Herbert Spencer

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Herbert Spencer
Herbert Spencer.jpg

Born April 27, 1820
Derby, Derbyshire, England
Died December 8, 1903
Brighton, Sussex, England

Herbert Spencer (April 27, 1820 – December 8, 1903) was a highly influential English philosopher and political theorist. He had an encyclopedic range, writing on topics of government, ethics, education, economics, sociology, biology, psychology and anthropology. He originated some of the ideas of evolution picked up by Charles Darwin. Spencer's main theme was that powerful forces of social evolution were systematically making mankind better and better.

In politics he was a 19th century liberal—similar to modern libertarians—who opposed to government intervention of any sort and provided the arguments that conservatives still use to oppose socialist and liberal proposals. He is most famous as a champion of individualism and his rejection of any form of collectivism. Spencer insisted on an ethical and humane approach to future social development, which prohibited dominance and aggression towards dependent persons or groups, even if it could be demonstrated that the long-term result would be beneficial.[1] Sciabarra (1999) calls Spencer "The First Libertarian."


Spencer was born into a poor but well-educated family. He was home-schooled by his father and his uncle Thomas Spencer, an evangelical clergyman who had been educated at Cambridge University. Starting at age 17 he spent four years as a civil engineer building railways, and the highly systematic engineering mode of analysis characterized his intellectual approaches.

He never married, and after 1855 was a perpetual hypochondriac who complained endlessly of pains and maladies that no physician could diagnose.

Working as a journalist in London, Spencer came to know the leading intellectuals of the day. They were fascinated by his ideas, and amused by his extreme eccentricities. For example, he preached hard work but was notoriously lazy. He preached the survival of the fittest at the same time he thought his own body was being destroyed by mysterious diseases.

Spencer's ideas

Spencer's ideas appeared first in magazine articles and were published in a series of books that he constantly rewrote and revised. His most important ideas (on evolution, especially) appeared in the 1850s and 1860s, and after 1870 or so he had little new to say.

Social Statics

His first book Social Statics (1850) was a utopian portrayal of an ideal society. He believed that human society was governed by fixed natural laws, and the government should be limited to enforcing those natural laws. He stressed the need for society to adjust to the material environment and proclaimed a libertarian principle of "equal freedom" for each individual, limited only by "the similar freedoms of all." He denied the legitimacy of private property in land, argued for the equality of men and women as a moral ideal, and said children should be educated through persuasion and rational argument rather than discipline and coercion.


It cannot but happen that those individuals whose functions are most out of equilibrium with the modified aggregate of external forces, will be those to die; and that those will survive whose functions happen to be most nearly in equilibrium with the modified aggregate of external forces.

But this survival of the fittest, implies multiplication of the fittest. Out of the fittest thus multiplied, there will, as before, be an overthrowing of the moving equilibrium wherever it presents the least opposing force to the new incident force.

The Principles of Biology, Vol. I (1864), Part III: The Evolution of Life, Ch. 7: Indirect Equilibration

In 1852 Spencer published a major article that articulated the idea of biological evolution and which had a major influence on Charles Darwin's theory of evolution which appeared in 1859. In ‘The development hypothesis’, Spencer attacked "special-creationism", and proclaimed an evolutionary model of the natural world, based on a process of continuous small changes: "Surely if a single cell … may become a man in the space of twenty years … there is nothing absurd in the hypothesis that … a cell may, in the course of millions of years, give origin to the human race." Spencer's second book, The Principles of Psychology, (1855) said that the human mind was the product of environmentally generated organic evolution; it came under attack for its atheism and materialism.


His essays on education, Education: Intellectual, Moral and Physical (1861) ridiculed the usual practice of cramming, the dominance of Latin and Greek in the upper class schools, and excessive attention to the stories of kings and queens. He recommended instead a program of "self-development", based on problem-solving, empirical geometry, healthy exercise, drawing from observation, and natural science. He said children should be taught and disciplined, not by artificial grades and punishments but by having to accept the consequences of their actions, with the "impersonal agency of Nature" replacing "the personal agency of parents."

Synthetic Philosophy

Spencer spent forty years writing a series of books and articles explaining his "Synthetic Philosophy." The books sold very well and, especially in the 1870s, had a major impact on European and American thinkers. He focused on the evolution of biological organisms, and human society itself, by which he meant the inevitable movement from the simple to the complex. Thus simple one-celled organisms became complex multi-celled organisms over time. Likewise the simple way of life of "primitive" peoples evolved into the complex institutional arrangements of the modern world. Evolution was progress, he believed, and always moved forward.

Sociology and Ethics

In The Principles of Sociology (1876) and The Principles of Ethics (1879) proclaimed a universal law of socio-political development: societies moved from a military organization to a base in industrial production. As society evolved, he argued, there would be greater individualism, greater altruism, greater co-operation, and a more equal freedom for everyone. The laws of human society would produce the changes, and he said the only role for government was military police, and enforcement of civil contracts in courts. Many libertarians adopted his perspective.

