Herbert Spencer Home Page


(Turner, Beeghley, & Powers, 2002, pp. 43-53)


Turner, Jonathan H., Beeghley, Leonard, & Powers, Charles H. (2002). The emergence of sociological theory (5th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Thomson Learning.



The Origin and Context of Herbert Spencer’s Thought


Biographical Influences on Spencerian Sociology


Herbert Spencer was born in Derby, England, in 1820. Until the age of thirteen, he was tutored by his father at home. He subsequently moved to his uncle’s home in Bath, where his private education continued.1 Except for a few months of formal education, Spencer never really attended school outside his family. Still, he received a very solid education in mathematics and science from his father and uncle, and this technical education, in the end, encouraged him to view himself as a philosopher and to propose a grand project for uniting ethics, natural science, and social science. This great project was termed Synthetic Philosophy, an indication that Spencer’s work moved far beyond the disciplinary border of sociology. Only rather late in his career (between 1873 and 1896) did he turn his attention to sociology. He thought big in a time when the intellectual world in general, and academia in particular, was specializing and compartmentalizing.


The breadth and scope of inquiry probably accounts for the popularity of Spencer’s work in the second half of the nineteenth century. He raised questions that intrigue both the lay pubic and scholars in particular specialties. Many of his works first appeared in serial form as installments in popular science magazines, and only later were they bound together in book volumes. His ideas remain popular; indeed, one hundred thousand copies of his books were sold before the turn of the century, an astoundingly high figure for that time and place. Even more amazing, however, is that they are not mere popularizations of ideas but, rather, academic works. Spencer’s books could hardly be considered light reading, but apparently their vision and scope captured readers’ imaginations. Anyone who reads Spencer today cannot help but be impressed by the power of his ideas and perhaps even their arrogance, for who now would proclaim it possible to unite all the sciences and questions of ethics under one set of general principles?


If Spencer had received a formal education and advanced degrees from established universities, as his father had, his thinking would probably have been more focused and restrained. By today’s standards, elite universities of the last century offered very broad training in letters and science, but even by that yardstick, he would have been compelled by tradition and established genres to recognize that, after all, one does not undertake to explain the entire universe with a few general principles. Formal education has a tendency to limit horizons and force concentration on narrow topics, but because he avoided the halls of academia in his youth and throughout his career, he was not bound by its rules of scholarship.


In a quiet way, Spencer’s work flouts the rules of academia. He never read much; rather, he picked the brains of distinguished scholars. Instead of burying himself in the library, he frequented London clubs and was friends with the most eminent scientific and literary figures of his time. From them, no doubt, he learned much by listening carefully and asking probing questions.2 One suspects that Spencer was a kind of intellectual sponge, absorbing ideas on contact. How else could a man write detailed works on ethics, physics, biology, psychology, sociology, and anthropology while maintaining a constant flow of pointed and popular social commentary? Moreover, unlike academics who used students to do much of their legwork, Spencer employed professional academics. His research assistants tended to be Ph.D.s who either needed the money or found the assigned tasks interesting. It seems likely, of course, that an uncredentialed private scholar employing credentialed academics represented somewhat of an affront to the academic establishment, although he managed to maintain cordial relations with many important academics.


Despite Spencer’s enormous popularity with the literate lay public, however, he was an inordinately private individual. Indeed, he was rather neurotic and odd. He hardly ever gave public lectures; he spent a good part of the day in bed, either writing or complaining about real and imagined ailments; he remained a lifetime bachelor who, at best, had only one great love affair (and even here the nature of the relationship is not clear); he lived in rather sparse and puritan circumstances despite his inherited wealth and substantial royalties; and when he got older, his somewhat dour disposition became punctuated with considerable bitterness as his ideas came under increasing attack and then passed into obscurity. Yet many of those who knew him, and even the nurses who cared for him during his last years of failing health, emphasized that he was still a thoughtful and engaging individual.


