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Herbert Spencer

Herbert Spencer(1820-1903) was an English philosopher and prominent liberal political theorist. Although today he is chiefly remembered as the father of Social Darwinism, a school of thought that applied the evolutionist theory of survival of the fittest (a phrase coined by Spencer) to human societies, he also contributed to a wide range of subjects, including ethics, metaphysics, religion, politics, rhetoric, biology and psychology. Although he has often been criticized as a perfect example of scientism, he was at the time considered by many to be one of the most brilliant men of his generation.

The early works of Spencer demonstrated a liberal view of workers' rights and governmental responsibility. He continued in this vein by developing a rationalist philosophy concerning the natural laws of progress. These views would mature into his 1851 manuscript Social Statics, a document that stressed the importance of looking at the long-term effects of social policy with respect to the nature of man. Spencer is often quoted out of context, making him seem uncompassionate toward the poor and working class. In actuality he stressed "positive beneficence" and man's evolving "moral faculty," and was ahead of his time in promoting the rights of women and children. It was here that Spencer began developing his view of civilization, not as an artificial construct of man, but as a natural and organic product of social evolution. Since this "social Darwinism" precedes "The Origin of Species," it would be more accurate to refer to Darwin's ideas as "biological Spencerism." In 1855 Spencer wrote the Principles of Psychology, which explored a theory of the mind as a biological counterpart of the body rather than as an estranged opposite. In this model human intelligence was something that had slowly developed as a response to its physical environment.

In 1862 Spencer was able to publish First Principles, an exposition of his evolutionary theory of the underlying principles of all domains of reality, which had acted as the foundational beliefs of his previous works. His definition of evolution explained it as the ongoing process by which matter is refined into an increasingly complex and coherent form. This was the main canon of Spencer's philosophy, a developed and coherently structured explanation of evolution (that predated Darwin's major works). By this time Spencer was achieving an international reputation of great respect. His views on man's place in nature were very influential and broadly accepted. While he had an interest in all the sciences, Spencer never committed his time to a single field of study and was not an experimentalist. Perhaps this broad range of knowledge and lack of specialization made his views and writing so accessible and popular.

The important books:

  • Social Statics (1850)
  • Principles of Biology(1864-67)
  • Principles of Psychology(1870-72)
  • Principes of Sociology (1876-96)
  • Principles of Ethics(1879-93)
  • The Study of Sociology (1873)