HERBERT SPENCER (A.D. 1820 – 1903) -The Life and Works of Herbert Spencer -A History of Western Philosophy, Volume 2_ Modern and Postmodern_ From Descartes to Derrida
Herbert Spencer was born in Derby, England in 1820 and died as an eccentric old bachelor in 1903. His father George was a liberal who rejected all forms of religious authority. His father, a schoolmaster, and his uncle, a clergyman, provided Herbert with an excellent primary and secondary private education. Herbert’s greatest intellectual gift was in mathematics and the natural sciences. He lost his faith as a teenager and became a Deist.
Since the university education at that time was principally associated with the classical education model, Herbert refused to go to college. Instead, he involved himself in engineering and journalistic endeavors. He became a civil engineer for the Birmingham and Gloucester Railway until the project was completed. In part, some of his financial support came from the selling of his books (of which J. S. Mill was among a supporter). He never married and in 1855 he was struck with sickness and suffered with additional health problems. He overcame most of his difficulties with an incredible memory an extraordinary logical mind.
He developed an all-embracing conception of evolution the progressive development of the physical world, biological organisms, the human mind, and human culture and society. During his lifetime, he achieved tremendous authority, mainly in English-speaking academia. In 1902 he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. He is best known for coining the concept “survival of the fittest,” which he did in Principles of Biology (1864) after reading Darwin.
The Influences on the Life of Spencer
Spencer was influenced by Laplace’s nebular hypothesis—the planets are a result of primitive gases; Charles Lyell’s (1797—1875), a geologist and lawyer who influenced Charles Darwin, who wrote Principle of Geology. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s (1744—1829), a French naturalist, proposed that evolution occurs by the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Spencer held that pants and animals share a common ancestry and the use and disuse modifies organic structures for which the modifications are inherited. Spencer used Karl Ernst von Baer’s (1792—1876), Russian naturalist, embryonic development view in his development of his universal evolutionary principles. Spencer became a supporter of Charles Darwin theory of evolution. As a result, in 1860 Spencer announced his outline for a Synthetic Philosophy of evolution. He was also influenced by Comte and Mill in that man is at present passing from an evolution from militancy to industrialism.
Spencer aimed to demonstrate that the principle of evolution applied in biology, psychology, sociology and morality. Darwin called him “our great philosopher.” He derived his idea of cosmic evolution from watching the waves produced by a pebble thrown into a pond one Sunday morning. In 1848, he became a subeditor of the Economist and became acquainted with G. H. Lewes, Huxley, Tyndall, and George Elliot. He discussed the theory of evolution in detail with Lewes. However, compared to Mill, Spencer is little read these days. Nonetheless, he is credited as being first modern thinker to develop a philosophical framework for evolutionary thought. Indeed, Charles Darwin called him “our great Philosopher.”
In 1851, Spencer published Social Statistics and then in 1855 the Philosophy of Psychology. In France, he met Auguste Comte. In 1858, he outlined his System of Synthetic Philosophy which was distributed in 1860. First Principles (1862), The Principles of Biology (1864—1867), Principles of Sociology (1876—1896), Data of Ethics (1879), The Principles of Ethics (1892 and 1893), Justice (1891). Some additional works were Education (1861), The Man Versus the State (1884), The Nature and Reality of Religion and the posthumous Autobiography (1904). He was not a man to be in the lime light as seen by his many refusals to be honored.
His central thought was one of comic evolution of all things. He was a deist and Positivist. He believed in the ultimate perfection of mankind. His philosophy was based on the First Law of Thermodynamics often stated as “Energy can neither be created nor destroyed.” He believed Natural laws were the statutes of a well governed universe that had been decreed by the Creator with the intention of promoting human happiness. Like Comte, he was committed to the universality of natural law to everything in creation both material and non-material.
The second objective of his Synthetic Philosophy was to show that these same laws led to inexorable progress. He sought the unification of scientific knowledge in the form of the reduction of all natural to laws to one fundamental law—the law of evolution. In this respect, he followed the model of Robert Chambers in his anonymous Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844). The first clear articulation of Spencer’s evolutionary perspective occurred 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).After reading Darwin’s work he coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ for Darwin’s view and incorporated it into his own system, but the primary mechanism of species transformation that he recognized was Lamarckian (acquired traits can be inherited). The end point of the evolutionary process would be the creation of “the perfect man in the perfect society” with human beings becoming completely adapted to social life.
