Herbert Spencer

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Spencer, Herbert,

1820–1903, English philosopher, b. Derby. In 1848 he moved to London, where he was an editor at The Economist and wrote his first major book, Social Statics (1851), which tried to establish a natural basis for political action. Subsequently, together with Charles DarwinDarwin, Charles Robert,
1809–82, English naturalist, b. Shrewsbury; grandson of Erasmus Darwin and of Josiah Wedgwood. He firmly established the theory of organic evolution known as Darwinism.
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 and Thomas HuxleyHuxley, Thomas Henry,
1825–95, English biologist and educator, grad. Charing Cross Hospital, 1845. Huxley gave up his own biological research to become an influential scientific publicist and was the principal exponent of Darwinism in England.
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, Spencer was responsible for the promulgation and public acceptance of the theory of evolutionevolution,
concept that embodies the belief that existing animals and plants developed by a process of gradual, continuous change from previously existing forms. This theory, also known as descent with modification, constitutes organic evolution.
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. But unlike Darwin, for whom evolution was without direction or morality, Spencer, who coined the phrase "survival of the fittest," believed evolution to be both progressive and good.

Spencer conceived a vast 10-volume work, Synthetic Philosophy, in which all phenomena were to be interpreted according to the principle of evolutionary progress. In First Principles (1862), the first of the projected volumes, he distinguished phenomena from what he called the unknowable—an incomprehensible power or force from which everything derives. He limited knowledge to phenomena, i.e., the manifestations of the unknowable, and maintained that these manifestations proceed from their source according to a process of evolution. In The Principles of Biology (2 vol., 1864–67) and The Principles of Psychology (1855; rev. ed., 2 vol., 1870–72) Spencer gave a mechanistic explanation of how life has progressed by the continual adaptation of inner relations to outer ones. In The Principles of Sociology (3 vol., 1876–96) he analyzed the process by which the individual becomes differentiated from the group and gains increasing freedom. In The Principles of Ethics (2 vol., 1879–93) he developed a utilitarian system in which morality and survival are linked. Spencer's synthetic system had more popular appeal than scientific influence, but it served to bring the doctrines of evolution within the grasp of the general reading public and to establish sociology as a discipline.


See his autobiography (1904); J. D. Y. Peel, Herbert Spencer: The Evolution of a Sociologist (1971); M. Francis, Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life (2007).

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Spencer, Herbert

(1820-1903) British social theorist, chiefly remembered for his contribution to the study of SOCIAL CHANGE from an EVOLUTIONARY perspective.

Born in Derby, after an unconventional schooling Spencer began a career as a railway engineer, but soon moved into journalism and later became an independent scholar.

His first major work, Social Statics (1850), revealed his firm commitment to economic individualism and the free market, a commitment that continued throughout his work and is one of the main reasons for the great popularity of his sociology in the US.

Spencer's early interest in geology had led him into the field of biology, and from there to the evolutionary theories of LAMARCK. These ideas became the informing principle of his social theory. As early as 1852, in a paper entitled ‘A Theory of Population’, Spencer had argued that the process of social DEVELOPMENT was decisively influenced by 'struggle (for existence) and ‘fitness’ (for survival). Thus he anticipated by some six years aspects of the theory of natural selection which Darwin and Wallace were to apply with such success to the organic world, but he did this while continuing to include Lamarckian assumptions. In The Principles of Psychology (1855), Spencer attempts to show how the evolutionary hypothesis could also illuminate mental development.

‘Progress: its Law and Cause’, an essay written in 1857, found Spencer arguing that the evolutionary principle was a law of universal applicability, defining development in the physical, organic and social spheres.

Evolutionary theory thus provided a basis for the unification of the sciences. Whatever trajectory of development was studied the movement was always towards increasing DIFFERENTIATION and INTEGRATION of structure. Systems, be they solar, biological or social, always manifested a tendency to move from a state where their constituent parts were homogeneous and loosely cohering, to one where they were increasingly heterogenous and integrated.