It is perhaps not so surprising, then, that Spencer is an enigma to us. He was a lone and private scholar in a time when scholarship was becoming an increasingly monopoly of academia, and despite his popularity, he never revealed a public presence and persona. Finally, he was a global thinker in a time of increasing specialization. The result, we can speculate, was that as his scholarly ideas were criticized by specialized academics and as his political commentary became less fashionable, he had few students and adherents to carry his case. He was too neurotic to defend himself publicly, although he did make a celebrated and trumpeted tour of the United States in the early 1900s to espouse his moral philosophy (which became an embarrassment to those who recognized the importance of his scholarly ideas). As a consequence, Spencerian philosophy and sociology disappeared very rapidly after he died. There were no students and academic colleagues to carry forward his grand synthesis, with the consequence that one of the first important theoretical works of the modern era opens with the question “Who now reads Spencer?” Today, very few academics read Spencer. As we hope to demonstrate in the next chapter, this marks a great intellectual tragedy, for we now have a stereotypical and largely inaccurate view of him, which keeps us from fully appreciating the powerful quality of his ideas. A contemporary view of him might read as follows:


Herbert Spencer, the first self-conscious English sociologist, advocated a perspective that supported the dominant political ideology of free trade and enterprise. He naively assumed that “society was like an organism” and developed a sociology that saw each institution as having its “function” in the “body social,’’ thereby propagating a conservative ideology and legitimating the status quo. What is even worse, Spencer coined the phrase survival of the fittest to describe the normal state of relations within and between societies, thus making it seem right that the elite of a society should possess privilege and that some societies should conquer others.


There are elements of truth in a surface portrayal such as this, but there is also a great distortion, as we will come to see in this chapter and the next. Spencer was indeed an ideologue, but no more so than many other sociologists of the last century—or today, for that matter. Although his ideas were progressive and radical for their time, they are now considered right wing and conservative. But in contrast with many others, such as Karl Marx and Émile Durkheim, Spencer did not include social and political ideology very often in his scientific work; rather, Spencer’s ideology was packaged in separate volumes on ethics. Furthermore, as this contemporary view emphasizes, Spencer did make analogies in organic forms, but these are far more sophisticated than is typically recognized. (He had written a large two-volume work on biology before embarking on sociology.) It is also true that he developed functional analysis, but it is not as naïve or simplistic as many contend. Actually, Spencerian functionalism is highly sophisticated and avoids many of the pitfalls of contemporary functionalism. And of course, Spence did coin the phrase survival of the fittest, which, we suspect, was to be his biggest mistake. But we should emphasize that in doing so, he came very close to postulating the principle of natural selection ten years before Charles Darwin published his thesis; in fact, Darwin acknowledges Spencer in the preface of On the Origin of Species.


But we should not be carried away with a defense of the much-maligned and enigmatic Spencer. The power of his ideas will, we believe, speak for themselves. Let us now return to tracing his biography and its impact on the development of his thought. Then we will be in a better position to appreciate his theoretical ideas.


Because Spencer had not received a formal education, he felt himself unqualified to attend college. In 1837, therefore, he sought to use his mathematical and scientific training as an engineer during the construction of the London and Birmingham Railway. The practical application of Spencer’s training in mathematics had an enormous effect on his later thinking, for he was always attuned to the consequences of structural stress on the dynamics of the physical and social universe, and he expressed these consequences as equations (although the relationships were usually stated verbally). The impact of these four years as an engineer could not be foreseen in the next turns in his intellectual life.


In 1841, when the railroad was completed, Spencer returned to his birthplace in Derby. Over the next few years, he wrote several articles for the radical (for his time) press and numerous letters to the editor of a dissenting newspaper, The Nonconformist. In these works he argued for limiting the power of government, and although these ideas are often defined as “conservative” today, they were seen as “liberal” and “radical” in the last century. After several years as a kind of fringe figure in radical politics and journalism, he secured a permanent position as a subeditor for the London Economist in 1848. The appointment marked a turning point in his life, and from that time on, his intellectual career accelerated. In 1851, he published Social Statics,3 a work that has hurt Spencer’s reputation and has been largely responsible for our present-day view of him as a Social Darwinist, a libertarian, and perhaps a right-wing ideologue. In this work he championed the cause of laissez-faire—free trade, open markets, and non-intervention by government. He asserted that individuals had the right to do as they pleased, as long as they allowed others to do the same. Despite its negative impact on our retrospective view of Spencer, however, the book was well received and opened doors into the broader intellectual community, although it remained a burden as he began to write less ideological and more scholarly works.


