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
KNOWLEDGE/ GENERAL PHILOSOPHY
 [See First
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
 [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.
 [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
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
 [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].
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
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
(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
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:
Hudson, An Introduction to the Philosophy
of Herbert Spencer, 2nd edition.
J. Offer see the Introduction to his edition (above).
D. Macrae, The Man versus the State: With Four Essays on Politics and Society.
Moore, Principia Ethica, sections
Weinstein, Equal Freedom and Utility: Herbert Spencer's Liberal
Wiltshire, The Social and Political
Thought of Herbert Spencer.
Note: the probable influences of
Hegel (negative) and Schelling (positive).
||Knowledge confined to
finite phenomenal world: no know