Herbert Spencer

Herbert Spencer

Born: 1820. Died: 1903.


- 'Life under all its forms has arisen by a progressive, unbroken evolution.'

- The law of evolution provides a philosophical generalization capable of scientifically explaining all phenomena.

- Evolution is change from an incoherent homogeneity to a coherent heterogeneity.

- As organisms increase in size, they increase in structure, and the progressive differentiation of structure is accompanied by the progressive differentiation of function.

- Evolution establishes definitely connected differences; specialization produces interdependence.

- Culture change is better explained in terms of sociocultural forces than as a result of the actions of great men.

- Artificially protecting the weak prevents adaptations that would result in the 'organic' improvement of the human race.


Herbert Spencer was a British philosopher, born in Derby on April 27, 1820. His father was a school teacher and Herbert was the only child of his parents to live beyond early childhood. His early interests were science, natural history, physics and chemistry. At the age of 16, he completed his formal education and was an Assistant Schoolmaster. Later he became a railroad engineer working for nine years for the London and Birmingham Railway. He gained a reputation as a philosopher, but later scientists proved many of his theories wrong.

In 1852, Herbert Spencer wrote an article defending the theory of biological evolution, a full seven years before Charles Darwin published Origin of Species. His view of evolution encompassed all of nature, the biological model being the basis for understanding the social model. It was Spencer who first used such terms as "system," "function," and "structure."

He is noted for his attempt to work out a philosophy based on scientific discoveries of his day, which could be applied to all subjects. In Programme of a System of Synthetic Philosophy (1862–1896), he applied his fundamental law, the idea of evolution (gradual development) to biology, psychology, sociology, and other fields.

In his work on biology, he traced evolutionary development from its lowest forms to human beings. He believed that the law of nature is a constant action of forces which tend to change all forms from simple to complex. He also explained that the human mind evolved in this same way, from simple automatic responses to the reasoning process used by human beings.

Spencer most resembled the eighteenth century philosophers in his attempt to apply the implications of science to social thought and action. He felt that the ultimate result of universal evolution was "equilibration" or the achievement of a state of perfect equilibrium, whether it was in the development of an animal organism or within human society. In an organism, the equilibrium was represented by decay and death, where development ended. However, in a society, this process ended with the establishment of perfection and happiness.

Major Books of Herbert Spencer

- An Autobiography, Parts 1 and 2, 1904
- Descriptive Sociology, 1874
- Education: Intellectual, Moral, and Physical, 1861
- Facts and Comments, 1902
- First Principles, 1862
- The Man Versus the State, 1884
- The Principles of Biology, Volume I, 1864-67 and Volume II, 1899
- The Principles of Ethics, Volumes I and II, 1879-1893
- The Principles of Psychology, 1855
- The Principles of Sociology, Volumes I, II, III and IV, 1879-1897
- Social Statics, 1850
- The Study of Sociology, 1873

Major Articles of Herbert Spencer

- 1876, The Comparative Psychology of Man, Mind
- 1891, On the Origin of Music , Mind

Quotes from Herbert Spencer

- "A clever theft was praiseworthy among the Spartans; and it is equally so among Christians, provided it be on a sufficiently large scale." (from "Social Statics", 1851)

- "A fiery passion consumes all evidences opposed to its gratification and, fusing together those that serve its purpose, casts them into weapons by which to achieve its end." (from "Social Statics", 1851)

- "Be sure that a democracy will be attained whenever the people are good enough for one." (from "Social Statics", 1851)

- "The behavior of men to the lower animals, and their behavior to each other, bear a constant relationship." (from "Social Statics", 1851)

- "Conservatism defends those coercive arrangements which a still-lingering savageness makes requisite. Radicalism endeavors to realize a state more in harmony with the character of the ideal man." (from "Social Statics", 1851)

- "Education ... is closely associated with change, is its pioneer, is the never-sleeping agent of revolution, is always fitting men for higher things and unfitting them for things as they are. Therefore, between institutions whose very existence depends upon man continuing what he is and true education, which is one of the instruments for making him something other than he is, there must always be enmity." (from "Social Statics", 1851)

- "Ethical truth is as exact and as peremptory as physical truth." (from "Social Statics", 1851)

- "Freedom achieved by the sword is uniformly lost again, but ... it is lasting when gained by peaceful agitation." (from "Social Statics", 1851)

- "Hero-worship is strongest where there is least regard for human freedom." (from "Social Statics", 1851)

- "If it be a duty to respect other men's claims, so also is it a duty to maintain our own." (from "Social Statics", 1851)

