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Herbert Spencer.

Herbert Spencer (27 April 1820 – 8 December 1903) 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 and psychology. He 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 his generation.


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. When 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. In 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".

These 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. Spencer 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 Spencerism." After 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.

In 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. During 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.

Despite 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. Fortunately, 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 in time). Members 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.

In 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). By 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.

In 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 1884, his work Man versus the State was published, outlining his political philosophy. 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 America. His 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. Multiple 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 been described as a quasi-anarchist as well as an outright anarchist. For example, Georgi Plekhanov, 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." [1] However, anarchists such as Peter Kropotkin have been critical of Spencer, "modern Individualism initiated by Herbert Spencer is, like the critical theory of Proudhon, a powerful indictment against the dangers and wrongs of government, but its practical solution of the social problem is miserable -- so miserable as to lead us to inquire if the talk of 'No force' be merely an excuse for supporting landlord and capitalist domination." [1]

He also had a significant impact on Shyamji Krishnavarma who announced at his funeral the donation of £1,000 to establish a lectureship at University of Oxford in tribute to him and his work

Survival of the fittest

Herbert Spencer coined the phrase "survival of the fittest," to describe changes in society. London School of Economics professor Rodney Barker writes:

Like Darwin, Spencer employed a selective principle to explain social evolution, but he complemented natural selection with the Lamarckian notion of adaptation, and of the inheritability of a predisposition to successful adaptation. His familiar phrase, 'the survival of the fittest', can thus be misleading, in so far as it suggests an arbitrary process depending on the absence or presence of qualities over which the individual or society has no control. The fittest were those who adapted, and there was in principle no limit to the number who might make this accommodation. The struggle for survival was thus not of man against man, but of man against a changing environment.[2]

Breadth 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 movement.

Spencer's 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:

What, then, do they [Humans] want a government for? Not to regulate commerce; not to educate the people; not to teach religion; not to administer charity; not to make roads and railways; but simply to defend the natural rights of man—to protect person and property—to prevent the aggressions of the powerful upon the weak—in a word, to administer justice. This is the natural, the original, office of a government. It was not intended to do less: it ought not to be allowed to do more.[3]

However, 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. It 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.

Those 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.

Anti-Imperialism/Opposition to the Boer War

Like many classical liberals of the period, including William Graham Sumner in the United States, Spencer was an ardent opponent of imperialism and militarism. His critique of the Boer War was especially scathing. He lamented that in “the Church-services held on the occasion of the departure of troops for South Africa …. certain hymns are used in a manner which substitutes for the spiritual enemy the human enemy. Thus for a generation past, under cover of the forms of a religion which preaches peace, love, and forgiveness, there has been a perpetual shouting of the words ‘war’ and ‘blood,’ ‘fire’ and ‘battle,’ and a continual exercise of the antagonistic feelings.” (Facts and Comments, ch. 25.)

Impact on Literature

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. 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 would come to address his ideas through their work. George Eliot, Leo Tolstoy, Thomas Hardy, Bolesław Prus and D. H. Lawrence all referenced Spencer. Arnold Bennett greatly praised First Principles, and the influence it had on Bennett can be seen in his many novels. Jack London went so far as to create a character, Martin Eden, who was a staunch Spencerian. It is perhaps the best testament to the influence of Spencer’s beliefs and writings that his reach was so diverse. Not only did he influence the administrators who shaped their societies’ inner workings, but also the artists who helped shape those societies' ideals and beliefs.

Herbert Spencer at the age of 78

Primary sources

Critiques by other philosophers

Relevant Topics


  • Elliot, Hugh. Herbert Spencer. London: Constable and Company, Ltd., 1917
  • Kennedy, James G. Herbert Spencer. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1978
  • Edwards, Ruth D. The Pursuit of Reason: The Economist 1843-1993, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, Massachusetts ISBN 0875846084
  1. Kropotkin, Peter Act For Yourselves (Freedom Press, London, 1988) [p. 98]
  2. Barker, Rodney (1997). Political Ideas in Modern Britain, Routledge. ISBN 0415071216.
  3. Spencer, Herbert (1842). The Proper Sphere of Government.

External links

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