Herbert Spencer

By Groarke, Louis | Journal of Markets & Morality, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Herbert Spencer


Groarke, Louis, Journal of Markets & Morality


Herbert Spencer

Alberto Mingardi

New York: Continuum, 2011 (168 pages)

Alberto Mingardi's Herbert Spencer is a handsome little book, volume 18 in the Continuum series Major Conservative and Libertarian Thinkers produced under the direction of John Meadowcroft. Written in an accessible, readable style (with a few grammatical infelicities), the book includes a short biography of Spencer's relatively uneventful life; an analysis of his major political ideas as elucidated in The Proper Sphere of Government (1842-1843), Social Statics (1851), The Man Versus the State (1884), and his Principles of Ethics (1891); a discussion of thinkers who followed in Spencer's idiosyncratic footsteps (with particular emphasis on libertarian-leaning authors such as William Graham Sumner, Murray Rothbard, and Friedrich Hayek); a bibliography of primary and secondary sources; and a short index.

Although Spencer achieved celebrated, cultlike status during his long life (1820-1903), an uncharitable commentator might describe his beliefs as a hodgepodge of eccentric, historical curiosities. Mingardi cites scholar Michael Taylor who describes Spencer's work as "a museum piece: an essential subject of study for those who wish to understand the Victorian age, but not the work of a major philosopher" (148). This seems a fair assessment. Although Spencer views himself as an intellectual rebel, opposing ideas one finds in more prominent thinkers such as Hobbes, Locke, Bentham, Mill, and Smith, his variegated opinions now appear, with the passing of time, as minor variations on similar themes. A follower of Auguste Comte, Spencer is perhaps best known today for his contributions to sociology.

Spencer has been variously described as a social Darwinist, a libertarian Marx, a rational utilitarian, an anarchist, an eccentric, a pacifist, a champion of laissez-faire and the free market, an enemy of organized religion, and a religious agnostic. The helter-skelter list goes on and on. He rails against aristocratic privilege, he is deeply suspicious of representative democracy and universal suffrage, he argues against private ownership of land, and he denounces the reliance of modern corporate capitalism on mechanisms of limited liability and shareholder ownership. As he grew older, the famous intellectual felt increasingly alienated from contemporaneous political developments, which only accentuated his contrarianism.

Mingardi aims to recuperate some of the more plausible aspects of Spencer's political thought into a new libertarian canon. This project makes historical sense. Still, we need more than an informative list of his beliefs if we are to critically evaluate his liberal worldview. It is not enough for a fellow-sympathizer to proclaim: "On this or that point, he is one of us."

We cannot properly describe Spencer's philosophical stance without summarizing the systematic account of knowledge he expounds in ten volumes in Synthetic Philosophy. An autodidact with an uneven education, Spencer was determined to arrive at one sweeping formula that could provide a credible basis for all knowledge. He settles on evolution as the key to everything. On his account, the entire universe exhibits and partakes in a nonteleological process of structural change that inevitably moves forward from homogeneity to heterogeneity in search of sustainable equilibrium. The same mechanistic laws of progress manifest themselves in physics, biology, genetics, psychology, ethics, sociology, politics, and history. Societies, as well as planets and individual organisms, continually evolve so as to produce ever more complex aggregates of specialized parts. "In the development of the Earth, in the development of life upon its surface, in the development of society, of government, of manufactures, of commerce, of language, literature, science, [and] art" (30), everywhere evolution is paramount. …

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