Herbert Spencer (1820-1903)


Herbert Spencer

Spencer and "Social Darwinism"

Some short takes:

In contrast to Comte, Spencer's evolutionary scheme begins with material conditions rather than ideas. . . Like Comte, Spencer is greatly underestimated by many contemporary sociologists. . . .I particularly like Spencer's insights on the growth of administration as a consequence of the increasing division of labor, and the centralization of authority when the system is threatened. . . . His evolutionary theory (which was not merely derived from Darwin) is very subtle, it is not unilinear as many critics claim. . . .Spencer advocated functional analysis as well as an evolutionary focus. . . .You do not have to subscribe to his political position of "non-interventionism" to appreciate his social analysis.

In his own words:

On materialism:

"What is Comte's professed aim?  To give a coherent account of the progress of human conceptions.  What is my aim?  To give a coherent account of the progress of the external world.  Comte proposes to describe the necessary and the actual, filiation of ideas.  I propose to describe the necessary, and the actual, filiation of things.  Comte professes to interpret the genesis of our knowledge of nature.  My aim is to interpret . . . the genesis of the phenomena which constitute nature.  The one is subjective.  The other is objective"  (1904, p.570).

"The average opinion in every age and country is a function of the social structure in that age and country" (1891, p. 390).

"There can be no complete acceptance of sociology as a science, so long as the belief in a social order not conforming to natural law survives"  (1891, p. 394).

On the division of labor:

"While rudimentary, a society is all warrior, all hunter, all hut-builder, all tool-maker:  every part fulfills for itself all needs"  (1967, pp. 4-5).

"As [society] grows, its parts become unlike:  it exhibits increase of structure.  The unlike parts simultaneously assume activities of unlike kinds.  These activities are not simply different, but the differences are so related as to make one another possible.  The reciprocal aid thus given causes mutual dependence of the parts.  And the mutually dependent parts, living by and for another, form an aggregate constituted on the same general principle as is an individual organism"  (1967, p. 8).

"At first the unlikeness among its groups of units is inconspicuous in number and degree, but as population augments, divisions and subdivisions become more numerous and more decided"  (1967, p. 3).

"This division of labor, first dwelt on by political economists as a social phenomenon, and thereupon recognized by biologists as a phenomenon of living bodies, which they called the 'physiological division of labor,' is that which in the society, as in the animal, makes it a living whole"  (1967, p. 5).

"The consensus of functions becomes closer as evolution advances.  In low aggregates, both individual and social, the actions of the parts are but little dependent on one another, whereas in developed aggregates of both kinds that combination of actions which constitutes the life of the whole makes possible the component actions which constitutes the lives of the parts" (1967, p. 25).

"...where parts are little differentiated they can readily perform one another's functions, but where much differentiated they can perform one another's functions very imperfectly on not at all" (1967, p. 25).

On administration:

"It inevitably happens that in the body politic, as in the living body, there arises a regulating system . . . .As compound aggregates are formed . . .there arise supreme regulating centers and subordinate ones and the supreme centers begin to enlarge and complicate" (1967, p. 46).

On social evolution:

"The change from the homogenous to the heterogeneous is displayed in the progress of civilization as a whole, as well as in the progress of every nation; and it is still going on with increasing rapidity"  (1892, vol. I, p. 19).

"We must recognize the truth that the struggles for existence between societies have been instrumental to their evolution"  (1896, vol 2, p. 241).

"Though taking the entire assemblage of societies, evolution may be held inevitable . . . yet it cannot be held inevitable in each particular society, or even probable" (1896, vol. I, p. 96).

"While the current degradation theory is untenable, the theory of progression, in its ordinary form, seems to me untenable also. . . .It is possible and, I believe, probable, that retrogression has been as frequent as progression"  (1896, vol. I, p. 95).

A social organism, like an individual organism, undergoes modifications until it comes into equilibrium with environing conditions; and thereupon continues without further change of structure"  (1896, vol. I, p. 96).

"Like other kinds of progress, social progress is not linear but divergent and re-divergent. . . . While spreading over the earth mankind have found environments of various characters, and in each case the social life fallen into, partly determined by the social life previously led, has been partly determined by the influences of the new environment; so that the multiplying groups have tended ever to acquire differences, now major and now minor:  there have arisen genera and species of societies" (1896, vol. III, p. 331).

On functionalism:

"To understand how an organization originated and developed, it is requisite to understand the need subserved at the outset and afterwards"  (1896, vol III, p. 3).

"That what, relative to our thoughts and sentiments, were arrangements of extreme badness had fitness to conditions which made better arrangements impracticable"  (1891, p. 339).

Instead of passing over as of no account or else regarding as purely mischievous, the superstitions of primitive man, we must inquire what part they play in social evolution" (1891, p. 339).

On objectivity:

"In no other case has the inquirer to investigate the properties of an aggregate in which he is himself included. . . . Here, then, is a difficulty to which no other science presents anything analogous.  To cut himself short from all his relationships of race, and country, and citizenship--to rid himself of all those interests, prejudices, likings, superstitions generated in him by the life of his own society and his own time--to look at all the changes societies have undergone and are undergoing, without reference to nationality, or creed, or personal welfare, is what the average man cannot do at all, and what the exceptional man can do very imperfectly"  (1891, p. 74).

On Non-intervention:

"The well-being of existing humanity and the unfolding of it into this ultimate perfection are both secured by that same beneficent, though severe, discipline to which animate creation at large is subject:  a discipline which is pitiless in the working out of good: a felicity-pursuing law which never swerves for the avoidance of partial and temporary suffering.  the poverty of the incapable, the distresses that come upon the imprudent, the starvation of the idle, and those shoulderings aside of the weak by the strong, which leaves so many 'in shallows and in miseries,' are the decrees of a large, far-seeing benevolence" (1850/1954, pp. 288-289)

"For a government to take from a citizen more property than is needful for the efficient defense of that citizen's rights is to infringe his rights" (1850/1954, p. 333).


Spencer, Herbert.  1904.  An Autobiography, 2 vols.  New York:  Appleton.

Spencer, Herbert.  1891.  The Study of Sociology.  New York:  Appleton.

Spencer, Herbert.  1967.  The Evolution of Society:  Selections from Herbert Spencer's Principles of Sociology. (edited by Robert Carneiro).  Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Spencer, Herbert.  1892.  Essays, Scientific, Political and Speculative, 2 vols.,  New York:  Appleton.

Spencer, Herbert.  1896.  The Principles of Sociology, 3 vols., New York:  Appleton.

Spencer, Herbert.  1850 (1954). Social Statics.  New York:  robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

  ©Frank Elwell
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