at work, Spencer believed, throughout the cosmos. It was a universal law, that was applying to the stars and the galaxies as much as to biological organisms, and to human social organisation as much as to the human mind. It differed from other scientific laws only by its greater generality, and the laws of the special sciences could be shown to be illustrations of this principle.
However, as Bertrand Russell stated in a letter to Beatrice Webb in 1923, this formulation has problems: 'I don't know whether [Spencer] was ever made to realise the implications of the second law of thermodynamics; if so, he may well be upset. The law says that everything tends to uniformity and a dead level, diminishing (not increasing) heterogeneity'. As an objection to evolution, this case is still regularly made by anti-evolutionists but does not apply to Darwinian approaches. It is applicable to matter and energy, not complex social systems.
Spencer's attempt to explain the pangenesis theory that involved "physiological units". These hypothetical hereditary units were similar to Darwin's gemmules.
Spencer read with excitement the original 
Spencer's ideas became very influential in China and Japan largely because he appealed to the reformers' desire to establish a strong nation-state with which to compete with the Western powers. His thought was introduced by the Chinese scholar Yen Fu, who saw his writings as a prescription for the reform of the Qing state. Spencer also influenced the Japanese Westernizer Tokutomi Soho, who believed that Japan was on the verge of transitioning from a "militant society" to an "industrial society," and needed to quickly jettison all things Japanese and take up Western ethics and learning. He also corresponded with Kaneko Kentaro, warning him of the dangers of imperialism. Savarkar writes in his Inside the Enemy Camp, about reading all of Spencer's works, of his great interest in them, of their translation into Marathi, and their influence on the likes of Tilak and Agarkar, and the affectionate sobriquet given to him in Maharashtra – Harbhat Pendse.
Influence on literature
Spencer also exerted a great influence 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. Spencer argued that it is the writer's ideal "To so present ideas that they may be apprehended with the least possible mental effort" by the reader.
He argued that by 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.
Spencer also had an influence on literature, as many novelists and short story authors came to address his ideas in their work. Arnold Bennett greatly praised First Principles, and the influence it had on Bennett may be seen in his many novels. Jack London went so far as to create a character, Martin Eden, a staunch Spencerian. It has also been suggested that the character of Vershinin in Anton Chekhov's play The Three Sisters is a dedicated Spencerian. H.G. Wells used Spencer's ideas as a theme in his novella, The Time Machine, employing them to explain the evolution of man into two species. It is perhaps the best testimony to the influence of Spencer's beliefs and writings that his reach was so diverse. He influenced not only the administrators who shaped their societies' inner workings, but also the artists who helped shape those societies' ideals and beliefs. In Rudyard Kipling's novel Kim, the Anglophile Bengali spy Hurree Babu is an admirer of Herbert Spencer and quotes him to comic effect: 'They are, of course, dematerialised phenomena. Spencer says.' 'I am good enough Herbert Spencerian, I trust, to meet little thing like death, which is all in my fate, you know.' 'He thanked all the Gods of Hindustan, and Herbert Spencer, that there remained some valuables to steal.'
- Papers of Herbert Spencer in Senate House Library, University of London
- Most of Spencer's books are available online
- "On The Proper Sphere of Government" (1842)
Social Statics: or, The Conditions Essential to Human Happiness Specified, and the First of Them Developed (1851)
- "The Right to Ignore the State", Chapter XIX of the first edition of Social Statics(p)
- Social Statics: Abridged and Revised (1892)
- "A Theory of Population" (1852)
- Principles of Psychology (1855), first edition, issued in one volume
System of Synthetic Philosophy',' in ten volumes
- First Principles ISBN 0-89875-795-9 (1862)
Principles of Biology (1864, 1867; revised and enlarged: 1898), in two volumes
- Volume I – Part I: The Data of Biology; Part II: The Inductions of Biology; Part III: The Evolution of Life; Appendices
- Volume II – Part IV: Morphological Development; Part V: Physiological Development; Part VI: Laws of Multiplication; Appendices
Principles of Psychology (1870, 1880), in two volumes
