Herbert Spencer

For the purpose of gauging the state of liberal theory in the third quarter of the nineteenth century, it is both interesting and instructive to compare the philosophy of Mill with that of Herbert Spencer. The two men were generally recognized as the most important exponent, of the philosophy of political liberalism and of the native British, philosophical tradition. Both had their intellectual origins in Philosophical Radicalism.

In the case of Spencer this was not quite a, evident as in the case of Mill because he put at the center of his philosophy the new conception of organic evolution. Yet all of Spencer’s important ethical and political ideas were derived from utilitarianism and had no close logical dependence on either biology or evolution.

The Social Statics was published nine years before Darwin’s Origin of Species, and to a considerable degree Spencer’s later evolutionary ethics consisted in constructing speculative psychological ties between pleasure and biological survival. The fact that both Mill and Spencer went back to Philosophical Radicalism and yet differed very widely from each other reinforces the conclusion reached in the preceding chapter that two strains of thought had been incoherently joined in that philosophy.

Mill was in the main the intellectual descendant of Bentham, an empiricist who put few a priori limitations on the social functions of legislation. Spencer carried on into the latter part of the nineteenth century the rationalist traditions of the classical economists and utilized evolution to reconstruct the system of a natural society with natural boundaries between economics and politics.

Yet a substantial part of what both Spencer and Mill did for social philosophy was to reach out for new intellectual connections and to break down the insularity of the older liberalism. In the case of Spencer this consisted in bringing it into relation with biology and sociology and with biological and social evolution.

Spencer’s Synthetic Philosophy was an astonishing system of nineteenth-century rationalism (covering the whole range of knowledge from physics to ethics) worked out through thirty-five years and in ten volumes, and constructed with no important change of plan between the prospectus and the concluding volume.

Nothing analogous to it can easily be found short of the great systems of natural law that flourished in the seventeenth century, and indeed the intellectual affinities between these and Spencer’s philosophy were close. For Spencer the modernized version of nature was evolution.

From von Baer’s embryology he took the law of differentiation and integration, from an indefinite incoherent homogeneity to a definite coherent heterogeneity, and erected it into a cosmic principle which manifests itself in a thousand subject-matters while preserving identity of pattern. Assuming the instability of the homogeneous Spencer undertook the amazing task of deducing organic evolution from the conservation of energy.

And from this beginning the system proceeded successively to the principles of biology, of psychology, of sociology, and of ethics. Allowing for temporary eddies of dissolution, nature advances upon a straight line from energy to life, from life to mind, from mind to society, from society to civilization and to more highly differentiated and integrated civilizations.

It need hardly be said that this kind of logical tour de force was not notable for its scientific rigor or for the cogency of its deductions. In a large measure it was in its own day an astonishingly successful popularization, and it has suffered the fate of obsolete popularization. In a sense it was typical of its period, even though few thinkers attempted a philosophical synthesis so broad. Spencer’s evolution was another version of the philosophy of history already mentioned.

It expressed again the hope that the growth of society would provide clear criteria of lower and higher stages of development by which to distinguish the obsolete from the suitable, the fit from the unfit, and therefore the good from the bad.

With Spencer this hope was given the appearance of having behind it the established fact of organic evolution, since moral improvement was made to seem merely an extension of the biological concept of adaptation, and social well-being appeared to be equated with the survival of the fittest.

In addition to involving many logical ambiguities, this conflation of ideas was a source of serious scientific confusion. The only way in which Spencer could pass from biological adaptation to moral progress was by supposing that socially valuable behavior, once established by moral prescription as habits, is translated into anatomical changes that are transmitted by inheritance.

This belief, of which Spencer was a lifelong exponent, was not only biologically baseless but was the source of endless confusion about the nature of culture and of social change. Yet when all this has been said about the deficiencies of Spencer’s philosophy, it must still in fairness be added that it contributed to important changes in the social studies, quite without reference to the validity of particular conclusions.

It brought psychology into relation with biology, and this was a first step toward breaking down the dogmatism of the old association psychology. It also brought politics and ethics into the context of sociological and anthropological investigation and therefore into the context of cultural history.

The age of the Synthetic Philosophy was also the age of the scientifically more original and important work of E. B. Tylor and L. H. Morgan. Spencer like Mill, though in a different way, broke down the intellectual isolation of the older utilitarian philosophy and of social Studies in general, making them a part of the broad sweep of modern science. In this respect his philosophy, like that of Comte, had in it, day a profound intellectual significance.

Spencer’s political philosophy on the other hand was merely reactionary. He remained a philosophical radical after philosophical radicalism had been obsolete for a generation. The theory of evolution provided him with the concept of a natural society, and this turned out to be only a new version of the old system of natural liberty.

The deduction presented some difficulties, since it might seem that evolution would make the state, like society, more complex and more highly integrated, while Spencer had to prove that a society which grew steadily more complex would support a state that simplified itself practically out of existence.

He solved the paradox by supposing that most functions exercised by government originated in a military society and that war would become obsolete in an industrialized society, Hence he inferred that, with increased industrialization, more and more would be left to private enterprise.

Indeed Spencer’s theory of the state was very largely a list of functions that the state should at once abandon, since they had been assumed in the first place by some  of the innumerable sins of legislators, or of functions that will be made unnecessary by the progress of evolution.

Most legislation is bad because it mars the perfection which nature tends to produce by the survival of the fittest, and virtually all legislation will be rendered obsolete as evolution approaches a perfect adaptation of the individual to society.

Hence Spencer opposed consistently all regulation of industry, including sanitary regulations or the requirement of safety devices, all forms of public charity, and public support for education. Indeed, in the Social Statics he proposed that the state should turn over the mint and the post office to private enterprise.

The philosophies of Mill and Spencer taken together left the theory of liberalism in a state of unintelligible confusion. Mill restated its philosophy in such a way as to suggest that he departed in no important way from the principles of his father and of Bentham, but he so qualified the conclusions that they gave little or no support to what had always been deemed to be the characteristic line of liberal policy, namely, the limitation of control by governments, the encouragement of private enterprise, and the widest possible extension of freedom of contract.

Spencer on the contrary had given to liberalism a new philosophy that purported to depend upon a scientific discovery unknown to any generation before his own, but the new philosophy turned out to teach more rigidly than ever before a policy that practical liberals, who were not overly concerned about logical consistency, had already discovered to need substantial modifications. In either case the French proverb seemed to apply.

Liberalism seemed to be a set of formulas that had eased to mean what they had always been thought to mean and a set pf policies that corresponded to no formulas at all. Yet two facts were evident to any clear-thinking person of liberal sympathies.

One was that the enfranchisement and organization of labor sere giving political power to a class that had no intention of accepting without a struggle anyone’s demonstration that its standard of living was fixed permanently at the level of existence and reproduction, without the amenities that industrialism was producing in ever larger volume.

The other was that public opinion, whether on ethical or religious of humanitarian grounds, was prepared to countenance and support this claim. With the results of unregulated industrialism before it, a new generation of liberals was not prepared to acquiesce in the belief that government has only a negative role to play in making men free.

It was this frame of mind that made John Stuart Mill, despite the insufficiency of his formal philosophy, the most convincing liberal of the middle period of the nineteenth century. What was evidently needed was a re-examination of the philosophy which supported the ideals of a liberal society and the function in it of a liberal government.


SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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