- "It is narrated of Colonel D'Oyley, the first governor of Jamaica, that within a few days after having issued an order "for the distribution to the army of 1,701 Bibles," he signed another order for the payment "of the sum of twenty pounds sterling, out of the impost money, to pay for fifteen dogs, brought by John Hoy, for the hunting of the Negroes."" (from "Social Statics", 1851)

- "[It is] not true that those who bear universal sway and seem able to do as they please can really do so. They limit their own freedom in limiting that of others; their despotism recoils and puts them also in bondage. We read, for instance, that the Roman emperors were the puppets of their soldiers. "In the Byzantine palace," says [Edward] Gibbon, "the emperor was the first slave of the ceremonies he imposed."" (from "Social Statics", 1851)

- "The mechanical law that action and reaction are equal has its moral analogue. The deed of one man to another tends ultimately to produce a like effect upon both, be the deed good or bad." (from "Social Statics", 1851)

- "Morality knows nothing of geographical boundaries or distinctions of race." (from "Social Statics", 1851)

- "Nature's rules ... have no exceptions." (from "Social Statics", 1851)

- "No apparatus of senators, judges, and police can compensate for the want of an internal governing sentiment. ... No administrative sleight of hand can save us from ourselves." (from "Social Statics", 1851)

- "No one can be perfectly free till all are free; no one can be perfectly moral till all are moral; no one can be perfectly happy till all are happy." (from "Social Statics", 1851)

- "Not by authority is your sway to be obtained; neither by reasoning, but by inducement. Show in all your conduct that you are thoroughly your child's friend, and there is nothing that you may not lead him to. The faintest sign of your approval or dissent will be his law." (from "Social Statics", 1851)

- "Opinion is ultimately determined by the feelings, and not by the intellect." (from "Social Statics", 1851)

- "Policeman are soldiers who act alone; soldiers are policemen who act in unison." (from "Social Statics", 1851)

- "[The] readiness to cringe is accompanied by an equal readiness to tyrannize. ... The treatment of women by their husbands and children by their parents has been tyrannical in proportion as the servility of subjects to rulers has been extreme." (from "Social Statics", 1851)

- "Social arrangements can be conformed to the moral law only in as far as the people are themselves moral." (from "Social Statics", 1851)

- "Surely it is but reasonable, before devising measures for the benefit of society, to ascertain what society is made of. Is human nature constant, or is it not? If so, why? If not, why not? Is it in essence always the same? Then what are its permanent characteristics? Is it changing? Then what is the nature of the change it is undergoing? What is it becoming, and why?" (from "Social Statics", 1851)

- "There is no more mischievous absurdity than this judging of actions from the outside as they look to us, instead of from the inside as they look to the actors; nothing more irrational than to criticize deeds as though the doers of them had the same desires, hopes, fears, and restraints as ourselves." (from "Social Statics", 1851)

- "The ultimate man will be one whose private requirements coincide with public ones. He will be that manner of man who, in spontaneously fulfilling his own nature, incidentally performs the functions of a social unit, and yet is only enabled so to fulfill his own nature by all others doing the like." (from "Social Statics", 1851)

- "We all decry prejudice, yet are all prejudiced." (from "Social Statics", 1851)

- "While indignant Radicalism denounces "the vile aristocrats," these in their turn enlarge with horror on the brutality of the mob. Neither party sees its own sins. Neither party recognizes in the other itself in a different dress. ... Yet a cool bystander finds nothing to choose between them; knows that these class recriminations are but the inflammatory symptoms of a uniformly diffused immorality. Label men how you please with titles of "upper" and "middle" and "lower," you cannot prevent them from being units of the same society, acted upon by the same spirit of the age, molded after the same type of character." (from "Social Statics", 1851)

- "For administrative efficiency, autocratic power is the best. ... If you would have society actively regulated by staffs of State-agents; then by all means choose that system of complete centralization which we call despotism." (from "Representative Government-What Is It Good For?", 1857)

- "The original and essential office of a government is that of protecting its subjects against aggression external and internal." (from "Representative Government-What Is It Good For?", 1857)

- "Any piece of knowledge which the pupil has himself acquired, any problem which he has himself solved, becomes by virtue of the conquest much more thoroughly his than it could else be. The preliminary activity of mind which his success implies, the concentration of thought necessary to it, and the excitement consequent on his triumph, conspire to register all the facts in his memory in a way that no mere information heard from a teacher or read in a school book can be registered." (from "Education: Intellectual, Moral, and Physical", 1860)

