Spencer, Herbert

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 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).

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