Spencer’s First Principles conveniently outlines his general philosophy, including his metaphysics and his laws of evolution. It begins with what he calls the Unknowable: the ultimate nature of reality. He speaks of two types of knowledge. First, ordinary knowledge is based on observation and common sense. All that humans can observe are things and events however, no absolute knowledge can be gained about them. This is what he calls the relativity of human knowledge. Second, there is the scientific knowledge which is not completely united, therefore, it is
the job of philosophy to organize these loose ends of the sciences into some sort of unified knowledge. It is Spencer’s evolution formula that is a kind of unification which he thinks is supported by philosophy.
What science is able to explain according to Spencer is matter, motion, space, time, substance, and causation. Moreover, he thinks that their characteristics are independent of observation. When one experiences these irreducible phenomena, Spencer thinks that these are to be viewed psychologically in terms of Force. What this Force really is no one can know except that it abides by the general laws of evolution. However, Spencer does concede that if an inquiry is made into the ultimate cause (or causes) of sense experience, inevitably, this leads to the hypothesis of First Cause. This leads to the idea of both an infinite and an absolute. However, nothing intelligible (to us) can be said about this First Cause leaving the notion only of a mysterious Power. It is here where philosophy stops concluding that Force is the ultimate of ultimates. (Spencer does not follow Kant in that he attributed these to forms and categories imposed by the mind through the act of sensation. However, he does seem to follow Spinoza’s metaphysics of the double aspect theory.) Though science deals with what can be known, it is the duty of religion to deal with the unknowns. As time progresses forward, what is known by science continues to broaden whereas what is relegated to religion shrinks. Therefore, the metaphenomenal lies outside the grasps of science and philosophy.
In his eventual agnosticism he came to believe that the “most certain of all facts that the Power which the Universe manifests to us is utterly inscrutable.” He called this awareness of “the Unknowable” and he presented worship of the Unknowable as capable of being a positive faith which could substitute for conventional religion. Indeed, he thought that the Unknowable represented the ultimate stage in the evolution of religion, the final elimination of its last anthropomorphic vestiges.
Spencer’s formula of cosmic and biological evolution is that it is a sequential integration of matter where matter passes from indefiniteness transforming into some homogeneous definite thing in a state of equilibrium. However, he assumes that this homogeneous state is en-route to some heterogeneity finality. This formula is determined deductively as a consequence of Force. It is also established through induction.
Spencer created a formulation to describe his law of evolution. It is a process of coherence and integration of matter and motion in the system. When evolution occurs in this sequential form, elements combine together that were once scattered. According to the nebular (cloud-like) hypothesis, the solar system was once a diffused nebula. Each planet was subjected to a successive stage—from a gaseous to a liquid to a solidified sphere—where planetary matter became more consolidated. Geology has revealed that the Earth, once a molten mass, cooled. The outer crust continues to grow thicker to the point where it is so rigid that it is only occasionally disturbed by earthquakes. Biology demonstrates that animal growth too integrates itself from elements previously scattered on the Earth into some other form of coherence. The heart, originally a long pulsating blood vessel, formed itself into chambers. Bile cells too located in the wall of the intestine consolidate and formed an organ.
Boney frameworks create a skull and appendages form from the vertebrae center. Organic evolution (Phylogeny) also reveals that worms evolve into crustaceans (aquatic creatures) transforming into crabs and spiders. In the vertebrates, progression integrates into birds and mammals and apes and man. What follows is the relationship of similar species: hunting in packs, sentinels, and then government. In sociology, uncivilized societies become nomadic forming tribes where the weak
submit to the strong. Eventually, permanent societies are formed, then counties, then ultimately into a world federation. In the societies, language of the lower kinds use only nouns and verbs where the higher kinds use inflections and other parts of speech. The higher languages, like English, inflections give way to newer words of expression. Words and phrase change over time, such as ‘God be with you’ converts to ‘Good-bye.’ Music too progresses from savage cadences to modern melody or oratorio and the implementation of instruments.
Spencer’s crown jewel of his evolutionary hypothesis was his ethical system. His utilitarian ethics is focused on what attains pleasure in the long run where too universal happiness is the ultimate goal for society where acts are adjusted to meet this end. He establishes his ethic on the theory of evolution which abandonees any previous emphasis on a supernatural authority. This religious belief system is replaced by a morality based upon a scientific foundation. Moral conduct proceeds in the scale of evolution to where evidence shows that purposeful actions are directed to the good of the individual or the species. Good acts (pleasurable), that is those that are better adapted to the ends, are more evolved whereas bad acts (un-pleasurable) represent a lesser evolved life. However, there is also the teleological effect that illustrates the struggle of one creature at the expense of another (i.e., the survival of the fittest over the weaker). His form of justice carries the premise that each man has the right to do as he please as long as it does not infringe upon another man’s freedom.