Runs out of ideas

Scientists by the 1870s were focused on laboratory work; Spencer never followed the new research and scientists ignored his increasingly outdated ideas. In biology, for example, Spencer clung to Lamarckianism long after other scientists rejected it as a model of how evolution worked. In the social realm, Spencer's ignorance of history made it easy for scholars to prove that his theories of evolution simply did not match the historical record. For example, he believed that industrialization would automatically reduce warfare; instead it led to high powered armies and navies and to warfare on a much vaster scale, as in the two world wars.

Creates conservative political arguments

As a consequence of his faith in the cosmic force of evolution Spencer became the champion of a social philosophy of laissez faire, with the smallest possible role for the government. The individualism underlying his philosophy is succinctly expressed in his book on Ethics,

"Every man is free to do what he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man."[2]

Politics in Britain moved in directions that Spencer disliked, and his arguments provided ammunition for conservatives and individualists in Europe and America that they still use in the 21st century. By the 1880s he was denouncing "the new Toryism" (that is, the social reformist wing of Prime Minister William E. Gladstone). 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. Spencer denounced Irish land reform, compulsory education, laws to regulate safety at work, prohibition and temperance laws, free 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.

Spencer anticipated many of the analytical standpoints of later conservative theorists like 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.


Although raised in a devout Methodist family, Spencer never joined a church. He helped inspire Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, and coined the terms "the Survival of the fittest"[3] and "the Descent of Man."

His father commented in 1860:

"It appears to me that the laws of nature are to him what revealed religion is to us, and that any willful infraction of those laws is to him as much a sin, as to us is disbelief in what is revealed."[4]

Though "he did not accept the dogmas of any creed, he was, in the truest sense, religious," said David Duncan, his closest aide. "In private life," said another friend, "he refrained from obtruding his heterodox views upon others, nor have I ever known him give utterance to any language which could possibly be construed as 'scoffing.' . The name of the Founder of Christianity always elicited his profound respect."[5]

Spencer, like many scientists of the time, was a deist, which is to say he did not believe in a personal God per se, but only in a god. In The Principles of Sociology (1876) and The Principles of Ethics (1879) he claims to have discovered the evolution of religious belief and institutions from what their origins in the cult of ancestors by primitive peoples to his own conception of an "unknowable" God-like First Cause.

Eventually, Spencer became an agnostic in the sense he could not describe God, but was sure something like God existed.

Spencer said the longstanding disputes between science and religion were based on a misunderstanding and failure to see the logical boundaries between the "Knowable" and the "Unknowable." Everything in the "Knowable" sphere belonged to science, he argued, while everything in the "Unknowable" sphere belonged to religion, including the existence of God.


Spencer had a major influence on world thinkers in Europe, Asia and Latin America, especially British and American thinkers of the 1870s, including such prominent conservatives as Andrew Carnegie and William Graham Sumner. Spencer's influence faded in Britain and America after 1890, but he was rediscovered by American conservatives in the 1930s and his ideas about government remain influential among conservatives.

Social darwinism

Spencer was an early contributor to theories of social Darwinism, the idea that evolutionary ideas applied to societies as well as people. Spencer developed his ideas before Darwin, and "social darwinism" dealt only with the progressive betterment of human society.

Spencer's individualistic version has nothing in common with collectivist forms of "social darwinism" that promoted a war to the death among races, as the Nazis preached. Root (2008) and Leonard (2009) demonstrate that Spencer did not support the later German versions of "social darwinism" and was not responsible for the distortions.


  • 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
  • Francis, Mark. Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life. (2007) 464p.
  • Harris, Jose. "Spencer, Herbert (1820–1903)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,(2004) online, a standard short biography
  • Leonard, Thomas C. "Origins of the Myth of Social Darwinism: The Ambiguous Legacy of Richard Hofstadter’s Social Darwinism in American Thought." Forthcoming in Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization (2009) online edition says Richard Hofstadter (1944) is guilty of both distorting Spencer's free market views and smearing them with the taint of racist collectivism.
  • Root, Damon W. "The Unfortunate Case of Herbert Spencer: How a libertarian individualist was recast as a social Darwinist," Reason July 29, 2008
  • Sciabarra, Chris Matthew. "The First Libertarian," Liberty (Aug 1999) online Says the author of The Man Versus the State transcended simple-minded anti-statism to achieve the first major statement of dialectical libertarianism
  • Taylor, Michael W. The Philosophy of Herbert Spencer (Continuum Studies in British Philosophy) (2007) excerpt and text search
  • Taylor, Michael W., Men versus the State: Herbert Spencer and Late Victorian Individualism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
  • Weinstein, David. Equal Freedom and Utility: Herbert Spencer's Liberal Utilitarianism. (1998) 235p.
  • Weinstein, David. *Herbert Spencer in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Primary sources


  1. Francis (2007) p. 337
  2. See text online p. 46 section 272
  3. fit - meaning suitable, or the right size and shape, not fit as in athletically strong (although some have inferred this interpretation).
  4. Duncan, Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer, p 491
  5. Duncan, Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer, p 492

External links