Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life
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Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life

Mark Francis

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eBook - ePub

Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life

Mark Francis

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The English philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820 - 1903) was a colossus of the Victorian age. His works ranked alongside those of Darwin and Marx in the development of disciplines as wide ranging as sociology, anthropology, political theory, philosophy and psychology.

In this acclaimed study of Spencer, the first for over thirty years and now available in paperback, Mark Francis provides an authoritative and meticulously researched intellectual biography of this remarkable man that dispels the plethora of misinformation surrounding Spencer and shines new light on the broader cultural history of the nineteenth century. In this major study of Spencer, the first for over thirty years, Mark Francis provides an authoritative and meticulously researched intellectual biography of this remarkable man. Using archival material and contemporary printed sources, Francis creates a fascinating portrait of a human being whose philosophical and scientific system was a unique attempt to explain modern life in all its biological, psychological and sociological forms.

Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life fills what is perhaps the last big biographical gap in Victorian history. An exceptional work of scholarship it not only dispels the plethora of misinformation surrounding Spencer but shines new light on the broader cultural history of the nineteenth century. Elegantly written, provocative and rich in insight it will be required reading for all students of the period.

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1. This was J. D. Y. Peel, Herbert Spencer: The Evolution of a Sociologist (London: Heinemann, 1971).
2. Greta Jones and Robert Peel (eds), Herbert Spencer: The Intellectual Legacy (London: The Galton Institute, 2004), which contains the proceedings of the centennial conference on Spencer, has noted (p. xiv) that a new life of Spencer is overdue.
3. For example, Stanislav Andreski, a sociologist who was influential in drawing attention to the history of his discipline in the 1970s, depicted Spencer as fulminating against bureaucracy in contrast to Marxism, defined as an ideology of the bureaucratic intelligentsia (in "Introductory Essay", in Herbert Spencer: Structure, Function and Evolution, S. Andreski (ed.), 7—32 [London: Michael Joseph, 1971], 29.) This distinction might have some value as part of a critique of Marxism, but is merely confusing on the subject of Spencer, who did not fulminate against bureaucracy, but against the aristocracy, the middle class and the workers. Spencers general stance was hostile to any popular interference in governance, so long as that governance was restricted to administering justice. Andreski's thesis could only be sustained if Spencers writings were very selectively edited.
4. See Lawrence Goldman on the British neglect of Spencer compared with Weber and Durkheim, in Science, Reform and Politics in Victorian Britain: The Social Science Association (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 322.
5. Alan Macfarlane, The Origins of English Individualism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1978). Macfarlane does cite English figures such as R. H. Tawney, but only as an echo of Weber. The resulting bias is that only Weber's views on ideology are taken seriously, which results in individualism being an antithesis of nineteenth-century corporate theory.
6. Graham Wallas, Men and Ideas (London: Allen & Unwin, 1940), 90.
7 Charles Darwin, The Illustrated Origin of Species, abridged and introduced by Richard E. Leakey (London, Faber & Faber, 1979), 66.
8. Later in this work I offer further examples, but these are not to be taken as a substitute for a study of varieties of Spencerism, a topic that is in great need of thorough investigation.
9. Letter from George Eliot to Sara Hennell, 10 July 1854, in The George Eliot Letters, 9 vols, G. S. Haight (ed.) (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1954—78), vol. II, 165.
10. Hector Macpherson, Herbert Spencer: The Man and His Work (London: Chapman & Hall, 1901), 226.
11. Ibid., 236-7.
12. Leonard Courtney, Funeral address, 14 December 1903, Ethical Review 4, Herbert Spencer Memorial Number (December 1906), 45.
