Herbert Spencer

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).

Herbert Spencer (1867, 327) first posited a unity of the evolutionary process: “Evolution, then, under its primary aspect, is a change from a less coherent form to a more coherent form consequent on the dissipation of motion and integration of matter. . . . This proves to be a character displayed equally in those earliest changes which the Universe at large is supposed to have undergone, and in those latest changes which we trace in society and the products of social life.”

On the division of labor:

As the population becomes more diverse in terms of occupation, expe­rience, wealth, interests, and values, the people also become more dependent upon one another. “And the mutually dependent parts, living by and for another, form an aggregate constituted on the same general principle as is an individual organism” ([1876] 1967, 8).

"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:

Spencer ([1876] 1967, 46) made the growth of the state an integral part of his evolutionary theory: “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.”

"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:

Originating in a series of papers begin­ning in 1842, Spencer’s evolutionary theory became fully explicit in his first major work, Social Statics, published in 1850. In this work, he explains the cumulative nature of evolutionary change, claiming that nature is infinitely complex and ever developing and that each new form has additional influence “destined to some degree to modify all future results” ([1850] 1954, 45).

Spencer views evolutionary change as constant, “in the decompositions and recombinations of matter, and in the constantly-varying forms of animal and vegetable life. . . . With an altering atmosphere, and a decreasing temperature, land and sea perpetually bring forth fresh races of insects, plants, and animals” (45). Humans, being a part of nature, are part of this “uni­versal mutation,” and human development follows evolutionary laws: “His circumstances are ever changing; and he is ever adapting him­self to them” (46).

Spencer (1891) very explicitly considers social evolution as a part of natural evolution. For example, he states, “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” (394).

"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 Conflict:

In Principles (1862–96, 1:280), he writes: “In the struggle for existence among societies, the survival of the fittest is the survival of those in which the power of military cooperation is the greatest; and military cooperation is that primary kind of cooperation which prepares the way for other kinds. So that this formation of larger societies by the union of smaller ones in war, and this destruction or absorption of the smaller un-united societies by the larger ones is an inevitable process through which the varieties of men most adapted for social life, supplant the less adapted varieties.”

“We must recognize the truth that the struggles for existence between societies have been instrumental to their evolution. Neither the consolidation and reconsolidation of small groups into large ones; nor the organization of such compound and doubly com­pound groups; nor the concomitant developments of those aids to a higher life which civilization has brought; would have been possible without inter-tribal and inter-national conflicts. Social co-operation is initiated by joint defense and offense; and from the co-operation thus initiated all kinds of co-operations have arisen. Inconceivable as have been the horrors caused by this universal antagonism which, begin­ning with the chronic hostilities of small hordes tens of thousands of years ago, has ended in the occasional vast battles of immense nations, we must nevertheless admit that without it the world would still have been inhabited only by men of feeble types, sheltering in caves and living on wild food. (Emphasis added.) (1862–96, 2:241)

On functionalism:

Spencer ([1876] 1967, 8) was clearest about the necessity of functional analysis in the opening lines of his Principles of Sociology: “There can be no true conception of a structure without a true conception of its function. To understand how an organization originated and devel­oped, it is requisite to understand the need subserved at the outset and afterwards.”

"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 shouldering 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. (1850) 1954. Social Statics. Reprint, New York: D. Appleton.


______________. (1854) 1898. First Principles of a New System of Philosophy. 4th ed. New York: D. Appleton.


______________. 1862–96. The Principles of Sociology. 3 vols. New York: D. Appleton.


______________. 1867. First Principles. London: Williams and Norgate.


______________. (1876) 1967. The Evolution of Society: Selections from Herbert Spencer’s Principles of Sociology. Edited by Robert Carneiro. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

______________. 1891. The Study of Sociology. New York: D. Appleton.

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

______________.  1904.  An Autobiography, 2 vols.  New York:  Appleton.