In 1853, the uncle who tutored Spencer in sciences and mathematics died and left Spencer a substantial inheritance. This inheritance allowed him to quit his job as an editor and assume the life of a private scholar full time. Despite his emotional problems—depression, insomnia, and reclusiveness—he was enormously productive as a private scholar. His collected works span volumes and run into thousands of pages. Moreover, with his more ideological tract out of his system, at least until the end of his life, he used the hard-nosed skills of an engineer and scientist to write a series of brilliant works. In 1854, he published Principles of Psychology, which was used as a text at Harvard and Cambridge. In 1862, he published First Principles, which marked the beginning of his grand Synthetic Philosophy. In this book he sought to unify ethics and science under one set of elementary principles. Clearly the young Spencer, who had felt himself unqualified for college, was gaining confidence. Between 1864 and 1867, he published the several volumes of his Principles of Biology, in which he sought to apply the abstract “first principles” of the universe to the dynamics of the organic realm. In 1873, he began to think about the super-organic—that is, the social organization of organic forms. In particular, he initiated an analysis of how human organizations, as the most obvious type of super-organic organization, could illustrate the plausibility of his first principles. He opened this movement into the domain of sociology with a methodological treatise on the problems of humans studying themselves; in so doing, he emphasized that laws of human organization could be discovered and used in the same way as in the physical and biological sciences. In 1874, the first serialized installments of his The Principles of Sociology appeared, and for the next twenty years, he devoted himself to sociology and to articulating the basic laws of human organization. The last portions of The Principles of Sociology were published in 1896. At the same time that he was preparing these last parts of his sociology, Spencer was publishing The Principles of Ethics, which restated the then-liberal, but now-conservative, social philosophy of laissez-faire. Because this philosophy was published in separate volumes from the scholarly work in sociology, it intrudes less than might otherwise have been the case.


Thus, although Spencer’s work in sociology spans only a twenty-year period in a much longer and comprehensive intellectual career, his sociology reflects other scholarly and political concerns. In turn, these other concerns are the product of the general intellectual milieu of nineteenth-century England as well as of specific scholars in this milieu. To understand Spencerian sociology, then, we should note some of the other forces influencing his thinking.


The political economy of nineteenth-century england


In contrast with France, where decades of political turmoil had created an overconcern for collective unity, England remained comparatively tranquil. As the first society to industrialize, England enjoyed considerable prosperity under early capitalism. Open markets and competition appeared to be an avenue for increased productivity and prosperity. It is not surprising, therefore, that social thought in England was dominated by ideological beliefs in the efficiency and moral correctness of free and unbridled competition not only in the marketplace but in other realms as well.4


Spencer advocated a laissez-faire doctrine in his philosophic works. Individuals should be allowed to pursue their interests and to seek happiness as long as they do not infringe on others’ rights to do so. Government should be restrained and should not regulate the pursuits of individuals. Much like Adam Smith, Spencer assumed a kind of “invisible hand of order” as emerging to maintain a society of self-seeking individuals. Most of Spencer’s early essays and his first book, Social Statics, represent adaptations of laissez-faire economics. But later, his social and economic philosophy was supplemented by the more scientific analyses contained in his biological works.


The Scientific Milieu of Spencer’s england


Spencer’s early training with his father and uncle was primarily in mathematics and science. More important, his informal contacts as a freelance intellectual were with such eminent scientists as Thomas Henry Huxley, Joseph Dalton Hooker, John Tyndall, and even Darwin. Indeed, Spencer read less than he listened, for he clearly acquired an enormous breadth of knowledge by talking with the foremost scientists of his time. Biographers have frequently commented on the lack of books in his library, especially for a scholar who wrote with such insight in several disciplines. Despite his reliance on informal contacts with fellow scientists, however, several key works in biology and physics appear to have had considerable impact on his thought.


