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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


SPENCER

(1820 — 1903)

 

EVOLUTIONISM/ UTILITARIANISM

Herbert Spencer was born in Derby. His father was a schoolmaster and a Quaker. He was educated locally and from 1833 to 1836 by his uncle, but thereafter he was self-taught. In 1837, after working a short time as a teacher, he became a railway engineer until he was made redundant in 1841. He then embarked on a literary career in London, where he became friendly with a number of prominent 'intellectuals'. He devoted the whole of his life to writings on science and philosophy, and refused all academic or social honours.

 

KNOWLEDGE/ GENERAL PHILOSOPHY

[1] [See First Principles.] Knowledge for Spencer starts from and is confined to the finite, conditioned, phenomenal world. This is a manifestation of a 'reality' but we cannot know anything of this transcendent realm of being [a]. He distinguishes three levels of knowledge: (1) 'un-unified' knowledge, which is the lowest form, grounded in 'vivid' and 'faint' phenomena; (2) partially-unified knowledge, which is science; and (3) completely-unified knowledge, or philosophy. These three kinds differ in degree of generalization, but at all levels of thought there are basic concepts and assumptions. Whenever we choose a particular datum for our starting-point we are appealing to what Spencer calls 'unacknowledged postulates'. They are basic assumptions, and are the foundation of philosophy. They are in a sense a priori in that they are built in relatively to the intelligent mind which is 'intuiting' them directly. But he rejects the view that we impose categories on data of experience. The postulates are empirical in that they derive from the accumulated experience of humanity. They are ultimately justified and thereby explicable by the 'congruity' of our expectations with what actually happens in our experience [b].

Spencer distinguishes two ways in which 'universal truths' of philosophy can be considered: (1) as "products of exploration", that is, in themselves; and (2) as "instruments of exploration". The task of the former (general philosophy) is to make explicit basic concepts and postulates; while the latter (special philosophy) seeks to exhibit the congruity and also to provide a context or starting-point for the study of biology, psychology, ethics, and sociology. Knowledge, of whatever degree of generalization, is relational, in so far as it involves "classifying, or grasping the like and separating the unlike". Relation, he says, is "the universal form of thought" [c]. And he gives two kinds: relations of sequence, and relations of coexistence, each of which produces in our minds an abstract relative idea, of, respectively, all sequences in time and all co-existences in space [d]. (Space and time are thus not 'subjectively' innate. But neither are they 'objective' in so far as they lack attributes and relate to the trans-phenomenal and unknowable realm.)

Knowledge derives ultimately from the basic experience of forces. We acquire knowledge of sequences by abstracting from coexistent positions offering us resistance, that is, the concept of matter — which itself is derived from the basic experience of "forces standing in certain co-relations". Likewise our consciousness of motion is in the last analysis our "serial impressions of force". Force is the fundamental concept in which science, and thence philosophy, is grounded, and cannot be established by it [e]. The principle of uniformity of law is the persistence of relations between forces as causes which transcend our knowledge and conception and are thus not properly explicable [f].

Starting from this basic concept of force, Spencer needs now to account for the various changes undergone by matter and motion (which is the concern of the various sciences). He therefore introduces the definition or 'law' of evolution as "an integration of matter and concomitant dissipation of motion", according to which matter becomes less indefinite, more coherent and heterogeneous as a result of the changes in motion of its parts. What he means is that in all growth we find emerging from primitive simplicity ever greater complexity and differentiation. At the same time motion becomes more broken up, scattered. Eventually an equilibrium between integration and dissipation is achieved, which is followed by the counter-process of disintegration of matter and 'revival' of motion. Progressive evolution alternates with retrogressive dissolution [g] — though Spencer does not say this applies to the universe as a total 'entity' in itself.