Spencer's later work, widely read and highly influential at the time, was concerned primarily with justifying this position, His Synthetic Philosophy, a multivolume project, covering sociology, psychology, biology and ethics, was one outcome. Thus, Spencer's sociology (e.g. his Principles of Sociology 1876-96), should properly be seen as one subfield in which he sought the wider objective of securing consent to the universality of the evolutionary process.

Some of Spencer's concepts, such as those of‘differentiation’ and ‘integration’, have retained their currency as sociological tools, especially within the SOCIAL SYSTEMS perspective and neoevolutionary work of Talcott Parsons. But Spencer's sociology is deeply compromised by his enthusiasm for unifying it with biology, and for his sometimes uncritical assumption that biological science could provide the appropriate concepts for studying society If'struggle’ motivated organic evolution, so warfare was important in social development, promoting both internal social cohesion and the development of powerful, specialized industrial economies; if the development of sophisticated nervous systems in the animal world enhanced the survival capacity of certain species, the same was true of telecommunications systems in society, and so on. The connection between these views and Spencer's politics is obvious: if social conflict was an evolutionary positive, the market should be unregulated, and the state minimalist (The Man Versus the State, 1884).

Whatever the judgement made about these economic and political prescriptions for social wellbeing, the sociology from which Spencer derived them is not acceptable. Social systems are not biological systems. People create and transform the environment in which they live. They are moral beings, and ‘the survival of the fittest’ is also a moral judgement (see SOCIAL DARWINISM). Competition may often be productive but only in a context with a preexisting framework of order and regulation rather than one of anarchy (compare DURKHEIM). The universality of the evolutionary process in the social sphere is also questionable; developmental patterns cannot be consistent, since the development of some societies alters the possibilities of change for others (see also DIFFUSION, MULTILINEAR EVOLUTION). The most compromising problem with Spencer's work, however, is the circularity of the logic he employs in its execution. It was small wonder that Spencer felt he had proved his evolutionary hypothesis in the social world since the evidence he used, the classification of different kinds of institutions and types of societies, was a classification derived from the very principles which the examples were supposed to prove. Spencer's legacy to sociology nevertheless remains an important one. He was a systems theorist, and was the first to make systematic use of STRUCTURAL-FUNCTIONAL analysis, still a mainstay of sociological explanation.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Spencer, Herbert


Born Apr. 27,1820, in Derby; died Dec. 8,1903, in Brighton. English philosopher and sociologist; one of the founders of positivism.

Spencer was employed as a railroad engineer from 1837 to 1841, and from 1848 to 1853 he worked for the magazine The Economist. Spencer spent the greater part of his life as an armchair scientist. His philosophy developed the positivism of A. Comte, although Spencer disclaimed any dependence on Comte’s views. Spencer was also influenced by the agnosticism of D. Hume and J. S. Mill, Kantianism, F. W. J. von Schelling’s ideas on natural philosophy, and the Scottish school.

Spencer understood philosophy to be maximally generalized knowledge of the laws of phenomena. Thus, according to Spencer, philosophy was distinguished from the particular sciences purely quantitatively, by the degree to which knowledge is generalized. Spencer took as his starting point the division of the world into the Knowable and the Unknowable. In this sense, his philosophy can be understood as a simplified modification of the doctrine of I. Kant: the Knowable is the world of phenomena, and the Unknowable is the thing-in-itself. Spencer thought that science could come to know only the similarities, differences, and other relationships between sensory perceptions but was unable to penetrate the essence of phenomena. From this point of view, “matter, motion, and force are only symbols of the unknown real” (Osnovnye nachala, St. Petersburg, 1897, p. 466). For Spencer, the Unknowable appears as a “first cause,” whose existence both science and religion acknowledge (ibid., pp. 82–103).

