Spencer’s Early Life and Education
Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) was born in Derby, in the UK, a twin city with Nottingham in the industrial English Midlands. His father ran a school according to the precepts of the Swiss educational reformer, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi.
The family were religious dissenters, who moved from Methodism to Quakerism.
Spencer was essentially an autodidact, having been educated at his father’s school and subsequently having embarked upon a program of intensive reading.
Spencer’s father was active in the Derby Philosophical Society, which had been founded in 1783 by Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grandfather and a fervent evolutionist. By listening to conversations between his father and members of the Society, the young Spencer became familiar with biological and pre-Darwinian evolutionary ideas from an early age.
Spencer worked at a number of different jobs as a young man, notably as a civil engineer during the railway boom of the 1930s.
During this period, Spencer began to write essays for publication in nonconformist religious journals that were receptive to his then-radical political and economic views.
Spencer’s articles for one of these magazines, The Nonconformist, were collected in 1843 and published as a pamphlet with the title, The Proper Sphere of Government (see “Spencer’s Most Important Works Relating to Economics” below).
In 1848, Spencer was appointed as editor of The Economist, owned by the well-connected publisher, John Chapman. Chapman, who kept Spencer on in his post at The Economist until 1853, was instrumental in introducing the ambitious young man to the British intellectual scene of the day.
The Economist, which had been founded just five years earlier, in 1843, remains to this day one of the preeminent, general-interest. news magazines in the world.
Chapman introduced Spencer to a wide circle of radical thinkers, including some of the most-prominent creative artists and philosophers in England at the time, such as Harriet Martineau, John Stuart Mill, George Henry Lewes, and George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans).
Eliot fell in love with Spencer, but their romance did not prosper, as the future philosopher did not reciprocate the feelings of the great novelist-to-be.
In 1851, Spencer published his first book, Social Statics, in which he attempted to analyze the empirical foundations and logical prerequisites of humanity’s condition as an essentially social species.
This book, and indeed all of Spencer’s works, were written under the spell of pre-Darwinian evolutionism, as incarnated by Erasmus Darwin (already mentioned above) and the great French zoologist and early proponent of evolution, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck.
Spencer was, first and foremost, a moral philosopher. In addition, he was a sociologist, a political theorist, a psychologist, and an evolutionary theorist. But perhaps above all, he was a system-builder.
In this latter capacity, Spencer was heavily influenced by the preeminent French philosopher of the day, Auguste Comte, the father of “positivism.” While Spencer disliked many aspects of Comte’s system, such as his scientism and his atheism, he admired the Frenchman’s ambition and the architectonic character of his work.
Under Comte’s influence, Spencer grouped his major works under a single, over-arching umbrella work entitled System of Synthetic Philosophy, eventually extending to ten volumes. The main individual constituent parts (several of them published in multiple parts themselves) are as follows. (Note that the dates are those of first publication; later editions and subdivisions into parts are ignored.)
- First Principles (1862).
- Principles of Biology (1864).
- Principles of Psychology (1870).
- Principles of Sociology (1874).
- Principles of Ethics (1879).
Other important influences on Spencer include John Stuart Mill’s System of Logic, published in 1843, and Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, published in 1859. The former heavily influenced the associationism adopted by Spencer in his Principles of Psychology in 1870, while the latter inspired Spencer to coin the term “survival of the fittest” in his Principles of Biology in 1864.
While certainly influenced by Charles Darwin, Spencer’s evolutionism remained more strongly marked by his early Lamarckian commitments. Today, he might be looked upon as a forerunner of “self-organization theory”—especially, in his famous essay, “Progress: Its Law and Cause,” first published by Spencer’s mentor and friend, John Chapman, in the Westminster Review in 1857.
Spencer elaborated upon his cosmic self-organization thesis in his book First Principles, published in 1862.
In 1868, Spencer published two volumes of collected essays, entitled Essays: Scientific, Political, and Speculative, with a third volume following in 1874.
Late in life, Spencer wrote a two-volume Autobiography, which was published posthumously in 1904.
For a boy from a humble background with no formal education and modest writing ability, Spencer’s career was quite remarkable. By the 1870s, he was one of the most popular authors in Great Britain, with his books selling regularly tens and even hundreds of thousands of copies.
William James suggested that the reason for Spencer’s astounding success as an author was that he:
. . . 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.
To this astute remark it might be added that Spencer’s emphasis on individual self-improvement appealed to the increasingly literate, late-Victorian, skilled working class.
Spencer’s devotion to economic and political liberalism, or non-interventionism, is evident from his earliest works.
Murray Rothbard once called Spencer’s first book, Social Statics,
. . . the greatest single work of libertarian political philosophy ever written.
Because of Spencer’s association with evolutionary thinking and the phrase “survival of the fittest,” he was long praised and derided as an exponent of “Social Darwinism,” the application of Darwin’s idea of natural selection to human social life.