 

SOCIAL AND POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY

[2] [See The Principles of Sociology.] Spencer applies his 'evolutionary' theory not only to the inorganic world and the organic world of individual living things (thereby accounting for biological development and the emergence of intelligence and feelings) but also to societies. He therefore supposes that there is a science of society which will attempt to explain social phenomena in terms of the behaviour and circumstances of its constituent parts. This is analogous to the account offered of both inorganic and organic things in terms of 'inner' and 'outer' forces. But he points out that there are differences. For example, the behaviour of the parts of an inanimate object, unlike those of an organic thing, should not be understood functionally. Further, while consciousness in an organic object is concentrated on a particular region, in the social organism it is "diffused throughout the aggregate". He does not therefore think of society as more than the sum of its individuals (for whose benefit it exists) [a]. The maximization of individual liberty is his ideal, and he thinks this is to be achieved in the industrial society [b], in which people are involved in production and distribution. He sees this as having evolved from the earlier stages of primitive society and thence to 'militant' societies. Whereas the key feature of the latter is integration (the individual being subordinated in "life, liberty, and property" to the need to preserve the state), in industrial society a balance is attained between integration and differentiation. It is therefore this kind of society that can best defend individual liberty. Indeed it is the function and duty of the state to preserve its members' rights and freedoms. Consistently with this view of individual liberty Spencer was also concerned that the state, or any part of it, should not itself become repressive or even bureaucratic.

 

ETHICS

[3] [See The Principles of Ethics.] Metaphysical, transcendental entities or causes being unknowable for Spencer, he firmly grounds his ethics in his theory of evolution. All our actions are directed to some end which will contribute to the good of the individual or of the species [a]. Necessarily there will be conflicts between individuals. He calls this imperfectly evolved conduct. But in the ideal, peaceful industrial society conflict will be eliminated, and individuals will work together in their mutual interest [b]. This is perfectly evolved conduct. This distinction corresponds to that between relative and absolute ethics. Given that decisions how to act have to be taken in less than ideal circumstances, absolute standards have to be but a general guide.

Spencer's ethics is what he calls 'rational' utilitarianism. This is a system which holds that the rightness or wrongness of actions is to be grounded in basic principles conformity to which should be our moral aim, and yet that rightness and wrongness can be assessed by reference to the amount of happiness they produce (and thereby our perfection). This is the ultimate end of human life [c]. He accepts therefore that moral rules can be discovered by looking at the consequences of actions, and that in the course of time "the slowly organized results of experiences received by the race" are turned into 'moral intuitions'.

 

PHILOSOPHY OF RELIGION

[4] [First Principles, part I.] Although Spencer's philosophy is broadly empirical, he does not rule out the possibility of a transcendent reality beyond the purview of science and philosophy — though it cannot be known or comprehended [a]. Does this mean he accepts the existence of a God? He rejects as inconceivable both pantheism and the idea of a self-existent eternal creator. The idea of a First Cause too is riddled with contradictions [b]. However, there remains the notion of the infinite Unknowable itself, for which religious ideas are "symbols of the actual, not cognitions of it", as scientific ideas are of, for example, forces — indeed Spencer seems to equate the Unknowable with Force [c]. If all knowledge is relative, there has to be a non-relative unconditioned reality [d]; otherwise the relative would itself become absolute, which would be self-contradictory. But of this Unknowable we can have only 'indefinite' consciousness (as contrasted with the 'definite' consciousness we have of the finite), just as we must have the concept of a noumenon correlated with phenomenon although the noumenon itself is unknowable [e].

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Spencer is of interest for his attempt to build a philosophical system on a scientific theory of evolution combined with a broadly Kantian account of knowledge (though lacking any doctrine of categories) and a metaphysic which makes use of the concept of the 'Unknowable' while critical of all theological dogmas. His ethics similarly combines a utilitarian view of the good with evolutionary assumptions of progress.

The main problems with his philosophy would seem to be the following.

(1) As with most evolutionary philosophies, it is debatable whether it is legitimate to apply the theory beyond the strictly scientific arena, and indeed whether it is even supported by the evidence.

(2) Similarly, the grounding of his utilitarianism in an evolutionary framework is questionable, not least because it supposes the 'highest' type of being is the morally best — as measured by 'fitness' to survive.

