Herbert Spencer: Life And Work

Herbert Spencer is the father of social Darwinism. Now let’s get to know the life and work of this controversial author!
Herbert Spencer: life and work

Herbert Spencer was one of the greatest thinkers of his time. This English philosopher, psychologist, sociologist, and expert in natural law was one of the greatest leaders in social Darwinism and positivism.

He applied evolutionary laws to philosophy and society. But his Darwinian thoughts justified the domination of certain people, and also the dominance of one human race over other races.

These ideas were gladly received in Western countries in the 19th century and early 20th century. The success of Spencer’s work is proof of this. He even managed to get the attention of many other thinkers from different fields.

Some writers and scholars were open to discussing his ideas. Big names like Émile Durkheim, George Edward Moore or Thomas Hill Green were often associated with Spencer. He was undoubtedly a really lucrative, and also a controversial figure.

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The life of Herbert Spencer

First years and education

Herbert Spencer was born into a modest family in Derby, England in 1820. He died in Brighton, England, in 1903. Although he attended school, he learned to read only at the age of seven. In his teens, he studied science, but he was never a good student. 

He studied engineering skills himself, and worked on the railway between 1837 and 1846. During these years, Herbert continued to learn and study for himself, at which time he published books on science and politics. Years later, in 1848, he became editor of  The Economist magazine.

This change completed his career in engineering, and he embarked on a new career as a writer and philosopher. In 1851, Spencer published his first official book, Social Statics, in  which he predicted that humanity would learn to live in a society without the need for a state.

Career and works

Spencer used to meet with other like-minded thinkers. At these events  he met the positivist writers who inspired him to write The Principles of Psychology  in 1855.  In this work he defended the position that the human mind is subject to the laws of nature, and he was able to explain this argument with physiology and biology.

Years later, he published  A System of Synthetic Philosophy. The purpose of this work was to prove that the principles of evolution are equally applicable in philosophy, psychology, and sociology. This was one of his greatest works, consisting of ten books he wrote over 20 years.

Books of philosophy at the time were not usually best-sellers, but best-selling works were usually novels. But Herbert Spencer, however, stood out as an influential thinker, selling over a million copies of his works during his lifetime. He was even nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1902.

Herbert Spencer and Psychology

Herbert Spencer wrote his work before Darwin. Thus he combined associationism and physiology with Lamarckism. Thus, Spencer was decades ahead of the psychology of adaptation. He conceptualized it as a process of development in which the connection of different ideas accurately reflected the connection between the prevailing events in the environment.

These connections were established by the old principles of continuity and chance. The development of the mind thus reflects adaptive adaptation to environmental conditions. This English writer also conceptually conceptualized the brain as an organized registry of experiences.

He also argued that instinct was learned associative behavior. He also defended the idea that the mental processes of certain species are reduced to the number of associations that the brain of that animal can make. In other words, according to Spencer, the differences between the mental faculties of different species were quantitative.

Herbert Spencer and Social Darwinism

Herbert Spencer made several statements on many controversial issues: he argued that social groups had different abilities to control nature and establish their own supremacy. That is, the wealthier are more capable than the poor, for the rich are above society, while the poor are at the bottom of society.

According to Spencer, society functioned as a biological being. Thus, he justified the supremacy of the “upper” races,  arguing that we should reduce the number of weak people in the world. Thus, imperialism and racism were the foundations of his theory.

In his view, strong and intelligent people should fight for their survival, as this would avoid the deterioration of society. If there were more weak or less capable than strong (physically and intellectually), the state would be in danger.

Herbert Spencer Jr.

Thoughts on the life and work of Herbert Spencer

Spencer defended a positivist, biological, and evolutionary view of philosophy, psychology, and sociology. He considered learning as well as physical and psychological adaptability really important. But his work has been misinterpreted to fit the views of racists and supremacists, who have since quoted Spencer as scientific evidence for their claims.

Herbert Spencer is not the only author and researcher whose work has been misinterpreted and edited. In fact, this has happened several times in the course of history. This has happened with the works of Machiavelli and Nietzsche. The Nazis and anti-Semites have used their works to support their racist claims.

In addition to this, philosophical and literary works must be treated from a certain point of view. We should always examine in which era and in what context these ideas have been published so that we can better understand the writer’s ideas. 

Along with controversy and reflection, there is no doubt that Herbert Spencer managed to stand out from the crowd as the greatest multidisciplinary thinker of his time.

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