Herbert Spencer "A wise man must remember that while he is a descendant of the past, he is a parent of the future"


Born in Derby England, on April 27 1820, Herbert Spencer was the founder of a concept christened social Darwinism. Spencer was the only one of his 9 siblings to survive infancy. Receiving a largely informal education and heavy influences from the individualism, anti-establishment and anti-clerical opinions of his father. Young Spencer was surrounded by anti-authority sentiments throughout childhood.

Charlie and Herbert Spencer in their Father's studio

Spencer often revealed patterns of utilitarianism in his work and beliefs; Starting as an advocate for philosophic radicalism and later turning to 'the greatest happiness principle.' During his career, Spencer authored several books: Social Statistics, or the Conditions Essential to Human Happiness and The Principles of Psychology being two of his titles. Spencer earned great acclaim for his ideas and his influence reached a peak during the 1870s to 1880s, even reaching to America. Spencer was nominated for the noble prize for Literature, in 1902, although the extremely humble philosopher declined a majority of his awards. In the last few years of his life, Spencer's health declined tremendously and the influential philosopher met his death on December 8, 1903.

Important ideas of Herbert Spencer:

Herbert Spencer was largely influenced by positivism of Auguste Comte and he often viewed the issues he studied through a lens of scientific thought and empiricism. Spencer is famous for framing his philosophical ideas through ideas of evolution, hence the term social Darwinism. Spencer viewed things through a 'principle of continuity' which states that "homogenous organisms are unstable, that organism develop from simple to more complex and heterogeneous forms, and that such evolution constituted a norm of progress"(Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Denying Darwin's claim of evolution, Spencer believed that evolution was not based on natural selection.

John Stuart Mill; Charles Lamb; Charles Kingsley; Herbert Spencer; John Ruskin; Charles Darwin

Spencer was said to have an 'organic' take on society. Based upon the nature of individual entities one could draw conclusions about what human happiness consisted of. To Spencer, social life could be viewed as an extension of the life of the natural body. Spencer approached religion in a very sensible and rational way, denouncing the existence of a god and reasoning there is no possible pathway to be knowledgeable about the nature of the divine and no way to prove that information, either. Ideas behind social Darwinism were founded on a belief that human life is built on a continuum and also a piece of a larger evolutionary process. Human society mirrors the evolution of other organisms and society and many institutions within said society can function absent of an external control. Basic bodily functions and processes worked in a similar way to social institutions. Spencer held that moral science can aptly observe key aspects of the 'laws of life', which would promote happiness for every citizen.

For happiness to be possible, there must be very few artificial restrictions on society: progress was an inevitable characteristic of evolution, it was something to be achieved only through the free exercise of human faculties. Spencer held what can be called a 'moral sense theory' through his claims, Herbert Spencer argued for liberty and individualism and human rights. For Spencer, 'liberty' "is to be measured, not by the nature of the government machinery he lives under [...] but by the relative paucity of the restraints it imposes on him" (The Man versus the StateĀ [1940], p. 19) Spencer admitted to following earlier forms of liberalism, and then focusing more on individualist values, the philosopher moved to believe that the only function of the government should be to protect the individual rights of it's citizens. In Spencer's works themes of Growth, differentiation, integration and adaption, ideas from developmental biology unified his discussions about social issues.

Presentation of ideas

Spencer's ideas were influences for evolutionary economists such as Thorstein Velblen and William Graham Sumner. Spencer has been said to be one of the most iconic figures of sociology and psychology. Unfortunately much of the Man's work has been disregarded due to his controversial ideas. It is not widely known that Spencer's theory of evolution was coined before Darwin's. A book was authored by Spencer under the title, Developmental Hypothesis, 7 years prior to Darwin's book, Origin of Species! Survival of the fittest was also a phrase of Spencer's and did not belong to Darwin, despite popular belief. Spencer's attitude towards societies' survival of the fittest, struck a chord with many successful capitalists. The rich upper class would use Spencer's words to justify their anti-socialist reform and government viewpoints. Both of those things would be detrimental to the natural law of things

Importance of ideas

Spencer's work has often been used to model the thoughts of later thinkers like Robert Nozick-largely in a libertarian direction. Spencer is still referenced today and often involved in libertarian movements, and used mainly for his views on the function of government and the "character" of individual rights. Spencer held that the government should function without external controls and restrictions, but as famous as he was, in this argument Spencer failed to realize the higher and lower forces in society. Many critics have been quick to dismiss Spencer's teachings. G.E. Moore argued that spencer had committed 'naturalistic fallacy' and said that Spencer combined his views on survivability and goodness. These principles were strictly and did not belong together, being both natural and non-natural. In fact it is often forgotten just how much Spencer influenced Andrew Carnegie and William Graham Sumner's relationship to capitalism. Although Spencer's work might not have received as much credit as it should, thanks to Moore's and Hofstadter's critical assessments. Spencer was largely forgotten, but now more recent studies are uncovering him and re-discovering and appreciating his utilitarian views. One can argue Spencer's interesting takes on life have been greatly underappreciated, his ideas were often brushed aside in recounting the history of liberalism. It would be worth our while to uncover some of Spencer's arguments about the politics, happiness and the general nature of humanity and find our own inherent truths in them.

Made with Adobe Slate

Make your words and images move.

Get Slate

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.