- Volume I – Part I: The Data of Psychology; Part II: The Inductions of Psychology; Part III: General Synthesis; Part IV: Special Synthesis; Part V: Physical Synthesis; Appendix
- Volume II – Part VI: Special Analysis; Part VII: General Analysis; Part VIII: Congruities; Part IX: Corollaries
Principles of Sociology, in three volumes
- Volume I (1874–75; enlarged 1876, 1885) – Part I: Data of Sociology; Part II: Inductions of Sociology; Part III: Domestic Institutions
- Volume II – Part IV: Ceremonial Institutions (1879); Part V: Political Institutions (1882); Part VI [published here in some editions]: Ecclesiastical Institutions (1885)
- Volume III – Part VI [published here in some editions]: Ecclesiastical Institutions (1885); Part VII: Professional Institutions (1896); Part VIII: Industrial Institutions (1896); References
The Principles of Ethics (1897), in two volumes
- Volume I – Part I: The Data of Ethics (1879); Part II: The Inductions of Ethics (1892); Part III: The Ethics of Individual Life (1892); References
- Volume II – Part IV: The Ethics of Social Life: Justice (1891); Part V: The Ethics of Social Life: Negative Beneficence (1892); Part VI: The Ethics of Social Life: Positive Beneficence (1892); Appendices
- (1873, 1896)The Study of Sociology
- An Autobiography (1904), in two volumes
- See also
- by David DuncanLife and Letters of Herbert Spencerv1 (1908)
- by David DuncanLife and Letters of Herbert Spencerv2 (1908)
- Descriptive Sociology; or Groups of Sociological Facts, parts 1–8, classified and arranged by Spencer, compiled and abstracted by David Duncan, Richard Schepping, and James Collier (London, Williams & Norgate, 1873–1881).
- Illustrations of Universal Progress: A Series of Discussions (1864, 1883)
- The Man versus the State (1884)
- The man versus the state
Essays: Scientific, Political, and Speculative (1891), in three volumes:
- Volume I (includes "The Development Hypothesis," "Progress: Its Law and Cause," "The Factors of Organic Evolution" and others)
- Volume II (includes "The Classification of the Sciences", The Philosophy of Style (1852), The Origin and Function of Music," "The Physiology of Laughter," and others)
- Volume III (includes "The Ethics of Kant", "State Tamperings With Money and Banks", "Specialized Administration", "From Freedom to Bondage", "The Americans", and others)
- Various Fragments (1897, enlarged 1900)
- Facts and Comments (1902)
- Great Political Thinkers (1960)
- Herbert Spencer: An Estimate and Review (1904) by Josiah Royce.
- Lectures on the Ethics of T.H. Green, Mr. Herbert Spencer, and J. Martineau (1902) by Henry Sidgwick.
- Spencer-smashing at Washington (1894) by Lester F. Ward.
- A Perplexed Philosopher (1892) by Henry George.
- A Few Words with Mr Herbert Spencer (1884) by Paul Lafargue.
- Remarks on Spencer's Definition of Mind as Correspondence (1878) by William James.
- Riggenbach, Jeff (24 April 2011) The Real William Graham Sumner, Mises Institute
- Richards, Peter (4 November 2010) Herbert Spencer: Social Darwinist or Libertarian Prophet?, Mises Institute
- Thomas Eriksen and FinnNielsen, A history of anthropology (2001) p. 37
- "Spencer became the most famous philosopher of his time," says Henry L. Tischler, Introduction to Sociology (2010) p. 12
- Talcott Parsons, The Structure of Social Action (1937; New York: Free Press, 1968), p. 3; quoting from C. Crane Brinton, English Political Thought in the Nineteenth Century (London: Benn, 1933).
- Rev. Thomas Spencer (14 October 1796 – 26 January. 1853) – See: http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/26138/?back=,36208
- Duncan, Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer pp. 53–55
- Duncan, Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer p. 113
- In 1844, Spencer published three articles on phrenology in
- Duncan, Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer p. 75
- Duncan, Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer p. 537
- Duncan, Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer p. 497
- Duncan, Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer p. 464
- Duncan, Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer, p. 537
- quoted in
- Deichmann, Ute. (2010). Darwinism, Philosophy, and Experimental Biology. Springer. pp. 41-42. ISBN 978-90-481-9901-3
- , Volume 44Popular Science Monthly
- McKinnon, AM. (2010). 'Energy and society: Herbert Spencer’s ‘energetic sociology’ of social evolution and beyond'. Journal of Classical Sociology, vol 10, no. 4, pp. 439-455. 
- Doherty, Brian, Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement, p. 246.
- Stringham, Edward. Anarchy and the Law. Transaction Publishers, 2007. p. 387.
- Stringham, Edward. Anarchy and the Law. Transaction Publishers, 2007. p. 388.