- "All theories of morality agree in considering that conduct whose total results, immediate and remote, are beneficial, is good conduct; while conduct whose total results, immediate and remote, are injurious, is bad conduct. The happiness or misery caused by it are the ultimate standards by which all men judge of behavior." (from "Education: Intellectual, Moral, and Physical", 1860)

- "Children should be led to make their own investigations and to draw their own inferences. They should be told as little as possible and induced to discover as much as possible. Humanity has progressed solely by self-instruction. ... If the subjects be put before him in right order and right form, any pupil of ordinary capacity will surmount his successive difficulties with but little assistance." (from "Education: Intellectual, Moral, and Physical", 1860)

- "The defects of the children mirror the defects of their parents." (from "Education: Intellectual, Moral, and Physical", 1860)

- "Each child's mind [should go] through a process like that which the mind of humanity at large has gone through. The truths of number, of form, of relationship in position, were all originally drawn from objects; and to present these truths to the child in the concrete is to let him learn them as the race learned them." (from "Education: Intellectual, Moral, and Physical", 1860)

- "[Education of the individual shall] progress from the simple to the complex, from the concrete to the abstract, from the empirical to the rational, ... shall be as much as possible a process of self-evolution, and ... shall be pleasurable." (from "Education: Intellectual, Moral, and Physical", 1860)

- "The first requisite to success in life is to be a good animal. The best brain is found of little service, if there be not enough vital energy to work it." (from "Education: Intellectual, Moral, and Physical", 1860)

- "It is the function of parents to see that their children habitually experience the true consequences of their conduct." (from "Education: Intellectual, Moral, and Physical", 1860)

- "Science is organized knowledge." (from "Education: Intellectual, Moral, and Physical", 1860)

- "To parental misconduct is traceable a great part of the domestic disorder commonly ascribed to the perversity of children." (from "Education: Intellectual, Moral, and Physical", 1860)

- "Vigorous health and its accompanying high spirits are larger elements of happiness than any other things whatever." (from "Education: Intellectual, Moral, and Physical", 1860)

- "With family governments, as with political ones, a harsh despotism itself generates a great part of the crimes it has to repress." (from "Education: Intellectual, Moral, and Physical", 1860)

- "The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly is to fill the world with fools." (from "Essays: Moral, Political and Aesthetic", 1866)

- "When a man's knowledge is not in order, the more knowledge he has, the greater will be his confusion." (from "The Principles of Sociology", 1876-1896)

- "A right rule of conduct must be one which may with advantage be adopted by all." (from "The Data of Ethics", 1879)

- "The co-existence of a perfect man and an imperfect society is impossible." (from "The Data of Ethics", 1879)

- "That which the best human nature is capable of is within the reach of human nature at large." (from "The Data of Ethics", 1879)

- "All socialism is slavery. ... That which fundamentally distinguishes the slave is that he labors under coercion to satisfy another's desires." (from "The Coming Slavery", 1884)

- "The aggressiveness of the ruling power inside a society increases with its aggressiveness outside the society." (from "The Man versus the State", 1884)

- "Motion universally takes place along the line of least resistance." (from "The Filiation of Ideas", 1899)

- "Pronounced individuality is necessarily more or less at variance with authority." (from "The Filiation of Ideas", 1899)

- "Uniformity brings death, variety brings life." (from a letter to T. Buzzard, 1892)

- "Men are not rational beings, as commonly supposed. A man is a bundle of instincts, feelings, sentiments, which severally seek their gratification, and those which are in power get hold of the reason and use it to their own ends, and exclude all other sentiments and feelings from power." (from a letter to T. Buzzard, 1895)

- "My own course [of study]-not intentionally pursued, but spontaneously pursued-may be characterized as little reading and much thinking, and thinking about facts learned at first hand." (from a letter to Leslie Stephen, 1899)

- "Those who enslave other peoples enslave themselves." (from a letter to Sir Robert Giffin, 1901)

- "A constant question with [my father] was, "I wonder what is the cause of so-and-so"; or again putting it directly to me, "Can you tell the cause of this?" Always the tendency in himself, and the tendency strengthened in me, was to regard everything as naturally caused. ... There was [thus] established a habit of seeking for causes, as well as a tacit belief in the universality of causation." (from "An Autobiography", 1904)

- "Beyond maintaining justice, the state cannot do anything else without transgressing justice." (from "Living Biographies of Great Philosophers" by Henry Thomas and Dana Lee Thomas)


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