Popular Science Monthly/Volume 50/February 1897/Herbert Spencer: The Man and his Work

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IN a famous passage in his autobiography, Edward Gibbon has told us of the mingled emotions with which, on a memorable night in June, 1787, he penned the last lines of the last page of his History, and thus closed the undertaking of many laborious years. In a somewhat similar, though at once more dignified and more touching strain, Mr. Spencer, in the preface to his recently published third volume of the Principles of Sociology, has set on record his feelings on reviewing his finished life-work—a work beside which even the vast enterprise of Gibbon sinks into insignficance: "Doubtless in earlier years some exultation would have resulted; but as age creeps on feelings weaken, and now my chief pleasure is in my emancipation. Still, there is satisfaction in the consciousness that losses, discouragements, and shattered health have not prevented me from fulfilling the purpose of my life."

The Synthetic Philosophy, then, is to-day an accomplished fact. When Mr. Spencer first entered upon his work, he estimated that it would commit him to at least twenty years of regular and persistent toil, allowing two years to each of the ten stout volumes called for by his plan. Reckoning from the publication of the initial installment of First Principles in October, 1860, it has actually occupied just thirty-six years. Commenced with little encouragement from the cultured world, and even against the more cautious judgment of immediate advisers, at a time when its author was already broken down in health, with uncertain financial outlook and narrowly limited working powers, it has been pushed slowly and painfully toward completion in the face of difficulties that might well have seemed not merely stupendous but insuperable. Only those who have closely watched the progress of the undertaking—perhaps even only those who have been privileged to step behind the curtain and learn at first hand the conditions under which the work has been done—can really be in a position to appreciate the man's high courage, steady perseverance, and single-hearted devotion to a cherished ideal. Obstacles of many kinds he had foreseen from the outset, but these were as little in comparison with the unlooked-for impediments which he was presumably to find blocking his way. For a time the practical support yielded him by the reading public was so slight that he seriously contemplated the abandonment of his labors altogether. After this interruptions occurred with increasing frequency in various unexpected ways. He was forced to pause in the methodical unfolding of his plan, to explain, restate, clear up misconceptions, and reply to criticisms. His energies were on several occasions drawn off into other, though in most cases directly subsidiary, lines of work. The supervision of the compilation of the Descriptive Sociology, itself an enormous task; the writing for the International Scientific Series of his Study of Sociology; the publication of a number of timely essays (such as those making up The Man versus the State), rendered necessary, as Mr. Spencer felt, by the conditions and tendencies of public affairs—all these things, valuable as we know them to be, none the less delayed the prosecution of the larger design. And, worse than all, his physical powers, as the years went on, in spite of temporary fluctuations and improvements, continued, upon the whole, steadily to decline. He had reckoned, in starting, on a regular working day of three hours. The calculation, moderate as it appeared to be, was presently proved altogether extravagant. Only by the most careful husbanding of his energies has sustained labor been possible to him at all. Absolute inaction has often been forced upon him as the sole means of recuperating his overtaxed strength, while through many a lengthy period of sleeplessness and prostration the dictation of a paragraph or two each morning has represented the extreme reach of his productive capacity. That under such circumstances as these the majestic edifice which he had designed should have continued to rise, stone by stone, is itself a fact not easily paralleled in the history of philosophy or letters; nor is it wonderful that, till within a short time since, most of us should have regarded the ultimate crowning of the structure as almost, if not quite, an impossibility. Two years ago, in a biographical sketch of Mr. Spencer, I wrote skeptically of such a consummation, adding, however, as a word of encouragement, that from a man of his extraordinary resolution and perseverance much might still be looked for. And now the event has justified my half-doubtful prediction, and the Synthetic Philosophy has been rounded off to a completed whole.

Of the importance of this finished work as a fact in the intellectual annals of the nineteenth century much might, of course, be said. That it is in itself the largest, most comprehensive, and most ambitious plan conceived and wrought out by any single thinker of our time is obvious to all; nor will it be less obvious to those who concern themselves in any way with the progress of thought that, measured alike by the constructive genius manifested in, and the far-reaching influence exerted by it, the Synthetic Philosophy towers superbly above all other philosophic achievements of the age. There is no field of mental activity that Mr. Spencer has not to some extent made his own; no line of inquiry in which his power has not been felt. Even those who differ the most radically from him are at the same time compelled to define their positions in relation to his arguments and conclusions, while his speculations constitute a common point of departure for the most curiously divergent developments of thought. To write the history of opinion in regard to his work would indeed be scarcely less than to write the history of biology, psychology, sociology, ethics, and political theory during the past thirty years. But it would be trite and therefore needless to dwell here on all these facts. It will be more to the point to seize the occasion offered by the closing of the Synthetic series to speak a little of the career and personality of the philosopher, and to outline in the broadest possible way some of the underlying principles of his organized system of thought.

