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Herbert Spencer
Herbert Spencer.jpg
Spencer at the age of 73
Born (1820-04-27)27 April 1820
Derby, Derbyshire, England
Died 8 December 1903(1903-12-08) (aged 83)
Brighton, Sussex, England
Notable work
Social Statics (1851)
The Development Hypothesis (1852)
First Principles (1860)
The Principles of Psychology
The Principles of Biology
The Principles of Sociology
The Principles of Ethics
The Man Versus the State (1884)
Era 19th-century philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School Classical liberalism
Main interests
Anthropology · Biology · Evolution · Laissez-faire · Positivism · Psychology · Sociology · Utilitarianism
Notable ideas
Social Darwinism
Survival of the fittest
Social organism
Law of equal liberty
There is no alternative
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Herbert Spencer (27 April 1820 – 8 December 1903) was an English philosopher, psychologist, biologist, anthropologist, and sociologist.

Spencer originated the expression "survival of the fittest", which he coined in Principles of Biology (1864) after reading Charles Darwin's 1859 book On the Origin of Species. Spencer saw evolution as the progressive development of the physical world, biological organisms, the human mind, and human culture and societies.

By the 1870s and 1880s Spencer had achieved an unparalleled popularity. His works were translated into German, Italian, Spanish, French, Russian, Japanese and Chinese, and into many other languages and he was offered honours and awards all over Europe and North America. He also became a member of the Athenaeum, an exclusive Gentleman's Club in London open only to those distinguished in the arts and sciences, and the X Club, a dining club of nine founded by T.H. Huxley that met every month and included some of the most prominent thinkers of the Victorian age (three of whom would become presidents of the Royal Society).

Spencer was perhaps the only philosopher in history to sell over a million copies of his works during his own lifetime.

Early life and education

Herbert Spencer 5
As a young man

Spencer was born in Derby, England, on 27 April 1820, the son of William George Spencer (generally called George). Spencer's father ran a school founded on the progressive teaching methods of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi and also served as Secretary of the Derby Philosophical Society, a scientific society which had been founded in 1783 by Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin.

Spencer was educated by his father. His uncle, the Reverend Thomas Spencer, vicar of Hinton Charterhouse near Bath, completed Spencer's limited formal education by teaching him some mathematics and physics, and enough Latin to enable him to translate some easy texts.


Spencer published his first book, Social Statics (1851), whilst working as sub-editor on the free-trade journal The Economist from 1848 to 1853. In it, he predicted that humanity would become completely adapted to the requirements of living in society and that the state would eventually wither away.

Spencer's second book, Principles of Psychology, was published in 1855. It was not initially successful and the last of the 251 copies of its first edition were not sold until June 1861.

Spencer was possessed with the idea of demonstrating that it was possible to show that everything in the universe – including human culture, language, and morality – could be explained by laws of universal validity. This was in contrast to the views of many theologians of the time who insisted that some parts of creation, in particular the human soul, were beyond the realm of scientific investigation.

In 1858 Spencer produced an outline of what was to become the System of Synthetic Philosophy. This immense undertaking, which has few parallels in the English language, aimed to demonstrate that the principle of evolution applied in biology, psychology, sociology and morality. Spencer envisaged that this work of ten volumes would take twenty years to complete; in the end it took him twice as long and consumed almost all the rest of his long life.

Despite Spencer's early struggles to establish himself as a writer, by the 1870s he had become the most famous philosopher of the age. His works were widely read during his lifetime, and by 1869 he was able to support himself solely on the profit of book sales and on income from his regular contributions to Victorian periodicals which were collected as three volumes of Essays.

Later life

The last decades of Spencer's life were characterised by growing disillusionment and loneliness. By the 1890s his readership had begun to desert him while many of his closest friends died and he had come to doubt the confident faith in progress that he had made the center-piece of his philosophical system.

Spencer Herbert grave
Tomb, Highgate Cemetery

He was elected as a member to the American Philosophical Society in 1883.

Death and legacy

Spencer continued writing all his life, in later years often by dictation, until he succumbed to poor health at the age of 83. His ashes are interred in the eastern side of London's Highgate Cemetery facing Karl Marx's grave. At Spencer's funeral the Indian nationalist leader Shyamji Krishna Varma announced a donation of £1,000 to establish a lectureship at Oxford University in tribute to Spencer and his work.


Herbert Spencer by John Bagnold Burgess
Portrait of Spencer by John Bagnold Burgess, 1871–72

Spencer first expressed his evolutionary views in his essay, 'Progress: Its Law and Cause', published in Chapman's Westminster Review in 1857, and which later formed the basis of the First Principles of a New System of Philosophy (1862). In it he argued that all structures in the universe develop from a simple, undifferentiated form to a complex, differentiated one. This evolutionary process could be observed, Spencer believed, throughout the cosmos.

Spencer tried to apply the theory of biological evolution to sociology, claiming that society was the product of change from lower to higher forms.


Herbert Spencer 4
In his 70s

Spencer's works in sociology focus on how societal growth leads to complexity in social organization. Spencer developed a theory of two types of society, the militant and the industrial. Militant society, structured around relationships of hierarchy and obedience, was simple and undifferentiated; industrial society, based on voluntary, contractually assumed social obligations, was complex and differentiated. Society, which Spencer saw as a 'social organism' evolved from the simpler state to the more complex according to the universal law of evolution.