Influences from Biology


In 1864, Spencer wrote the first volume of his Principles of Biology, which at the time represented one of the most advanced treatises on biological knowledge.5 Later, as we will see, he sought to apply the laws of biology to “super-organic bodies,”6 revealing the extent to which biological knowledge influenced his more purely sociological formulations. He credited three sources for some of the critical insights that he later applied to social phenomena: Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), Karl Ernst Von Baer (1792-1876), and Charles Darwin (1809-1882).


Malthus  Spencer was profoundly influenced by Malthus’s Essay on Population. (Malthus, of course, was not a biologist, but his work had an influence in this sphere and hence is discussed in this section.) In this work, Malthus emphasized that the geometric growth of population would create conditions favorable to conflict, starvation, pestilence, disease, and death. Indeed, he argued that populations grew until “checked” by the “four horsemen:” war, pestilence, famine, and disease.


Spencer reached a much less pessimistic conclusion than Malthus, for the competition and struggle that ensues from population growth would, Spencer believed, lead to the “survival of the fittest” and, hence, to the elevation of society and the “the races.” Such a vision corresponded, of course, to Spencer’s laissez-faire bias and allowed him to view free and open competition not just as good economic policy but also as a fundamental “law of the organic universe.”7 In addition to these ideological uses of Malthus’s ideas, the notion of competition and struggle became central to Spencer’s more formal sociology. Spencer saw evolution of societies as the result of territorial and political conflicts, and he was one of the first sociologists to understand fully the significance of war and conflict on the internal patterns of social organization in a society.


Von Baer  Spencer was also influenced by William Harvey’s embryological studies as well as by Henri Milne-Edward’s work, which had borrowed the phrase “the physiological division of labor” from social thought. Indeed, as Spencer so ably emphasized, biologists had often borrowed from social discourse terms that he was merely borrowing back and applying in a more refined manner to the “super-organic realm.” Yet, he gave a German, Von Baer, the credit for recognizing that biological forms develop from undifferentiated, embryologic forms to highly differentiated structures revealing a physiological division of labor.


Von Baer’s principles allowed Spencer to organize his ideas on biological, psychological, and social evolution. Spencer came to emphasize that evolution is a process of development from an incoherent, undifferentiated, and homogeneous mass to a differentiated and coherent pattern in which the functions of structures are well coordinated.8 Conversely, dissolution involves movement from a coherent and differentiated state to a more homogeneous and incoherent mass. Thus, Spencer came to view the major focus of sociology as the study of the conditions under which social differentiation and de-differentiation occur.


Darwin  The relationship between Darwin and Spencer is reciprocal in that Spencer’s early ideas about development exerted considerable influence on Darwin’s formulation of the theory of evolution,9 although Darwin’s notion of “natural selection” was apparently formulated independently of Spencer’s emphasis on competition and struggle. Only after On the Origin of Species was in press did Darwin recognize the affinity between the concepts of survival of the fittest and natural selection. Conversely, his explicit formulation of the theory of evolution was to reinforce, and give legitimacy to, Spencer’s view of social evolution as the result of competition among populations, with the most organizationally “fit” conquering the less fit and, hence, increasing the level and complexity of social organization. Moreover, Darwin’s ideas encouraged Spencer to view differences among the “races” and societies of the world as the result of “speciation” of isolated populations, each of which adapted to varying environmental conditions. Spencer’s continuous emphasis on environmental conditions, both ecological and societal, as shaping the structure of society is the result, no doubt, of Darwin’s formulations.