- Facts and commentsHerbert Spencer, , p. 126.
- Social Statics (1851), pp. 42, 307.
- The Man vs the State, 1884 at the Constitution Society
- Ronald F. Cooney, "Herbert Spencer: Apostle of Liberty" Freeman (January 1973)online
- Chris Matthew Sciabarra, "Libertarianism", in International Encyclopedia of Economic Sociology, ed. Jens Beckert and Milan Zafirovski (2006), pp. 403–407 online.
- James, William. "Herbert Spencer". The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. XCIV (1904), p. 104.
- Quoted in John Offer, Herbert Spencer: Critical Assessments (London: Routledge, 2004), p. 612.
- Gertrude Himmelfarb, Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution, 1968, p. 222; quoted in Robert J. Richards, Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), p. 243.
- Richard Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought (1944; Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), p. 32.
- Mark Francis, Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life (Newcastle, UK: Acumen Publishing, 2007).
- Plekhanov, Georgiĭ Valentinovich (1912), trans. Aveling, Eleanor Marx. Anarchism and Socialism, p. 143. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company. (See here.)
- Benjamin Schwartz, In Search of Wealth and Power (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1964).
- Kenneth Pyle, The New Generation in Meiji Japan (Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 1969).
- Spencer to Kaneko Kentaro, 26 August 1892 in The Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer ed. David Duncan (1908), p. 296.
- Carneiro, Robert L. and Perrin, Robert G. "Herbert Spencer's 'Principles of Sociology:' a Centennial Retrospective and Appraisal." Annals of Science 2002 59(3): 221–261 online at Ebsco
- Duncan, David. The Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer (1908) online edition
- Elliot, Hugh. Herbert Spencer. London: Constable and Company, Ltd., 1917
- Elwick, James. "Herbert Spencer and the Disunity of the Social Organism." History of Science 41, 2003, pp. 35–72.
- Elliott, Paul. 'Erasmus Darwin, Herbert Spencer and the Origins of the Evolutionary Worldview in British Provincial Scientific Culture', Isis 94 (2003), 1–29
- Francis, Mark. Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life. Newcastle UK: Acumen Publishing, 2007 ISBN 0-8014-4590-6
- Harris, Jose. "Spencer, Herbert (1820–1903)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004) online, a standard short biography
- Hodgson, Geoffrey M. "Social Darwinism in Anglophone Academic Journals: A Contribution to the History of the Term" (2004) 17 Journal of Historical Sociology 428.
- Hofstadter, Richard. Social Darwinism in American Thought. (1944) Boston: Beacon Press, 1992 ISBN 0-8070-5503-4.
- Kennedy, James G. Herbert Spencer. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1978
- Mandelbaum, Maurice. History, Man, and Reason: A Study in Nineteenth-century Thought. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971.
- Parsons, Talcott. The Structure of Social Action. (1937) New York: Free Press, 1968.
- Rafferty, Edward C. "The Right to the Use of the Earth". Herbert Spencer, the Washington Intellectual Community, and American Conservation in the Late Nineteenth Century.
- Richards, Robert J. Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
- Stewart, Iain. "Commandeering Time: The Ideological Status of Time in the Social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer" (2011) 57 Australian Journal of Politics and History 389.
- Taylor, Michael W. Men versus the State: Herbert Spencer and Late Victorian Individualism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
- Taylor, Michael W. The Philosophy of Herbert Spencer. London: Continuum, 2007.
- Turner, Jonathan H. Herbert Spencer: A Renewed Appreciation. Sage Publications, 1985. ISBN 0-8039-2426-7
- Versen, Christopher R. Optimistic Liberals: Herbert Spencer, the Brooklyn Ethical Association, and the Integration of Moral Philosophy and Evolution in the Victorian Trans-Atlantic Community. Florida State University, 2006.
