Herbert Spencer

Who was Herbert Spencer?

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) was a philosopher and social reformer who was assistant editor-in-chief of The Economist. He also wrote for the Westminster Review, while

George Eliot was its editor. Spencer was an atheist, without any training in the humanities, and he believed that only science could yield useful knowledge. In his ethics, he combined Jeremy Bentham's (1748-1832) version of utilitarianism with John Stuart Mill's (1806-1873) view that happiness is the true end. Spencer thought that pleasure and pain were evidence of happiness or unhappiness.

Spencer is best known for his evolutionary views that predated Charles Darwin's publication of On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859). Spencer's main publications were works he published in his major project

Herbert Spencer was an atheist who believed science was the only way to uncover true knowledge (Art Archive).

Herbert Spencer was an atheist who believed science was the only way to uncover true knowledge (Art Archive).

What was Herbert Spencer like as a person?

Spencer was a sickly child and received home schooling from his father and his uncle, a strict dissenting Protestant clergyman. Once, at a social event, someone asked the uncle why his nephew wasn't dancing. "No Spencer ever dances." he answered.

Mary Ann Evans, the novelist better known by her pen name, George Eliot, had a warm friendship with Spencer. Although he did not enjoy public places and entertainment, he took her to restaurants and the opera. Biographers believe that Eliot would have married Spencer, if he'd asked her, but he never did. She said that "the life of this philosopher, like that of the great [Immanuel] Kant, offers little material for the narrator."

After First Principles of a New System of Philosophy (1880) was published, Spencer developed an illness that led to insomnia and self-medication with opium. He became very reclusive and would sometimes wear ear plugs so that he did not have to listen to what others said. Although he advocated for public causes such as the metric system, and against the Boer War, he spent his last years with very little human interaction.

System of Synthetic Philosophy, beginning in the 1850s, and 1884's The Man versus the State.

What were Herbert Spencer's ideas about evolution?

Spencer believed that change occurs according to the Law of Evolution, which dictates a progression from simplicity to homogeneity to uniformity to more complexity to heterogeneity to variety. At any stage, all of the parts that are changing are also part of one whole. Spencer cited as evidence examples from the physical, biological, psychological, and social sciences. Society itself evolves from primitive homogenous forms to complex advanced ones, he pointed out, whereby component parts have different functions.

Because Spencer thought that change follows its own internal rules, he believed that social progress cannot be the result of external actions, such as social welfare or the regulation of trade. In education, he believed that children should be taught skills that would best enable them to compete with others. Spencer's views were taken up by Social Darwinists, who advocated the principles of the "survival of the fittest" for society, against social reform generally, and in favor of capitalistic competition, specifically.

Sociology and Philosophy

How is sociology related to philosophy?

Social and political philosophers discuss society and criticize culture. Sociology is the science that can give them factual information about what they are discussing.

Who was Emil Durkheim?

Emil Durkheim (1858-1917) taught at the universities in Bordeaux and Paris and is credited with having founded the academic field of sociology in France. His goal was to develop sociology as a positive science with its own subject matter. His major contribution in this regard was an insistence that society could not be reduced to the nature and behavior of the human individuals that constituted it. His principle works were The Division of Labor in Society (1893), The Rules of Sociological Method (1895), Suicide (1897), and The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912).

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