The chief matters of importance in Herbert Spencer's externally uneventful life are by this time sufficiently well known to demand no more than the briefest recapitulation. Born in Derby, England, on the 27th of April, 1820, he came of a stock in which intellectual integrity, fearlessness, and independence were strongly pronounced characteristics. His father was by profession a teacher, holding views, however, of the aims and methods of education greatly in advance of the average scholastic theories of his time. It has been commonly said that it was owing largely to the child's precarious health that he was permitted to grow into boyhood without being subjected to the mental cramming and coercion then so much in vogue. The truth of the matter, however, is that he was not particularly delicate in early years, and that his father's wiser course of procedure was simply the result of experience, and of a dread of overtaxing the immature mind by the ordinary forcing system, to which he was totally opposed.[1] Young Spencer was kept at home till he was just fourteen, thus reaping the advantage of his father's personal training and attention, and breathing an intellectual atmosphere unusually clear and stimulating. He was then placed in charge of his uncle, the Rev. Thomas Spencer, at that time perpetual curate of the parish of Hinton Charterhouse, near Bath. With this relative, who, it should be said, though an Episcopal clergyman, was a vigorous thinker and an energetic social reformer, he spent three years, making little of Greek Testament and Latin grammar, but manifesting extraordinary originality in the mathematical and mechanical studies to which a portion of his attention was devoted.

The design at this period entertained by Thomas Spencer, himself an academic honors man and to a certain extent an advocate of classical culture, of sending Herbert to Cambridge, was gradually relinquished as impracticable, and Spencer thus adds another to the long list of English leaders of thought who owe nothing directly to one or other of the great institutions of learning. On leaving Hinton the lad returned to his father's house, where he spent what was, to outward seeming, an idle and profitless year. Then, after a brief experiment in teaching, he made his real start in life in a profession to which the bias of his interests and the line of his studies alike pointed—that of the civil engineer. This was in the autumn of 1837. It was then the early days of the railroad excitement, and for a time the career he had chosen continued to offer a promising field. But presently the tide of activity ebbed gradually away, and after eight or ten years of intermittent work Spencer finally abandoned a calling in which he now saw little chance of substantial success, and thus at twenty-six found himself but slightly advanced toward a definite settlement in life.

Meanwhile, the expansion of his thought had already begun. At the age of twenty, while engaged on the Birmingham and Gloucester Railway, he had read Lyell's Principles of Geology, and had espoused what was then known as the Development Hypothesis; accepting the Lamarckian view (combated by Lyell) so far as to believe in the evolution of species, but rejecting all the great Frenchman's theories save that of the adaptation of the organism to its environment by the inheritance of acquired characters. His first piece of philosophical reasoning had also seen the light. In 1842 he had contributed to a paper called The Nonconformist a series of letters, subsequently revised and reissued in pamphlet form, on The Proper Sphere of Government. In this early discussion of a question on which he was to have so much to say by and by, Spencer is to be found already vigorously insisting on "the limitation of state action to the maintenance of equitable relations among citizens."

After spending some time at home in what must have been a condition of great uncertainty, Spencer presently removed to London, where he secured an appointment on The Examiner newspaper, of which in 1848 he became subeditor. This position he held till 1853. In the meantime, in the intervals of comparative leisure afforded by the routine of his office work, he had written his first important book. Social Statics, published in 1850. Shortly after this he began his connection with the Westminster Review, to the pages of which, during the course of the next few years, he contributed a number of essays, valuable in themselves, and now particularly interesting as marking the development and consolidation of many of the fundamental elements of his later thought. In 1855 appeared a large volume on The Principles of Psychology (afterward incorporated into his more extended treatise on the same subject in the regular system); and in this book (be it remarked, four years before the publication of The Origin of Species) the problems of mind were throughout approached and discussed from the evolutionary point of view. It is probably due to the fact that Mr. Spencer had in this way pushed so far ahead of the most advanced thinkers of his generation that the Psychology, though respectfully received, attracted no widespread attention, and was certainly not regarded, even by specialists, as we regard it to-day, as a work of epoch-making character.