- Duncan, David. The Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer (1908) online edition
- Spencer, Herbert. Spencer: Political Writings (Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought) edited by John Offer (1993) excerpt and text search
- Spencer, Herbert. Social Statics: The Man Versus the State
- Spencer, Herbert. The Study of Sociology excerpt and text search; also full text online free
- Spencer, Herbert. The Principles of Psychology excerpt and text search; full text online
- Spencer, Herbert. Social Statics, Abridged and Revised: Together with the Man Versus the State (1896), highly influential among libertarians full text online free
- Spencer, Herbert. Education: Intellectual, Moral, and Physical (1891) 283pp full text online
- Spencer, Herbert. An Autobiography (1905, 2 vol) full text online
- Online writings of Spencer
Library resources about
|By Herbert Spencer|
- Herbert Spencer entry by David Weinstein in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2008-02-27
- Herbert Spencer entry in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy by William Sweet
- Review materials for studying Herbert Spencer
- Herbert Spencer at Find a Grave
- Works by Herbert Spencer at Project Gutenberg
- Works by or about Herbert Spencer at Internet Archive
- Works by Herbert Spencer at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
- Works by Herbert Spencer at the Online Library of Liberty (HTML, facsimile PDF, reading PDF)
- On Moral Education, reprinted in Left and Right: A Journal of Libertarian Thought (Spring 1966)
- First principles Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library.
- onlineFirst Principles
- "The Right to Ignore the State" by Herbert Spencer.
In recent years, much more positive estimates have appeared, as well as a still highly negative estimate.
The early 20th century was hostile to Spencer. Soon after his death, his philosophical reputation went into a sharp decline. Half a century after his death, his work was dismissed as a "parody of philosophy", and the historian Richard Hofstadter called him "the metaphysician of the homemade intellectual, and the prophet of the cracker-barrel agnostic." Nonetheless, Spencer's thought had penetrated so deeply into the Victorian age that his influence did not disappear entirely.
Spencer's influence among leaders of thought was also immense, though it was most often expressed in terms of their reaction to, and repudiation of, his ideas. As his American follower John Fiske observed, Spencer's ideas were to be found "running like the weft through all the warp" of Victorian thought. Such varied thinkers as Henry Sidgwick, T.H. Green, G.E. Moore, William James, Henri Bergson, and Émile Durkheim defined their ideas in relation to his. Durkheim's Division of Labour in Society is to a very large extent an extended debate with Spencer, from whose sociology, many commentators now agree, Durkheim borrowed extensively.
While most philosophers fail to achieve much of a following outside the academy of their professional peers, by the 1870s and 1880s Spencer had achieved an unparalleled popularity, as the sheer volume of his sales indicate. He was probably the first, and possibly the only, philosopher in history to sell over a million copies of his works during his own lifetime. In the United States, where pirated editions were still commonplace, his authorised publisher, Appleton, sold 368,755 copies between 1860 and 1903. This figure did not differ much from his sales in his native Britain, and once editions in the rest of the world are added in the figure of a million copies seems like a conservative estimate. As William James remarked, Spencer "enlarged the imagination, and set free the speculative mind of countless doctors, engineers, and lawyers, of many physicists and chemists, and of thoughtful laymen generally." The aspect of his thought that emphasised individual self-improvement found a ready audience in the skilled working class.
Focusing on the form as well as the content of Spencer's "Synthetic Philosophy", one writer has identified it as the paradigmatic case of "Social Darwinism", understood as a politically motivated metaphysic very different in both form and motivation from Darwinist science.
 Spencer's association with
For many, the name of Herbert Spencer would be virtually synonymous with Social Darwinism, a social theory that applies the law of the survival of the fittest to society; humanitarian impulses had to be resisted as nothing should be allowed to interfere with nature's laws, including the social struggle for existence.
Although he retained support for unions, his views on the other issues had changed by the 1880s. He came to predict that that social welfare programmes would eventually lead to socialisation of the means of production, saying "all socialism is slavery"; Spencer defined a slave as a person who "labours under coercion to satisfy another's desires" and believed that under socialism or communism the individual would be enslaved to the whole community rather than to a particular master, and "it means not whether his master a single person or society"  While often caricatured as ultra-conservative, Spencer had been more radical earlier in his career – opposing private property in land and claiming that each person has a latent claim to participate in the use of the earth (views that influenced
Spencer anticipated many of the analytical standpoints of later libertarian theorists such as Friedrich Hayek, especially in his "law of equal liberty", his insistence on the limits to predictive knowledge, his model of a spontaneous social order, and his warnings about the "unintended consequences" of collectivist social reforms.
