Man's evolution to a just and beneficent being

Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life
August 17, 2007

Herbert Spencer's general theory of evolution, as applied in psychology, biology, sociology and in the analysis of morals and political thought and institutions, now merits a place at the top table when interpreting Victorian intellectual life. The heart of his output was the ten-volume System of Synthetic Philosophy , beginning with First Principles in 1862 and ending with the third volume of the Principles of Sociology in 1896. Notwithstanding many insightful studies of facets of his thought, the man and the big picture behind his contributions have eluded reappraisal for decades: Spencer scholars generally spend too little time on such research, often being shepherded into specialist subject pens to comply with research assessment strategies.

Mark Francis's "intellectual biography" is intended as a corrective. Its four parts address successively Spencer's personal culture, metaphysics, philosophy of science and biological writings, and analysis of politics and "ethical" sociology.

One third of the text addresses "gaps" in Spencer's account of himself, particularly concerning his relationship with his parents in Derby and then his "love affair" with George Eliot. A question mark, though, must remain over the reliability of psychological speculation about Spencer's mental make-up and writings.

More rewarding are ensuing discussions of the neglected religious radicals and philosophers forming the context in which he worked in the 1840s and 1850s, people such as F. W. Newman, James Martineau, Thomas Reid, Sir William Hamilton, A. C. Fraser and H. L. Mansel. Helpful too is the reappraisal of the Principles of Biology . Spencer incorporated Charles Darwin's work on the origin of species by natural selection into the biology, describing it as "indirect equilibration", but his chief interest was the form and structure exhibited by existing "successful" organisms and their metamorphosis faced with external environmental forces. For Spencer, there were no essential or innate forms in nature, and a Comtean materialist interpretation of nature did not suffice: evidence pointed to evolutionary movement from indefinite homogeneity to heterogeneity as providing a meaning to life.

The book's last part will be controversial. Francis challenges the orthodox view of Spencer as an "individualist" thinker, arguing that he is "more accurately described as an anti-individualist". Others have already shown that Spencer interprets men and women as social beings in social relationships, not as the "atomic individuals" as asserted by idealists of the 1890s, and also Émile Durkheim and recent exponents of communitarianism. Spencer consistently emphasised that in "industrial" as opposed to "militant" societies their members have evolved naturally, psychically and socially, through adaptation and inheritance, to acknowledge and act with internalised altruistic or social sentiments, including "beneficence" and "justice".

This grounded and specific sense of "justice", however, is of cardinal importance to Spencer, and is defined as "every man is free to do that which he wills, provided he infringes not the freedom of any other man". Spencer adds that "individuals shall severally take the consequences of their conduct, neither increased nor decreased". This view of "justice" is bedrock Spencer, argued for onwards from Social Statics of 1851. The sole essential function of the state is any necessary maintenance of "justice" and its accessible administration; unperformed, psychical and social evolution will regress, with coercion usurping spontaneity and enterprise. Individuals act in a "thick" social manner (although handcuffed by their inheritance and environment), with the state to enforce "justice": a species of political individualism. Francis compromises his anti-individualist reinterpretation by excising arbitrarily Spencer's account of justice, in fact highly visible in the text he favours, Political Institutions, as well as in one he marginalises, Spencer's popular The Man versus the State.

How Spencer's ideas travelled around the world in his day is not discussed. Nor, apart from John Stuart Mill and T. H. Huxley, are his contemporary critics. J. E. Cairnes objected to his denial of freedom of the will (in the Psychology ) and the not-unrelated idea that social change was to be interpreted as an undesigned "natural" growth, not a deliberative human work of creation. In the "invention of modern life", these key Spencerian tenets in fact lacked resonance.

Thematic concerns dominate this study. Spencer's publishing career lasted from the late 1830s almost until his death in 1903. It included numerous articles and more than 20 books. Titles such as The Data of Ethics reappeared later, subsumed in larger volumes. Substantially revised editions were also issued. With no discursive chronological chapter or two, such complexities, and the scattering of biographical material throughout the text, will test anyone lacking a good preliminary knowledge of Spencer.

John Offer is professor of social theory and policy, Ulster University.

Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life

Author - Mark Francis
Publisher - Acumen
Pages - 464
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 9781844650866

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