Home  »  Volume XIV: English THE VICTORIAN AGE Part Two The Nineteenth Century, III  »  § 19. Herbert Spencer and the Philosophy of Evolution

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

I. Philosophers

§ 19. Herbert Spencer and the Philosophy of Evolution

The publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859 marks a turning-point in the history of thought. It had a revolutionary effect upon the view of the world held by educated men similar to that which had been produced, more slowly, three centuries before, by the work of Copernicus; on philosophical ideas its influence may, perhaps, be better compared with that of the theory of mechanics chiefly due to Galileo. The latter contributed to philosophy the conception of nature as a mechanical system; Darwin contributed the conception of evolution and, owing largely to his influence, biological ideas gained greater prominence than mathematical in philosophical construction.

The acknowledged leader of the new movement in philosophy was Herbert Spencer. He was born at Derby on 27 April, 1820, and his early training was an engineer. This profession he relinquished at the age of twenty-five. He had previously, in 1842, contributed a series of letters on “the Proper Sphere of Government” to The Nonconformist, and, from 1848 to 1853 he acted as sub-editor of The Economist. In these years he wrote his book Social Statics (1850) and began the publication of longer essays in reviews, among which mention should be made of the essays “The Development Hypothesis” (1852), “The Genesis of Science” (1854) and “Progress: its law and cause” (1857). He also published Principles of Psychology, in one volume, in 1855. His essays show, even by their titles, that he was working towards a theory of evolution before he had any knowledge of Darwin’s researches, the results of which were still unpublished. Then, in 1860, he issued his “Programme of a System of Synthetic Philosophy,” on which he had been at work for some time, and to the elaboration of which he devoted his life. It is impossible to speak too highly of the single-minded purpose with which he carried out this task, in spite of inherent and extraneous difficulties. He continued to work, without haste and without rest, publishing First Principles in 1862, Principles of Biology (two volumes) in 1864–7, Principles of Psychology (two volumes) in 1870–2, Principles of Sociology (three volumes) in 1876–96 and Principles of Ethics (two volumes) in 1879–92. Besides these he designed a series of charts of Descriptive Sociology, which were compiled by his assistants, until the work had to be suspended from lack of funds; and he also produced smaller works on Education (1861), The Classification of the Sciences (1864), The Study of Sociology (1872), The Man versus The State (1884) and Factors of Organic Evolution (1887). Thus, his perseverance enabled him to complete his scheme: except, indeed, that he omitted the detailed treatment of inorganic evolution, and thus gained the incidental advantage of avoiding the awkward problem of the origin of life. And he produced a considerable amount of subsidiary writing, including an Autobiography (published in 1904, the year after his death), which contains a minute and elaborate account of his life, character and work.

Spencer’s idea of philosophy is a system of completely co-ordinated knowledge—the sciences consisting of knowledge partially co-ordinated. In this sense his system is synthetic. It is a scheme in which everything is to find its place, and is to be seen as a resultant of a single principle. His elaboration of this scheme approaches completeness, and, in this respect, his system stands by itself: no other English thinker since Bacon and Hobbes had even attempted anything so vast. The system itself fitted in admirably, also, with the scientific conceptions of the early Darwinians, and thus obtained wide currency in all English-speaking countries and, to a less extent, on the continent of Europe. Darwin hailed him as “our great philosopher,” for he made evolution a universal solvent and not merely a means for explaining the different forms of plants and animals. At the same time, the support which it received from modern science seemed to give Spencer’s philosophy a more secure position than that of those speculative systems of which the English mind tended to be suspicious.

The view of philosophy as science further coördinated brings Spencer’s doctrine into line with positivism. He did not, however, entirely ignore the question of the nature of ultimate reality. Perhaps, he was not much interested in questions of the kind, and he had certainly small acquaintance with previous speculation regarding them. But he had great skill in adapting current doctrines to his uses; and he found what he needed in the doctrine of the relativity of knowledge set forth by Hamilton and Mansel. On this he based his doctrine of the limits of knowledge. But he found, as others have found, that it was necessary to recognise something which lay beyond the sphere of exact knowledge. Hamilton had called this the sphere of belief; Spencer says that we have an indefinite consciousness of what he nevertheless calls the unknowable. The nature of this indefinite consciousness is not explained by him; yet, its object is not treated by him, as one would expect it to be, as a mere blank; it is said to be “growing clearer”; the unknowable is constantly referred to as a power, and it is even asserted that it makes for the happiness of mankind. These inconsistencies soften his paradox that religion and science can be reconciled by assigning to the latter the region of the knowable and restricting the former to the unknowable. On his view, all that we know consists of manifestations of the inscrutable power behind phenomena; and these manifestations depend ultimately upon a single first principle—the persistence of force. Spencer’s interpretation of this principle is somewhat flexible and has been attacked by mathematicians and physicists as loose and unscientific. Nevertheless, Spencer holds that from it every other scientific principle must be deduced—even the law of evolution itself. He has provided a “formula,” or, rather, definition, of evolution. He defines it as