Almost simultaneously with the publication of this volume, and mainly as the direct result of overexertion in the writing of it, came Mr. Spencer's serious nervous breakdown, which for eighteen months incapacitated him for work altogether, and finally left him in that condition of semi-invalidism to which allusion has already been made. When, on partial restoration to health, he returned to his dropped undertakings, his first concern was to finish the essay on Progress, in which he expounded in detail that conception of evolution as a universal process which he had already reached in the Psychology. A year later (1858), he published a long defense of the Nebular Hypothesis; and it was during the preparation of this article that the scheme of the Synthetic Philosophy took shape in his mind. Hitherto, he had dealt with the phenomena of life and society in a fragmentary manner; now he realized the possibility of taking the doctrine of evolution as the basis of a system of thought, and of thus unifying knowledge by the affiliation of its various branches upon the ultimate laws underlying them all. The prospectus of the proposed enterprise was drawn up in 1859, and distributed in the March of the following year.

The history of the man from this time on is almost entirely merged in the history of his work; the dates of importance for the outside world being those marked by the publication of the various portions and volumes of the promised series. Of Mr. Spencer himself, through all this long period during which the rare qualities of his genius have been more and more fully recognized, and the power of his thought has shown a steady growth, the public at large has known less perhaps than of any of his notable contemporaries. He has lived, rather by necessity than by choice, a very quiet and secluded life, saving all his available strength for the task he had set himself to accomplish; while, hating as he does the nauseating personalities of modern journalism, he has not only never courted notoriety, but has firmly resisted attempts frequently made to thrust notoriety upon him. This does not mean, and must not be taken to imply, that there is anything in him of the ascetic or recluse. He is by nature what Johnson described as a thoroughly "clubable" man enjoying so far as health would permit the menus propos of the dinner table, and social intercourse with congenial spirits. Himself a delightful conversationist and capital storyteller, fond of his joke, and with a ready laugh for the good sayings of others, he certainly does not remind those who are privileged to know him well of the dry, abstracted, unemotional philosopher of vulgar tradition, though doubtless a stranger would pronounce him cold and reserved. Before his nervous trouble assumed its more serious form a few years since, he took much pleasure in fishing, quoits, and especially billiards, and was a regular habitué of the Athenæum Club. But for a long time past these and similar amusements have been out of the question, and, being a rather impatient reader of general literature, he has derived his greatest solace from music, of which he has always been passionately fond. Without intruding, as I have no wish to do, upon the sanctities of private life, I feel that I am justified in saying this much, and in adding that in my own familiar relations with Mr. Spencer there is nothing that has impressed me more strongly than his lofty idea of rectitude, his fine sense of justice, and the transparency and charming simplicity of his character. Kind and considerate to those about him, despite the strain of insomnia and constant ill health, if he makes large demands upon the rationality and integrity of others, as he undoubtedly does, he claims no more from them than for his own part he is always ready to give. His standard of individual conduct is an extremely high one, but, unlike many theorists, he applies it to his own life as severely as he does to the lives of other people.

But it is time, turning from the man to his work, to proceed to the exposition of some of the fundamental principles of the Spencerian system of philosophy.

It is important, in the first place, to make clear the meaning which Mr. Spencer attaches to the word philosophy, as this will define for us the scope and purpose of his undertaking. By philosophy, then, to begin with a negative statement of his position, he does not understand an effort to solve the ultimate problem of the universe. He recognizes two categories—the Unknowable and the Knowable; and to the former of these, the proper domain of religion, he relegates all those final questions concerning Absolute Being, and the why and wherefore of the cosmos, which have largely absorbed the attention of the metaphysicians—questions which, owing to the conditions under which all our thinking has to be done, lie forever beyond the scope of human intelligence. The true subject-matter of philosophy, therefore, is not the problem of absolute cause and end, but of secondary causes and ends not—noumenal and unconditioned existence, but the manifestations of the noumenal in and through the conditioned and phenomenal. What, then, do we demand from philosophy? Not an explanation of the universe in terms of Being as distinguished from Appearance; but a complete co-ordination or systematic organization of those cosmical laws by which we symbolize the processes of the universe, and the interrelations of the various phenomena of which the universe, as revealed to us, is actually composed.[2] The old antithesis between common knowledge and what we call science, on the one hand, and philosophy on the other, forthwith disappears. They are not essentially unlike; their differences are differences of degree in generality and unification. "As each widest generalization of science comprehends and consolidates the narrower generalizations of its own division, so the generalizations of philosophy comprehend and consolidate the widest generalizations of science." Philosophy is thus presented as "the final product of that process which begins with a mere colligation of crude observations, goes on establishing propositions that are broader and more separated from particular cases, and ends in universal propositions. Or, to bring the definition to its simplest and clearest form: knowledge of the lowest kind is ununified knowledge; science is partially unified knowledge; philosophy is completely unified knowledge."[3]