Absolute Ethics

Spencer believed that the evolutionary process would culminate in the creation of 'the perfect man in the perfect society'. He thought that our psychological and moral constitution, inherited from our ancestors and passed on to future generations, was gradually adapting to the demands of living in society. For instance, aggression was a survival instinct in primitive conditions, which will be unnecessary in advanced societies. Therefore, over generations evolution would reduce aggression and increase the sense of altruism in people, leading to a perfect society where no one causes others pain.

Spencer argued that in order for evolution to produce the perfect individual it was necessary for present and future generations to experience the 'natural' consequences of their conduct. Therefore, people should resist the coercive power of the state to relieve poverty, to provide public education, or to require compulsory vaccination. Only in this way would individuals have the incentives required to work on self-improvement.

Spencer believed that too much individual benevolence directed to the 'undeserving poor' would break the link between conduct and consequence, which is fundamental to ensuring that humanity continued to evolve to a higher level of development. So although charitable giving was to be encouraged, it had to be limited by the consideration that suffering was frequently the result of individuals receiving the consequences of their actions.

In the perfect society individuals would not only derive pleasure from the exercise of helping others ('positive beneficence') but would aim to avoid inflicting pain on others ('negative beneficence'). They would also instinctively respect the rights of others, leading to the universal observance of the principle of justice – each person had the right to a maximum amount of liberty that was compatible with a like liberty in others. 'Liberty' was interpreted to mean the absence of coercion, and was closely connected to the right to private property. Spencer termed this code of conduct 'Absolute Ethics'.

Spencer's last years were characterized by a collapse of his initial optimism, replaced instead by a pessimism regarding the future of mankind.


Spencer lost his Christian faith as a teenager and later rejected traditional religion. However, he didn't intend to undermine religion in the name of science. He argued that the human mind can only obtain knowledge of phenomena, not of the reality ('the absolute') underlying phenomena. Therefore, religion and science must come to recognise that the human understanding is only capable of 'relative' knowledge. He called this 'awareness of the Unknowable'. Spencer believed that worship of the Unknowable could substitute for conventional religion.

Political views

Spencer argued that the state was not an "essential" institution and that the individual had a "right to ignore the state." Spencer opposed the annexation of colonies and imperial expansion. His critique of the Boer War contributed to his declining popularity in Britain.

Spencer believed that "all socialism is slavery." Spencer defined a slave as a person who "labours under coercion to satisfy another's desires" and believed that under socialism or communism the individual would be enslaved to the whole community rather than to a particular master, and "it means not whether his master is a single person or society."

In his later years Spencer became increasingly conservative. While initially being an advocate of female suffrage and nationalisation of the land, by the 1880s he had come to oppose these views.

Influence on literature

Herbert Spencer by John McLure Hamilton
Portrait of Spencer by John McLure Hamilton, ca. 1895.

Spencer greatly influenced literature. He created a guide for effective composition. Spencer argued that writers should aim "To so present ideas that they may be apprehended with the least possible mental effort" by the reader.

He argued that by making the meaning as readily accessible as possible, the writer would achieve the greatest possible communicative efficiency. This was accomplished, according to Spencer, by placing all the subordinate clauses, objects and phrases before the subject of a sentence so that, when readers reached the subject, they had all the information they needed to completely perceive its significance. While the overall influence that "The Philosophy of Style" had on the field of rhetoric was not as far-reaching as his contribution to other fields, Spencer's voice lent authoritative support to formalist views of rhetoric.

Herbert Spencer quotes

  • "Every man is free to do that which he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man."
  • "The Republican form of government is the highest form of government; but because of this it requires the highest type of human nature — a type nowhere at present existing"
  • "Surely if a single cell may, when subjected to certain influences, become a man in the space of twenty years; there is nothing absurd in the hypothesis that under certain other influences, a cell may, in the course of millions of years, give origin to the human race."
  • "The blindness of those who think it absurd to suppose that complex organic forms may have arisen by successive modifications out of simple ones becomes astonishing when we remember that complex organic forms are daily being thus produced. A tree differs from a seed immeasurably in every respect... Yet is the one changed in the course of a few years into the other: changed so gradually, that at no moment can it be said — Now the seed ceases to be, and the tree exists."
  • "Morality knows nothing of geographical boundaries, or distinctions of race."
  • "Education has for its object the formation of character."
  • "Equity knows no difference of sex. In its vocabulary the word man must be understood in a generic, and not in a specific sense."

Interesting facts about Herbert Spencer

  • In contrast to Darwin, Spencer held that evolution had a direction and an end-point, the attainment of a final state of equilibrium.
  • Spencer believed in two kinds of knowledge: knowledge gained by the individual and knowledge gained by the race. Intuition, or knowledge learned unconsciously, was the inherited experience of the race.
  • Spencer invented a precursor to the modern paper clip, though it looked more like a modern cotter pin. This "binding-pin" was distributed by Ackermann & Company.
  • Spencer never married.
  • In 1902, shortly before his death, Spencer was nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature, that was assigned to the German Theodor Mommsen.

See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Herbert Spencer para niños

  • List of liberal theorists
  • Geolibertarianism
  • Organicism
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