Herbert Spencer

Herbert Spencer, 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 Darwin and Thomas Huxley, Spencer was responsible for the promulgation and public acceptance of the theory of evolution. 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).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

FREE! The Study of Sociology
Herbert Spencer.
D. Appleton, 1896
FREE! Social Statics, Abridged and Revised: Together with the Man Versus the State
Herbert Spencer.
D. Appleton, 1896
FREE! Facts and Comments
Herbert Spencer.
D. Appleton and Company, 1902
Sociology and Education: An Analysis of the Theories of Spencer and Ward
Elsa Peverly Kimball.
Columbia University Press, 1932
FREE! Kant and Spencer: A Critical Exposition
Bordenparker Bowne.
Houghton Mifflin, 1912
FREE! Political Thought in England from Herbert Spencer to the Present Day
Ernest Barker.
H. Holt and Company, 1915
FREE! Lectures on the Ethics of T.H. Green, Mr. Herbert Spencer, and J. Martineau
Henry Sidgwick.
MacMillan, 1902
FREE! Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer
David Duncan.
D. Appleton, vol.1, 1908
FREE! Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer
David Duncan; Herbert Spencer.
D. Appleton, vol.2, 1908
FREE! An Autobiography: Herbert Spencer
Herbert Spencer.
D. Appleton, vol.2, 1904
The Comparative Psychology of Man
Herbert Spencer; Ernst Haeckel; Herbert S. Jennings; Daniel N. Robinson.
University Publications of America, 1977
Librarian’s tip: "The Comparative Psychology of Man by Herbert Spencer" begins on p. 7
A History of Social Philosophy
Charles A. Ellwood.
Prentice Hall, 1938
Librarian’s tip: Chap. XXV "Herbert Spencer"
Social Justice
David Miller.
Clarendon Press, 1976
Librarian’s tip: Chap. VI "Spencer's Theory of Justice"
Politics and Opinion in the Nineteenth Century: An Historical Introduction
John Bowle.
Oxford University Press, 1954
Librarian’s tip: Chap. II "The Idea of Progress: Herbert Spencer: Buckle: Lecky"
They Studied Man
Abram Kardiner; Edward Preble.
World Publishing, 1961
Librarian’s tip: "Herbert Spencer: The Binding Pin" begins on p. 37
Individualism and the Social Order: The Social Element in Liberal Thought
Charles R. McCann Jr.
Routledge, 2004
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "Spencer and the Evolution of Moral Society"
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