In the theory of knowledge, Spencer developed the concept of transformational realism, asserting that sensations do not resemble objects; corresponding to every change in an object, however, is a definite change in the structure of sensations and perceptions. Spencer attempted to unite empiricism with apriorism, recognizing the a priori (self-evident) as physiologically established by the experience of innumerable generations of ancestors. According to Spencer, that which is a priori for the individual is a posteriori for the clan.

A specific feature of Spencer’s positivism is his doctrine of universal evolution, which was based on the mechanistic interpretation of the embryology of K. Baer, the geological studies of C. Lyell, the physical law of the conservation and conversion of energy, and Darwinism. Spencer sought to reduce the concept of evolution to the continuous redistribution of corporeal particles and their motion, integration, and disintegration. He attempted to subsume all phenomena—from the inorganic to the moral and social—under this mechanistic conception of evolution, asserting that the general tendency of evolution was toward equilibrium. Refusing to search for the causes of evolution, Spencer understood evolutionism as the simple description of observed facts. This is the source of the internal contradiction of his conception: the doctrine of evolution is not applied by Spencer to the sphere of essence, and in the sphere of phenomena the doctrine cannot claim to explain the lawlike regularities in the connection between the successive states of bodies. His theory of evolution could not explain qualitative changes in development. This was also clearly reflected in Spencer’s concept of biological evolution as the adaptation of internal relationships to external relationships for the purpose of maintaining existence (see Osnovaniia biologii, vols. 1–3, St. Petersburg, 1899).

Spencer was the founder of the organismic school in sociology. He believed that the class structure of society and the presence of various administrative agencies within society were analogous to the division of functions among the organs of a living body. He considered the basic law of social development to be the survival of the most adapted societies, and he deduced from his own conception of evolution the advantages and maximum fitness of “differentiated” society, that is, society divided into classes. He was an enemy of socialism, regarding revolution as a “disease” of the social organism.

In ethics, Spencer held to positions of utilitarianism and hedonism; morality, in his view, was linked to utility, the source of pleasure. Spencer’s aesthetic views combine various strains: Kant’s principle of purposiveness without purpose, F. Schiller’s conception of art as play, and utilitarianism, according to which that which was useful in the past is beautiful. Spencer’s psychology was one of the sources of psychophysical parallelism and genetic psychology. His pedagogic ideas were related to his advocacy of a utilitarian and natural science education. Spencer made an important contribution to the study of primitive culture. An exponent of the evolutionary school of cultural anthropology, he developed a theory of the origin and development of religious beliefs.

Spencer’s philosophy was the quintessence of the bourgeois liberal illusions of the Victorian (pre-imperialist) era in the history of England, summarizing the principles and achievements of mid-19th-century natural science. It enjoyed great popularity and had a great influence on empiriocriticism and neopositivism.


Works, vols. 1–18. London-New York, 1910.
In Russian translation:
Sobr. soch., vols. 1–7. St. Petersburg, 1866–69.
Soch., vols. 1–7. St. Petersburg, 1898–1900.
Avtobiograftia, parts 1–2. St. Petersburg, 1914.


Narskii, I. S. Ocherkipo istoriipozitivizma. Moscow, 1960. Chapter 4.
Bogomolov, A. S. Ideia razvitiia v burzhuaznoi filosofii 19 i 20 vv. [Moscow] 1962. Chapter 2.
Kon, I. S. Pozitivizm v sotsiologii. [Leningrad] 1964. Chapter 2.
Hudson, W. An Introduction to the Philosophy of H. Spencer. New York, 1894.
Royce, J. H. Spencer. New York, 1904.
Hãberlin, P. H. Spencer’s Grundlagen der Philosophic Leipzig, 1908.
Duncan, D. The Life and Letters of H. Spencer. New York, 1908.
Schwarze, K. H. Spencer. Leipzig, 1909.
Taylor, A. E. Herbert Spencer. New York, 1928.
Runmey, J. H. Spencer’s Sociology. London, 1934.
Peel, J. H. Spencer: The Evolution of a Sociologist. New York, 1971.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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