  • an integration of matter and concomitant dissipation of motion; during which the matter passes from an indefinite incoherent homogeneity to a definite coherent heterogeneity and during which the retained motion undergoes a parallel transformation.
  • All phenomena of whatever kind are subject to this law. It is throughout conceived as a law of progress, which will issue in a highest state establishing “the extremest multiformity and most complete roving equilibrium.” But this stage, also, cannot be permanent; and Spencer contemplates the history of the universe as a succession of cycles—“alternate eras of evolution and dissolution.”

    Spencer displayed much ingenuity in fitting organic, mental and social facts into this mechanical framework. His early training as an engineer seems to have influenced his ideas. He built a system as he might have built a bridge. It was a problem of strains and of the adaptation of material. Regarded thus, the whole problem was mechanical and had to be solved in terms of matter and motion. His purpose was, as he says, “to interpret the phenomena of life, mind, and society in terms of matter, motion, and force.” Hence, life, mind and society are treated as stages of increasing complexity in phenomena of the same kind, and—so far as this treatment is adhered to—the characteristic functions of each stage are left unexplained. But the method of treatment is supplemented by another in which the facts are dealt with more directly. This is seen especially in psychology, where the “subjective aspect” is recognised with only a suggestion of an attempt to deduce it from the objective aspect. Spencer was a keen observer and fertile in his reflections on what he observed. His power of co-ordinating facts may, perhaps, be seen at its best in his Psychology and Sociology. His generalisations may be often unsound; but, if we compare these works with earlier and then with later treatises on the same subjects, it is not possible to deny the great stimulus to thought which they gave.

    Spencer himself set the greatest store upon his work on ethics. To it, he said, all his other work led up; and this induced him to issue the first part of it—called The Data of Ethics—out of due order and before his Sociology was completed. The first part is undoubtedly the most instructive section of the book as ultimately finished. The facts of morality are regarded as belonging to the same order of evolution as the facts dealt with in previous volumes, being only more special and complicated; full consideration is given to their biological, sociological and psychological aspects; the respective rights of egoism and of altruism are defended; and the ethics of evolution is distinguished from the utilitarian ethics not by having some other ultimate end than happiness but by its different method and working criterion. Where the author fails is in giving any adequate proof for his assumption that evolution tends to greatest happiness—an assumption upon which his ethical theory depends. And, like all the exponents of the ethics of evolution who have followed him, he does not distinguish clearly between the historical process explained by the law of evolution and the ground of its authority for conduct—if such authority be claimed for it. He finds the standard for right conduct in what he calls “absolute ethics,” by which he means a description of the conduct of fully-evolved man in fully-evolved surroundings. In this state, there will be complete adaptation between the individual and his environment; so that, even if action is still possible, no choice of better or worse will remain. The system of absolute ethics is worked out in the succeeding parts of the work, but with very meagre success. Indeed, at the end, the author is fain to admit that evolution had not helped him to the extent he had anticipated.

    In his ethical, and still more in his political, writings we see the supreme value set by Spencer on the individual, and the very restricted functions which he allowed to the state or other organised community of individuals. The point is not, perhaps easy to reconcile with the doctrine of evolution as otherwise expounded by him. But there were two things which seem to have been more fundamental in his thought than evolution itself. One of these has been already referred to as the group of ideas which may be described as mechanism and which is exhibited both in the basis and in the plan of his whole structure. The other is his strong bias towards individualism. If the former may plausibly be connected with his training as an engineer, the origin of the latter may, with still greater probability, be traced to the doctrines current in that circle of liberalism in which he was nurtured. He wrote political essays and a politicial treatise (Social Statics) before his mind seems to have been attracted by the conception of evolution; and, although, in some points, he afterwards modified the teaching of that treatise, its essential ideas and its spirit characterise his latest writings on political theory. It showed ingenuity rather than insight on his part to bring them within the grasp of the evolution doctrine; but, in spite of many criticisms, he held steadfastly to his doctrine of what has been called “administrative nihilism.”