Spencer is sometimes credited for the Social Darwinist model that applied the law of the survival of the fittest to society, but Princeton University Economist Tim Leonard’s Origins of the Myth of Social Darwinism disagrees. Actually, Darwin himself (see below) applied it to society when he opposed vaccinations because they keep the weak and poor in existence rather than eliminating them (The Descent of Man).
An Evaluation of Spencer’s Philosophy
Spencer’s First Principles begins with his agnostic position concerning the unknowable. However, he devotes a significant portion regarding the Knowable. In this treatment he shows himself to be a constructive thinker resembling more of a positivist than a skeptic. Further, Spencer was a comprehensive thinker. He saw the need for a philosophy behind his theory which made it part of a cosmic whole. Indeed, evolution was a philosophical theory before it was a science. What is more, Spencer could not avoid God, even though He was concealed behind the term “Force.” It was clear that this transcendent Power was capable of achieving goals and progress that only a Cosmic Mind could do. Indeed, Spencer presented worship of the Unknowable as capable of being a positive faith which could substitute for conventional religion.
First of all, Spencer, like many others, misstated the First Law of Thermodynamics to support his own naturalistic views: “Energy can neither be created nor destroyed” is not a scientific observation. Rather, it is a philosophical dogma. Actually, it means “The amount of actual energy in the universe remains constant.” It says nothing about the origin of the universe or its duration. The Second Law does: “In a closed system [such as the whole universe is for the naturalist], the amount of useable energy is decreasing.” Given this principle the universe must have had a beginning. And by logical inference, there must have been a Beginner (God).
Second, Spencer’s agnosticism has been evaluated elsewhere (see Kant above). It is a self defeating position which claims to know that it cannot know anything about the Ultimate.
Third, Spencer’s biological evolution is critiqued along with Darwin (see Darwin below). It fails to demonstrate the grand scheme from microbe to Man.
Fourth, Spencer’s cosmic evolution is a gigantic category fallacy. Even if evolution were established in the field of biology, this would not justify applying it to everything in the cosmos including biology, psychology, sociology and morality.
Fifth, the scientific method as such cannot deal with ethics. The distinction between the ‘imperfect’ and ‘perfect’ in the Spencer evolutionary morality opens the door for moral relativism. Absolute ethics is based upon an ideal code of conduct; relative morality is based upon an adaptation of shifting ethics in an evolutionary society. To assume it can be, entails the is/ought fallacy. One cannot logically go from what is to what ought to be. In addition, Spencer takes the scientifically based utilitarian ethics model and posits that the ultimate end of life is happiness of the fittest
(according to the societal standards when this perfect society is reached). In the past, societies based their ethical codes on some authority, including some divined imposed sanctions, in order to provide regulation. The trend associated with the evolutionary model is towards a utilitarian development, again fostering a relativistic morality.
Sixth, the only scientific evidence is for micro-evolution (minor changes within basic types). To apply this to macro-evolution involves a lead that goes well beyond the evidence.
Seventh, as a positivist, Spencer wrongly assumed that the scientific method was the only source for truth. This is an unjustified elimination of both metaphysics and special revelation.
Eighth, Spencer has an unjustified optimism that one can ultimately obtain the perfection of the human race by use of the scientific method. The ugly facts stand against such optimism.
Ninth, Spencer’s evolution illustrates a progress from incoherence to integration, and from homogeneity to heterogeneity. However, there is an underlying assumption that allows this evolution to occur. This evolution must be contain some form of determinism that drives the order, from the indefinite to the definite, all based on some finite phenomena. There was a beginning and there will be an end both in space and time. Couple this to the principle of dissolution where things wear out and return to the pre-evolution state. Spencer’s reply is that while our universe evolves others are dissoluting—evolution and dissolution simply go on forever.
Despite the fact that Darwin called him “our great philosopher,” currently, Spencer is not considered an authority on any subject. His evolutionary philosophy was so wide spanned, covering so much that it ended up being abstract and empty. And not to mention that evolution has little place in mathematics, logic, physics, and chemistry and little relevance in sociology and ethics. It was John Fiske (1842—1901).
American philosopher and historian, one of Spencer’s famous disciples in the United States, attempted to develop his Cosmic Philosophy in four popular essays (The Descent of Man, The Idea of God, Through Nature to God, and Life Everlasting). Fiske’s work is a modification of Spencer’s general philosophy, providing a theistic interpretation of evolution. Without this divine aid from the outside, Spencer cosmic evolution was a mere castle in the sky. As we shall see with Darwin, even with it, macro-evolution falls far short of its scientific goals.
HERBERT SPENCER (A.D. 1820 – 1903) -The Life and Works of Herbert Spencer -A History of Western Philosophy, Volume 2_ Modern and Postmodern_ From Descartes to Derrida