The theory of evolution also offered Spencer a respected intellectual tool for justifying his laissez-faire political beliefs. For both organic and super-organic bodies, he argued, it is necessary to let competition and struggle operate free of governmental regulation. To protect some segments of a population is to preserve the “less fit” and thus reduce the overall “quality of civilization.”10


From biology, then, Spencer took three essential elements: (1) the notion that many critical attributes of both individuals and society emerge from competition among individuals or collective populations; (2) the view that social evolution involves movement from undifferentiated to differentiated structures marked by interrelated functions; and (3) the recognition that differences among both individuals and social systems are the result of their adapting to varying environmental conditions. He supplemented these broad biological insights with several discoveries in the physical sciences to forge the “first principles” of his general Synthetic Philosophy.


Influences from the Physical Sciences


From informal education within his family and from contacts with the most eminent scientists of his time, Spencer acquired considerable training in astronomy, geology, physics, and chemistry. In reading his many works, it is impossible not to be impressed by his knowledge of wise varieties of physical phenomena and their laws of operation. His Synthetic Philosophy thus reflected his debt to the physical sciences, particularly for (1) the general mode of his analysis and (2) the specific principles of his philosophy:


1.    All of Spencer’s work is indebted to the post-Newtonian view of science—that is, the emphasis on universal laws that could explain the operation of phenomena in the world. Indeed, Spencer went beyond Newton and argued that there were laws transcending all phenomena, both physical and organic. In other words, laws of the universe or cosmos can be discovered and used to explain, at least in general terms, physical, organic, and super-organic (social) events. Spencer emphasized that each domain of reality—astronomical, geological, physical, chemical, biological, psychological, and sociological—revealed its own unique laws that pertained to the properties and forces of its delimited domain. He also believed that at the most abstract level, however, a few fundamental, or first, principles cut across all domains of reality.

2.    In seeking these first principles, Spencer relied heavily on the physics of his time. He incorporated into his Synthetic Philosophy notions of force, the indestructibility of matter, the persistence of motion, and other principles that were emerging in physics. We will discuss these later when examining his scheme in depth, but we should emphasize that much of the inspiration for his grand scheme came from the promise of post-Newtonian physics.


Thus, Spencer’s Synthetic Philosophy emerged from a synthesis of ideas and principles being developed in physics and biology. Yet the precise way in which he used these ideas in his sociological work was greatly influenced by his exposure to Auguste Comte’s vision of a positive philosophy (see previous chapter). Before we can fully appreciate Spencer’s philosophy, therefore, we need to review his somewhat ambivalent and defensive reaction to Comte’s work.


Spencer’s Synthetic Philosophy and the Sociology of Comte


In 1864, Spencer published an article titled “Reasons for Dissenting form the Philosophy of M. Comte,” in which he sought to list the points of agreement and disagreement with the great French thinker.11 Spencer emphasized that he disagreed with Comte about the following issues: (1) that societies pass through three stages, (2) that causality is less important than relations of affinity in building social theory, (3) that government can use the laws of sociology to reconstruct society, (4) that the sciences have developed in a particular order, and (5) that psychology is merely a subdiscipline of biology.


Spencer also noted a number of points in which he was in agreement with Comte, but he stressed that many other scholars besides Comte had similarly advocated (1) that knowledge comes from experiences or observed facts and (2) that there are invariable laws in the universe. Most revealing are the few passages where Spencer explicitly acknowledged an intellectual debt to Comte. Spencer accepted Comte’s term, sociology, for the science of super-organic bodies, and, most important, he gave Comte begrudging credit for reintroducing the organismic analogy back into social thought. Spencer stressed, however, that Plato and Thomas Hobbs had made similar analogies, and that much of his organismic thinking had been influenced by Von Baer.


Yet one gets the impression that Spencer was working too hard at dissociating his ideas from Comte’s. That his most intimate intellectual companions, George Elliot and George Lewes, were well versed in Comte’s philosophy argues for considerable intellectual influence of Comte’s work on Spencer’s initial sociological inquiries. True, Spencer would never accept Comte’s collectivism, but he extended two critical ideas clearly evident in Comte’s work: (1) social systems reveal many properties of organization in common with biological organisms, and thus a few principles of social organization can be initially borrowed (and altered somewhat) from biology; and (2) when viewed as a “body social,” a social system can be analyzed by the contribution of its various organs to the maintenance of the social whole. There can be little doubt, then, that Spencer was stimulated by Comte’s analogizing and implicit functionalism. But as Spencer incorporated these ideas, they were altered by his absorption of key insights from the physical and biological sciences.


why Read Spencer?