Now, if philosophy is to undertake this complete unification of knowledge, it must establish some ultimate proposition which includes and consolidates all the results of experience. It would obviously be infeasible in the space now at our disposal to follow Mr. Spencer step by step in the long and subtle argument by which this ultimate proposition is reached. We must content ourselves with the merest statement of results. Assuming, then, as we must ever continue to assume (for otherwise all thought would be impossible), that in the manifestations of the Unknowable in and through the phenomenal universe, congruities and incongruities exist and are cognizable by us, Mr. Spencer shows that in the last analysis all classes of likeness and unlikeness merge in one great difference—the difference between object and subject. "The profoundest distinction among the manifestations of the Unknowable," to quote his own words, "we recognize by grouping them into self and not-self."[4] His postulates, therefore, are "an Unknowable Power; the existence of knowable likenesses and differences among the manifestations of that Power; and a resulting segregation of those manifestations into those of subject and object."[5] From these postulates philosophy has to proceed to the achievement of its purpose as above set forth.

Pushing the argument through a consideration of space, time, matter, motion, force, the indestructibility of matter, and the continuity of force, Mr. Spencer at length reaches his ultimate dictum the—persistence of force; a dictum which possesses the highest kind of axiomatic certitude for two reasons: it constitutes the required foundation for all other general truths, and it remains stable and unresolvable—the one inexpugnable yet inexplicable element of consciousness. Force is thus, for Mr. Spencer, the ultimate conception, and the persistence of force furnishes the universal criterion of his system of thought. Of such persistence of force under the forms of matter and motion, all phenomena are necessary results. Eliminate this conception, and consciousness collapses. "The sole truth which transcends experience by underlying it, is thus the Persistence of Force. This being the basis of experience must be the basis of any scientific organization of experiences. To this an ultimate analysis brings us down, and on this a rational synthesis must build up."[6]

The first deduction drawn from this ultimate universal truth is that of the persistence of relations among forces—otherwise, the uniformity of law; whence we pass to the necessary corollaries, the doctrines of the transformation and equivalence of forces, and of the rhythm of motion. Both these principles are shown to hold good throughout the whole range of phenomena, from the physical and chemical to the psychical and social. These truths, then, have the character of universality which constitutes them parts of philosophy, properly so called. "They are truths which unify concrete phenomena belonging to all divisions of Nature, and so must be components of that complete coherent conception of things which Philosophy seeks."[7] But none the less they are truths of the analytical order, and "no number of analytical truths will make up that synthesis of thought which alone can be an interpretation of the synthesis of things."[8] The problem now before us will be set in clearer light if we remember the relation, already stated, between the partially unified knowledge which we call science, and the completely unified knowledge which is the aim of philosophy. The various sciences advance from the resolution of their phenomena into the actions of certain factors, to the larger question—how from such combined actions result the given phenomena in all their complexity? They thus arrive at special syntheses. But such syntheses, even up to the most general, are more or less independent of one another. The business of philosophy, as now defined, is therefore to establish a universal synthesis comprehending and consolidating such special syntheses. "Having seen that matter is indestructible, motion continuous, and force persistent—having seen that forces are everywhere undergoing transformation, and that motion, always following the line of least resistance, is invariably rhythmic, it remains to discover the similarly invariable formula expressing the combined consequences of the actions thus separately formulated."[9]

