Herbert Spencer was an English philosopher, biologist and sociologist. He was also one of the influential classical liberal political theorists of the Victorian era. Being one of the important polymaths in the world, Spencer highly contributed his expertise knowledge in ethics, religion, anthropology, economics, political theory, philosophy, biology, sociology, and psychology. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1902. He was the first person to coin the term, “survival of the fittest". His works were translated into many other languages of the world including German, Italian, Spanish, French, Russian, Japanese and Chinese. He was the exclusive member of esteemed clubs like, X Club and Athenaeum. He was best known for developing and applying evolutionary theory to philosophy, psychology and the study of society. It was later called as his “synthetic philosophy”. He was also known for his political views, prominently for women rights and for criticisms of utilitarian positivism.
Herbert Spencer Childhood, Early Life & Career
Herbert Spencer was born on April 27, 1820 in Derby, England. His father, William George Spencer was a religious protestor who drifted from Methodism to Quakerism. His father operated a school based on the progressive teaching methods of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi. He also served as the secretary of Derby Philosophical Society. His father taught him empirical science, whereas other members of the Derby Philosophical Society introduced young Spencer to pre-Darwinian concepts of biological evolution. His uncle, the Reverend Thomas Spencer gave him required formal education by teaching him some mathematics, physics and Latin. His uncle also brushed him with his firm free-trade and anti-statist political views. After finding it hard to settle with any intellectual or professional discipline, Herbert Spencer worked as a railway engineer in the railway. Meanwhile, he also started writing for provincial journals that were nonconformist in their religion and radical in their politics. From the time period, 1848 to 1853, Spencer was the sub-editor on the free-trade journal, The Economist. During this time, he published his first book, “Social Statics” (1851). The publisher of the book, John Chapman, helped him to acquaint with some of the leading and progressive thinkers of that time, which included, John Stuart Mill, Harriet Martineau, George Henry Lewes and Mary Ann Evans.
It was during this time that Spencer befriended biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, who later became his close friend. With the help of his friends Lewes and Evans, Spencer was introduced to John Stuart Mill’s A System of Logic and with Auguste Comte’s positivism. This helped him further to publish his second book, “Principles of Psychology” (1855). His fundamental concern to establish the universality of natural law, made him to study psychology. Like other thinkers of that time, Spencer too was obsessed with the idea of demonstrating that it was possible to show that everything in the universe including the human culture could be explained by laws of universal validity. This belief was in contrast with the theological views of that time, which said that some parts of creation, such as the human soul, were beyond the realm of scientific investigation. In the year 1858, Spencer created an outline that further led to the “System of Synthetic Philosophy”. It was aimed to demonstrate the application of principle of evolution in biology, psychology, sociology and morality. This work of ten volumes almost took the rest of his life to complete.
By 1870s, Spencer was the most famous philosopher of his times. His works were widely read giving him considerable profit on the sales of his books. This profit, along with the income from his regular contribution to Victorian periodicals, supported his living. His regular contributions to the Victorian periodicals were later collected and published in three volumes of “Essays”. His writings were translated into German, Italian, Spanish, French, Russian, Japanese and Chinese, and into many other languages of the world. He also received different honors and awards from European and North American countries. Spencer was a member of the Athenaeum, an exclusive Gentleman's Club in London only for distinguished people in the arts and sciences. He was also the part of the exclusive X Club, a dining club of only nine members founded by T.H. Huxley. Members of this club met every month and included some of the most influential thinkers of the Victorian age. These esteemed members included physicist-philosopher John Tyndall and Darwin's cousin, the banker and biologist Sir John Lubbock. Charles Darwin and Hermann von Helmholtz were the occasional guests of the club. These strong associations helped Spencer to make a special place in the scientific community. Even after possessing considerable amount of wealth Spencer never bought a house. He remained unmarried and spent last decades of his life in loneliness and growing disillusionment. In later years, he became a perpetual hypochondriac and frequently complained of pains and maladies. His political views also turned conservative in the later years of his life. Contrasting to his earlier views in his book, “Social Statics” in which he had advocated the rights of women and nationalization of land, Spencer later became a firm opponent of women’s votes. His political views in the later years were clearly evident from his book, “The Man versus the State”. In 1902, a year before his death, Spencer was nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature.
Spencer continued to write till his last days. He died at the age of 83 on December 8, 1903. His ashes were interred in the eastern side of London's Highgate Cemetery.
By 1870s and 1880s, Spencer had achieved immense popularity surpassing many earlier philosophers. He held the distinction of being the first and only philosopher in the history to sell over a million copies of his works during his lifetime. He influenced some of the notable thinkers of that time such as Henry Sidgwick, T.H. Green, G.E. Moore, William James, Henri Bergson, and Émile Durkheim. Spencer also had a strong political influence. His philosophical thoughts had the ability to inspire people who believed that individuals are masters of their fate and should not take any interference from the state. His philosophy also said that social development required a strong central authority. His ideas were found to be very influential in China and Japan. His writings were introduced to the China by the Chinese scholar Yen Fu. His ideas also influenced Japanese journalist Tokutomi Soho who believed that Japan was on the verge of transformation from a “militant society” to an “industrial society”, and will need to acquire the western ethics and learning quickly. Spencer also had a significant influence on literature and rhetoric. A number of famous writers and authors used his ideas in their works such as George Eliot, Leo Tolstoy, Thomas Hardy, Boles³aw Prus, Abraham Cahan, D. H. Lawrence, Machado de Assis and Richard Austin Freeman. H.G. Wells used his ideas as a theme in his famous novella, “The Time Machine” to explain the evolution of man into two species.