Nineteenth-century Social Darwinists were close to the later eugenics movement, arguing that the health of society as a whole required that lazy, shiftless, poor, and/or mentally handicapped individuals should not be helped by society, but rather ought to be left to their own resources. This was often seen as form of apologetics for unfettered capitalism.
However, many modern scholars argue that Spence was not a Social Darwinist and that his reputation as one arose from two factors: sloppy reading of his works and conscious distortions on the part of socialists who wished to smear free-market economists as personally cruel and racist.
On the other hand, Spencer cannot be wholly exonerated of responsibility for this confusion, seeing that his prolixity as a writer and the turgidity of his prose style did result in real ambiguity in his texts, and occasionally in outright contradiction.
In any case, Spencer’s reputation as a supporter of laissez-faire was such that a 1905 US Supreme Court decision, Lochner v. New York, which struck down a state law limiting the number of hours per week a baker could keep his shop open, cited Spencer in both its majority and minority opinions.
The conservative majority which struck down the law, finding a “right to free contract” implicit in the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the US constitution, cited the inspiration they took from Spencer’s writings, while the liberal Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., writing for the minority, opined that:
The Fourteenth Amendment does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics.
In his Autobiography, written in his old age, Spencer left the following acute observation on the common phenomenon of people’s becoming more conservative as they get older:
In what appeared wholly evil there are discovered elements of good below the surface; and what once seemed useless or superfluous is discovered to be in some way beneficial, if not essential.
Spencer’s Most Important Works Relating to Economics
The Proper Sphere of Government (1843); reprinted in The Man Versus the State (1884).
“Progress: Its Law and Cause” (1857); reprinted in Essays: Scientific, Political, and Speculative, I (1868).
“The Morals of Trade” (1859); reprinted in Essays: Scientific, Political, and Speculative, II (1868).
First Principles (1862).
The Principles of Ethics (two volumes) (1879; 1892).
Political Writings, edited by John Offer (1993).
Selected Works About Spencer’s Economic and Social Thought
Bannister, Robert C., Social Darwinism: Science and Myth in Anglo-American Social Thought (1979).
Beck, Naomi, “Enrico Ferri’s Scientific Socialism: A Marxist Interpretation of Herbert Spencer’s Organic Analogy,” Journal of the History of Biology, 8: 301–325 (2005).
Den Otter, Sandra M., British Idealism and Social Explanation: A Study in Late Victorian Thought (1996).
Duncan, David, Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer (two volumes) (1908).
Ferri, Enrico, Socialism and Positive Science: Darwin, Spencer, Marx (1896).
Francis, Mark, Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life (2007).
Francis, Mark and Michael W. Taylor, eds., Herbert Spencer: Legacies (2014).
Gray, Tim S., The Political Philosophy of Herbert Spencer: Individualism and Organicism (1996).
Leonard, Thomas C., “Origins of the Myth of Social Darwinism: The Ambiguous Legacy of Richard Hofstadter’s Social Darwinism in American Thought,” Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 71: 37–51 (2009).
Mingardi, Alberto, Herbert Spencer (2011).
Offer, John, ed., Herbert Spencer: Critical Assessments of Leading Sociologists (four volumes (2000).
Offer, John, Herbert Spencer and Social Theory (2010).
Owen, William C., Economics of Herbert Spencer (1891).
Peel, J.D.Y., Herbert Spencer: The Evolution of a Sociologist (1971).
Perrin, Robert G., “Émile Durkheim’s Division of Labour and the Shadow of Herbert Spencer,” Sociological Quarterly, 36: 791–808 (1995).
Royce, Josiah, Herbert Spencer: An Estimate and Review (1904).
Sidgwick, Henry, Lectures on the Ethics of T.H. Green, Mr. Herbert Spencer, and J. Martineau (1902).
Sunna, Claudia and Manuela Mosca, “Heterogenesis of Ends: Herbert Spencer and the Italian Economists,” European Journal of the History of Economic Thought, 24: 25–57 (2017).
Taylor, Michael W., The Philosophy of Herbert Spencer (2007).
Turner, Jonathan H., Herbert Spencer: A Renewed Appreciation (1985).
Weinstein, David, Equal Freedom and Utility: Herbert Spencer’s Liberal Utilitarianism (1998).
Werhane, Patricia H., “Business Ethics and the Origins of Contemporary Capitalism: Economics and Ethics in the Work of Adam Smith and Herbert Spencer,” Journal of Business Ethics, 24: 185–198 (2000).
Wiltshire, David, The Social and Political Thought of Herbert Spencer (1978).
Zafirovski, Milan Z., “Spencer is Dead, Long Live Spencer: Individualism, Holism, and the Problem of Norms,” British Journal of Sociology, 51: 553–579 (2000).
Zwolinski, Matt, “Social Darwinism and Social Justice: Herbert Spencer on Our Duties to the Poor,” in Camilla Boisen and Matthew Murray, eds., Distributive Justice Debates in Social and Political Thought: Perspectives on Finding a Fair Share (2015).