It is from this point that Mr. Spencer proceeds to reduce to systematic and comprehensive expression the laws of that continuous redistribution of matter and motion which is going on throughout the universe in general and in detail. All sensible existences, and the aggregates which they compose, have their history, and this history covers the entire period between their emergence from the imperceptible and their final disappearance again into the imperceptible. The redistribution of matter and motion which brings about this passage from the imperceptible, through the various stages of the perceptible, and back to the imperceptible, comprises two antagonistic processes: one characterized by the integration of matter and the dissipation of motion; the other by the absorption of motion and the disintegration of matter. The former produces consolidation and definiteness; the latter, diffusion and incoherence. These two universal antagonistic processes are evolution and dissolution. The entire universe is in a state of continual change, and it is in terms of these processes that all changes, small or great, inorganic inorganic, organic, physical, vital, psychical, social, have to be interpreted.

In order to deprive the law of evolution, hereupon formulated, of any merely empirical character, Mr. Spencer shows at length that there are all pervading principles underlying the all pervading process. But of this reduction of inductive results to the deductive form we shall find it more convenient to speak presently when we come to deal with the general method of the Spencerian philosophy. Our immediate concern is to understand a little more clearly what we mean by evolution.[10]

We have already stated the matter in a broad and general way. Dissolution is disintegration; evolution is integration. But this definition takes note only of the primary element in the evolutionary process. Evolution means always an integration of matter and concomitant dissipation of motion, or, in other words, increasing coherence to definiteness; but it commonly implies much more than this. We must recognize the secondary changes by which this primary change is habitually complicated before the formula of evolution can be set down as complete.

These secondary changes are indeed the most conspicuous characteristics of the evolutionary process; and it is not surprising, therefore, that it was from these that Mr. Spencer started, that it was with these that he remained for a long time preoccupied, that it was these which he first defined in philosophic terminology. A simple plan for us to adopt in the present exposition will be to follow him very rapidly along the line of investigation by which the full law of evolution was gradually reached.

Approaching, as he did, the general problem of things by way of ethical and sociological inquiries, Mr. Spencer found himself confronted at the outset by the special fact of the development of man individually and in society—that is, with the fact of progress. What, then, is progress? This was the specific question to which, for a number of years, he was slowly feeling his way to an answer. In his earliest publication—the Letters on the Proper Sphere of Government—there was already implied the belief that societies are not manufactured, but grow; and it was from the side of natural law, therefore, that this question of progress was at once approached. It was in the pages of Social Statics that he elaborated his first reply. There, borrowing from Coleridge the theory that Coleridge in turn had derived from German speculation—that life is "a tendency toward individuation"—he undertook to show that it is in the fulfillment of this tendency that all progress will be found to consist. Individuation, then, was the master-principle of his thought. But, examined closely, this tendency toward individuation resolves itself into two closely related processes: one making for more and more sharply defined separateness; the other for increasing unity of organization. Universal specialization, with resulting development of complexity, represents one side of the movement we call progress; increasing interdependence among the specialized parts of the organism represents the other.

Progress, therefore—or, to substitute the proper word, evolution—was already recognized by Mr. Spencer as a double-sided process, comprising differentiation, with consequent growth in complexity, and integration, with consequent growth in unification. But though this second-named element—unification—was never entirely lost sight of by him, and is given clear statement, for example, in the essays on The Philosophy of Style and The Genesis of Science, it was upon the former element—differentiation—that for a time his attention was fixed. Taking this principle by itself, and detaching it from all other considerations, he attempted, in his essay on Progress: its Law and Cause, to expand it into a complete theory of universal evolution. In this he was helped by von Baer's law, with which he had become acquainted in 1852—"that the series of changes gone through during the development of a seed into a tree, or an ovum into an animal, constitute an advance from homogeneity of structure to heterogeneity of structure." Overlooking the principle of integration, Mr. Spencer announces this generalization as his text. "We propose," he writes, in the early part of his essay, "to show that this law of organic progress is the law of all progress." In other words, evolution is made to consist wholly in the increase of complexity—in the transformation of the homogeneous into the heterogeneous by successive differentiations.