When compared with the intellectual influences on other scholars whom we will analyze in later chapters, those on Spencer are less clear. He did not attend a university, so his mentors cannot be traced there. Nor did he ever hold an academic position, thereby avoiding compartmentalization in a department or particular school of thought. As a freelance intellectual, he borrowed at will and was never constrained by the intellectual fads and foibles that sweep through academia. The unrestrained scope of his scheme makes it fascinating, and perhaps this same feature makes his work less appealing to present-day scholars, who tend to work within narrow intellectual traditions.


Yet, as we will explore in depth in the next chapter, Spencer offered many important insights into the structure and dynamics of social systems. Although he presented these insights in the vocabulary of the physics and biology of his time, they still have considerable relevance for sociological theorizing. As we approach the analysis of Spencer’s basic works, therefore, we should be prepared to appreciate not only the scope of his ideas but also the profound insights that he achieved into the nature of social systems.





1. Jonathan H. Turner, Herbert Spencer: A Renewed Appreciation (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, 1985), chap. 1; and Herbert Spencer, an Autobiography (London: Watts, 1926).


2. For example, see Hugh Elliot, Herbert Spencer (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1917), and David Duncan, Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer (London: Methuen, 1908). In his Masters of Sociological Thought (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977), Lewis Coser best summarizes Spencer’s relationship with his contemporaries by nothing that from informal conversations, Spencer was supplied “with scientific facts he used so greedily as building blocks for his theories. Spencer absorbed his science to a large extent as if through osmosis, through critical discussion and interchanges with scientific friends and associates” (p. 110).


3. For complete references to this and other works by Spencer, see footnotes later in this chapter and in the next chapter, where these works are discussed.


4. The major legitimating work in this context was Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (London: Cadell and Davis, 1805; originally published in 1776).


5. In Principles of Biology (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1864-1867), Spencer formulated some original laws of biology that still stand today. For example, his formulation of the relationship among growth, size, and structure are still axiomatic in biology. Yet few biologists are aware that Spencer, the engineer turned scientist, formulated the law that among regularly shaped bodies, surface area increases as the square of the linear dimensions, and volume increases as the cube of these dimensions—hence requiring new structural arrangements to support and nourish large bodies.


6. This was Spencer’s phrase for describing patterns of social organization.


7. See, for example, his Autobiography; also see the long footnote in First Principles (New York: A. L. Burt, 1880; originally published in 1860).


8. This idea can be found in its early form in one of Spencer’s early essays, “Progress: Its Law and Cause,” first published in 1857 (Westminster Review, April 1857). Also, see Spencer’s article “The Developmental Hypothesis,” The New Leader (1852).


9. Indeed, as noted earlier, Darwin explicitly acknowledges Spencer’s work in the introduction to On the Origin of Species (London: Murry, 1890; originally published in 1859). Moreover, at one point in his life, Darwin was moved to remark that Spencer was “a dozen times his intellectual superior.” For more lines of influence, see Life and Letters of Charles Darwin (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1896).


10. It is not hard to see how these ideas were to be transformed into what became known as social Darwinism in America. A more accurate term would have been social Spencerianism. See Richard Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought (Boston: Beacon, 1955).


11. The article is conveniently reprinted in Herbert Spencer, Reasons for Dissenting from the Philosophy of M. Comte and Other Essays (Berkeley, CA: Glendessary, 1968). The article was written in a somewhat defensive manner in an effort to distinguish Spencer’s first book, Social Statics (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1888; originally published in 1850), from Comte’s use of these terms. Spencer appears to have “protested too much,” perhaps seeking to hide some of his debt to the positive philosophy of Comte.



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