By the 1880s he was denouncing "the new Toryism" (that is, the "social reformist wing" of the Liberal party – the wing to some extent hostile to Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, this faction of the Liberal party Spencer compared to the interventionist "Toryism" of such people as the former Conservative party Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli). In The Man versus the State (1884), he attacked Gladstone and the Liberal party for losing its proper mission (they should be defending personal liberty, he said) and instead promoting paternalist social legislation (what Gladstone himself called "Construction" – an element in the modern Liberal party that he opposed). Spencer denounced Irish land reform, compulsory education, laws to regulate safety at work, prohibition and temperance laws, tax funded libraries, and welfare reforms. His main objections were threefold: the use of the coercive powers of the government, the discouragement given to voluntary self-improvement, and the disregard of the "laws of life." The reforms, he said, were tantamount to "socialism", which he said was about the same as "slavery" in terms of limiting human freedom. Spencer vehemently attacked the widespread enthusiasm for annexation of colonies and imperial expansion, which subverted all he had predicted about evolutionary progress from 'militant' to 'industrial' societies and states.
Politics in late Victorian Britain moved in directions that Spencer disliked, and his arguments provided much ammunition for conservatives and individualists in Europe and America that they still are in use in the 21st century. The expression 'There Is No Alternative' (TINA), made famous by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, may be traced to its emphatic use by Spencer.
, he replied: "When men hire themselves out to shoot other men to order, asking nothing about the justice of their cause, I don't care if they are shot themselves."Second Afghan War As a result of this perspective, Spencer was harshly critical of patriotism. In response to being told that British troops were in danger during the  He also argued that the individual had a "right to ignore the state." Spencerian views in 21st century circulation derive from his political theories and memorable attacks on the reform movements of the late 19th century. He has been claimed as a precursor by
|Part of a series on|
|Part of a series on|
Starting either from religious belief or from science, Spencer argued, we are ultimately driven to accept certain indispensable but literally inconceivable notions. Whether we are concerned with a Creator or the substratum which underlies our experience of phenomena, we can frame no conception of it. Therefore, Spencer concluded, religion and science agree in the supreme truth that the human understanding is only capable of 'relative' knowledge. This is the case since, owing to the inherent limitations of the human mind, it is only possible to obtain knowledge of phenomena, not of the reality ('the absolute') underlying phenomena. Hence both science and religion must come to recognise as the 'most certain of all facts that the Power which the Universe manifests to us is utterly inscrutable.' He called this awareness of 'the Unknowable' and he presented worship of the Unknowable as capable of being a positive faith which could substitute for conventional religion. Indeed, he thought that the Unknowable represented the ultimate stage in the evolution of religion, the final elimination of its last anthropomorphic vestiges.
Spencer's reputation among the Victorians owed a great deal to his agnosticism. He rejected theology as representing the 'impiety of the pious.' He was to gain much notoriety from his repudiation of traditional religion, and was frequently condemned by religious thinkers for allegedly advocating atheism and materialism. Nonetheless, unlike Thomas Henry Huxley, whose agnosticism was a militant creed directed at 'the unpardonable sin of faith' (in Adrian Desmond's phrase), Spencer insisted that he was not concerned to undermine religion in the name of science, but to bring about a reconciliation of the two.
The evolutionary progression from simple, undifferentiated homogeneity to complex, differentiated heterogeneity was exemplified, Spencer argued, by the development of society. He developed a theory of two types of society, the militant and the industrial, which corresponded to this evolutionary progression. Militant society, structured around relationships of hierarchy and obedience, was simple and undifferentiated; industrial society, based on voluntary, contractually assumed social obligations, was complex and differentiated. Society, which Spencer conceptualised as a 'structural functionalism, his attempt to introduce Lamarckian or Darwinian ideas into the realm of sociology was unsuccessful. It was considered by many, furthermore, to be actively dangerous. Hermeneuticians of the period, such as Wilhelm Dilthey, would pioneer the distinction between the natural sciences (Naturwissenschaften) and human sciences (Geisteswissenschaften). In the United States, the sociologist Lester Frank Ward, who would be elected as the first president of the American Sociological Association, launched a relentless attack on Spencer's theories of laissez-faire and political ethics. Although Ward admired much of Spencer's work he believed that Spencer's prior political biases had distorted his thought and had led him astray. In the 1890s, Émile Durkheim established formal academic sociology with a firm emphasis on practical social research. By the turn of the 20th century the first generation of German sociologists, most notably Max Weber, had presented methodological antipositivism. However, it should be noted that Spencer's theories of laissez-faire, survival-of-the-fittest and minimal human interference in the processes of natural law had an enduring and even increasing appeal in the social science fields of economics and political science, and one writer has recently made the case for Spencer's importance for a sociology that must learn to take energy in society seriously.