(3) From the standpoint of the twentieth century the application of laissez-faire doctrines to industrial society has arguably been not too successful so far as considerations of 'humaneness' and liberty are concerned; and this is certainly not consistent with Spencer's interest in human rights.

(4) His concept of the Unknowable has been criticized as not fitting in easily with his overall scientific methodology and assumptions.

 

READING

Spencer: A System of Synthetic Philosophy — see especially First Principles (1862); Principles of Sociology (1876-96); Principles of Ethics, 2 vols (1892-3). (A number of other volumes of the System were also published.) See J. Offer (ed.), Herbert Spencer: Political Writings.

Studies:

Introductory

W. H. Hudson, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Herbert Spencer, 2nd edition.

J. Offer — see the Introduction to his edition (above).

More advanced

D. Macrae, The Man versus the State: With Four Essays on Politics and Society.

G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica, sections 31-35.

D. Weinstein, Equal Freedom and Utility: Herbert Spencer's Liberal Utilitarianism.

D. Wiltshire, The Social and Political Thought of Herbert Spencer.

 

 

CONNECTIONS

Spencer

 

Note: the probable influences of Hegel (negative) and Schelling (positive).

 

[1a] Knowledge confined to finite phenomenal world: no knowledge of transcendent being manifested in phenomena

   Hume

   Kant

   Hegel

   Comte

Mill

[1c]

[2d]

[1b]

[1c]

[2a]

 

[1b] Three levels of knowledge; 'unacknowledged postulates'; knowledge empirical and has a priori aspect, but rejection of subjective categories; 'congruity' of expectations with what occurs justifies claims to knowledge

   Hume

   Kant

Mill

   Dilthey

[1c]

[1b 2c]

[2a]

[1c]

 

[1c] Relation — universal form of thought; knowledge is relational    Hume [1d 2a]

 

[1d] Relations of sequence and coexistence → abstract relative ideas of time and space    Kant [2b]

 

[1e] Knowledge derives ultimately from force — the fundamental concept for science and philosophy    Schelling [1e]

 

[1f; cf. 1b] 'Principle of uniformity' — persistence of relations between forces as transcendent causes; forces, cause, etc. not explicable

   Hume

   Mill

   Dilthey

[1h 2b]

[1h]

[1c]

 

[1g] Law of evolution: integration of matter, dissipation of motion

   Posidonius

   Peirce

Bergson

[2d]

[3a]

[4a]

 

[2a] Science of society: explanation in terms of constituents and function but society not 'organic' (society is for the individuals)

   Hegel

   Comte

   Mill

   Dilthey

[7a]

[2a]

[1k]

[2b]

 

[2b] Maximization of individual liberty — industrial society the ideal

   Mill

   Marx

[4a]

[2b]

 

[3a; cf. 3c] Actions directed towards good of individuals and species    Mill [3a b]

 

[3b] Conflicts eliminated in ideal society    Marx [2e]

 

[3c; cf. 3a] Absolute standards only guide in less than ideal society; rational utilitarianism: right/ wrong in terms of amount of happiness produced (end of human life)    Mill [3a b]

 

[4a; cf. 1a 4c d] May be transcendent reality (=God?) but not knowable or comprehensible

   Kant

   Schelling

[2d]

[3c]

 

[4b] Rejection of pantheism self-existent creator, first cause

   Descartes

   [representative]

   Spinoza

   Hume

   Mill

[3a]

   

[2b]

[5a]

[5d]

 

[4c; cf. 1a e 4a] The Unknowable (= Force?); religious ideas as symbols of this    Schelling [3a 5d]

 

[4d; cf. 1c 4a] Knowledge relative so must be non-relative conditioned reality

   Protagoras

   Kant

   Dilthey

   Nietzsche

[1b 2a]

[2d]

[1f]

[2c]

 

[4e] Only 'indefinite' consciousness of infinite Unknowable, 'definite' consciousness of 'finite' (cf. noumenon-phenomenon distinction)

   Kant

   Hegel

   Schelling

[2d]

[1a]

[3c]