This controversial researcher applied the idea of ”survival of the fittest” to social analysis.
Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) was an English philosopher and sociologist who made a strong case for liberalism from the perspective of Social Darwinism. His theories greatly influenced the economy and theories of government of the 20th century.
We will see below a biography of Herbert Spencer, as well as his main works and contributions.
Herbert Spencer: biography of this English sociologist
Herbert Spencer was born on April 27, 1820, in Derbyshire, England. Son of the professor and dissident of Christianity William George Spencer, Herbert Spencer trained himself in natural sciences from a very young age.
He is recognized as one of the most representative intellectuals of the Victorian era, as well as one of the main exponents of the theories of evolution applied to sociology, and of individualism. With strong conviction, Spencer defended the importance of examining social phenomena from a scientific perspective.
On the other hand, in the pedagogical area, Spencer emphasized the importance of personal development, attention and empathy on the part of instructors, observation and problem solving, physical exercise and free play, as well as learning derived from direct experience the natural consequences of the acts (beyond the punishments imposed by the teaching staff).
His philosophy had a major impact on the justification for the state’s minimal participation in the economy, which in turn promoted competition between individuals and a gradual improvement of society through the survival of the fittest.
Herbert Spencer died on December 8, 1903 in Brighton, Sussex in England.
Sociological perspective: evolution and individualism
Herbert Spencer argued that social evolution occurs through a process of individuation, that is, through the differentiation and development of human beings as individuals. For him, human societies had evolved through a gradual process of division of labor that had converted them from “primitive” groups to complex civilizations.
To argue the above, he made important comparisons between animal organisms and human societies. He concluded that in both there was a regulatory system: for animals a nervous system and for human societies governing structures. There was also a support system, which in the first case was food and the second was industrial activity.
They also shared a distribution system, which for animal organisms was the circulatory system, and in human societies it was communication systems and means of transportation. Thus, what differentiated animal organisms from human societies was that the former exist as a whole, as a unified consciousness; while the latter, consciousness exists only in each group member.
From this, Spencer develops a theory about individualism and individuation. Within the framework of liberal philosophy, Spencer defends that individualism, as a personal development of the human being as an autonomous member and differentiated from the rest, is closer to civilized societies, unlike other societies such as the military or industrial ones where it favors despotism and the individual development of each conscience is hindered.
Furthermore, the development of 19th century English industrial society, according to Spencer, was developing a new Taylorism and preparing society for new forms of slavery in the future. In this sense, he proposed to recover the ancient function of liberalism, which was to limit the power of kings, and at this time he could move towards putting limits to parliaments.
Spencer’s Social Darwinism
Under this idea of individualism, Spencer advocates allowing each member of society to develop as well as possible as a competent member of it, and thus, those who were most fit or talented would be the ones who would be successful and best adapted. For this reason, his theory is frequently located in the line of social Darwinism, an issue that was gradually criticized by the consequences of generalized poverty of growing industrial capitalism.
However, his proposals were also later taken up by philosophers with similar lines, who found arguments to criticize the welfare state that developed after the war.
Among his most representative works are Social Statics of 1851, and Synthetic Philosophy of 1896. Also his works Principles of psychology , of 1855, First principles , of 1862, Principles of sociology, descriptive sociology , and Man against the state , of 1884 .
Between 1841 and 1845 he published The adequate sphere of government , while he collaborated as a journalist specialized in economics and sociology in The nonconformist, where he maintained the responsibility of governments in the defense of natural rights; and also in The zoist and de Pilot, with themes devoted to the science of the moment and the suffrage movements. Eventually he served as deputy editor of The Economist, a position he resigned in 1853.
- Burrows, H. (2018). Herbert Spencer. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved October 15, 2018.Available at https://www.britannica.com/biography/Herbert-Spencer.
- Homles, B. (1994). Herbert Spencer (1820-1903). Perspectives: Quarterly Journal of Comparative Education, 3 (4): 543-565.