13. "Men of the Day", no. 198, Vanity Fair (26 April 1879).
14. Spencer's complaints about Gladstone were meant for his posthumous readers. When it was useful politically to Spencer he was capable of being very pleasant to the Liberal leader. Spencer breakfasted with the Gladstones during the 1870s and 1880s, and they exchanged copies of their books (BM Gladstone Papers, #44784,25; 44785,205; 44475,265; 44475,323; and 44523,187). The high point in their acquaintance came in 1882, when Spencer was eliciting Gladstones sympathies for the Anti-Aggression League (see letter from Herbert Spencer to Henry Richard, 25 June 1882, National Library of Wales).
15. Herbert Spencer, An Autobiography, 2 vols (London: Williams & Norgate, 1904), vol. I, 193.
16. Ibid., vol. I, 457.
17. Ibid., vol. I, 87—8.
18. Ibid., vol. I, 71, 74.
19. Ibid., vol. I, 89. Between intervals of working as an engineer and a journalist, Spencer was still collecting botanical specimens at the age of twenty-one. He complained later that the knowledge he gained from his classifications was limited by Linnaean taxonomy, and that the work of the Jussieus had been unknown to him. Ibid., vol I, 191, 157—8.
20. In Spencer's early writings the word "life" often carries a heavy freight making it equivalent to nature or even God. It referred not only to biological organisms, but to the human psyche and even to knowledge itself. I have capitalized Life when Spencer uses it in this sense, but not in other senses such as when he speaks of the "definition of life". The word "unknown" has also been capitalized when it seems to function as a synonym for God. However, the Unknown did not have the significance of Life for either Spencer or his Victorian readers. The capital letter also tended to be abandoned earlier.
21. Most of Spencer's philosophical works appeared as "A System of Synthetic Philosophy" (short title, "A System of Philosophy") in ten volumes between 1862 and 1896. These were First Principles (1862), The Principles of Biology (2 vols, 1864 and 1867), The Principles ofPscyhology (2 vols, 1870 and 1872), The Principles of Sociology (3 vols, 1876, 1879 and 1896) and The Principles of Ethics (2 vols, 1892 and 1893). Initially "A System of Synthetic Philosophy" was funded by subscribers, who received each work in separate parts, which were also published as separate volumes for general sale. Thus The Data of Ethics (1879), for example, was Part I of Volume 1 of The Principles of Ethics, and Political Institutions (1882) was Part V of Volume 2 of The Principles of Sociology. The prospectus for subscribers was issued in 1860, and is Appendix A of Spencer's An Autobiography, vol. I, 479—84.
22. John Cartwright, Evolution and Human Behaviour: Darwinian Perspectives on Human Nature (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000), 18, 192. Whewell's stance was not so much a Kantian one, as Cartwright would have it, as an explanation of the space between Platonism and modern science.
23. For reasons of vanity Spencer rather enjoyed his later intellectual isolation. It flattered his sense of originality, and it meant that he could be derivative without being condemned for it. When late-nineteenth-century critics assailed Spencer for the purloining of ideas from Kant or Comte, their accusations were so misplaced that he could always successfully protest his innocence.
24. There is useful literature on Ruskin's modernism. See Michael Wheeler, Ruskin's God (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) and Dinah Birch (ed.), Ruskin and The Dawn of the Modern (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999). It is a reminder that modernism is very much a Victorian phenomenon.
25. That most cultivated historian of sociology, Wolf Lepenies, carelessly puts Spencer into the twin Procrustean beds of collectivism and individualism by suggesting that he was a Utopian and a fellow traveller with collectivists. (Between literature and Science: The Rise of Sociology [Cambridge University Press, 1992; originally published 1985], 58). Lepenies's Weberian definition of collecti...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Half Title
  3. Title
  4. Copyright
  5. Contents
  6. Preface
  7. Chronology
  8. List of illustrations
  9. Introduction
  10. I An individual and his personal culture
  11. II The lost world of Spencer's metaphysics
  12. III Spencer's biological writings and his philosophy of science
  13. IV Politics and ethical sociology
  14. Conclusion
  15. Notes
  16. Bibliography
  17. Index