Satisfied that he had now reached not only a law of evolution, but also the law of evolution, Mr. Spencer, when he began work on the Synthetic Philosophy, proceeded to elaborate his thesis in the first edition of First Principles. Further thought, however, convinced him that he had fallen into error—that the transformation of the homogeneous into the heterogeneous does not sum up the whole of evolution, but only the most conspicuous part of the secondary redistribution of matter and motion constituting it. Many changes in the direction of increasing heterogeneity—e. g., the rise of a cancer in the individual organism, or of a revolution in the state—obviously tend not to evolution, but to dissolution. When, then, does increase in complexity mean evolution? The answer to this question, found in a return to the principle of integration, is, when increase of complexity is accompanied by more and more complete interdependence among the specialized parts—by increase in organic unification. Evolution, therefore, may be roughly defined as change toward multiformity in unity, brought about by the rise of unlikenesses (differentiation) and the concentration of the unlike parts, through mutual dependence, into an organized whole (integration); or, to phrase the doctrine philosophically in Mr. Spencer's world-famous formula, 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."

But with the formulation of this all-pervading process, we reach only the starting-point of a fresh investigation. Philosophy—the complete unification of knowledge—demands the restatement of the law of evolution in deductive form. Such being the transformations manifested by all classes of concrete phenomena, we ask. Why this continuous metamorphosis? We must seek the rationale of the universal changes inductively set forth, must undertake to interpret them as necessary consequences of some deeper law.

Incidentally we may notice here the firm, logical consistency of the Spencerian system. While it presents us with a history of the knowable universe in empirical generalizations, it also affiliates these all-embracing generalizations upon ultimate principles, derives them from its final dictum, and thus furnishes a rational history of the knowable universe as well. Undertaking, therefore, the task of presenting the phenomena of evolution in synthetic order, Mr. Spencer arrives at the law of the instability of any finite homogeneous aggregate owing to the unequal exposure of its parts to incident forces, and proceeds to show, first, that "every mass, or part of a mass, on which a force falls subdivides and differentiates that force, which thereupon proceeds to work a variety of changes"; and, secondly, that the process of segregation, "tending ever to separate unlike units and to bring together like units," serves constantly "to sharpen or make definite differentiations otherwise caused." Finally, these laws—the instability of the homogeneous, the multiplication of effects, and segregation—are exhibited as corollaries from the ultimate law, as inevitable results of the persistence of force under its forms of matter and motion. In this way the circle of induction and deduction is made complete.

In this connection it will be interesting to say something about the course of thought by which Mr. Spencer was gradually led to the fundamental principles above summarized. I am fortunate in having before me as I write a letter in which he was kind enough to outline for me the important stages in his progress toward the great doctrines of the synthetic philosophy.[11] If, in following his account and in occasionally reproducing, as I shall venture to do, his own words, I am forced to touch again upon points already brought out, this will scarcely be deemed ground for regret, since the slight repetition involved will serve perhaps to throw the whole subject into clearer relief.

The simple nucleus of his philosophic system first made its appearance in Social Statics, where, in the chapter entitled General Considerations, mention is made of the biological truth that low types of animals are composed of many like parts not mutually dependent, while higher animals are composed of parts that are unlike and are mutually dependent. This, he writes, "was an induction which I had reached in the course of biological studies—mainly, I fancy, while attending Professor Owen's lectures on the Vertebrate Skeleton." With this was joined the statement that the same is true of societies, "which begin with many like parts not mutually dependent and end with many like parts that are mutually dependent." This also was an induction. "And then in the joining of these came the induction that the individual organism and the social organism followed this law." Thus the radical conception of the entire system took shape before Mr, Spencer had become acquainted with von Baer's law, which, as we have seen, did not occur till two years later. This law, though applying to the unfolding of the individual only, had none the less its use. In furnishing the expression "from homogeneity to heterogeneity," it presented a more convenient intellectual implement. "By its brevity and its applicability to all orders of phenomena, it served for thinking much better than the preceding generalization, which contained the same essential thought." The essays which followed Social Statics were marked by the establishment of various separate inductions in which other groups of phenomena were brought under this large principle, while in the first edition of the Psychology not only was this same principle shown to comprehend mental phenomena, but there was also recognized the primary law of evolution—integration and increase of definiteness. What followed may best be given in Mr. Spencer's own words: "Then it was that there suddenly arose in me the conception that the law which I had separately recognized in various groups of phenomena was a universal law applying to the whole Cosmos: the many small inductions were merged in the large inductions. And only after this largest induction had been formed did there arise the question—Why? Only then did I see that the universal cause for the universal transformations was the multiplication of effects, and that they might be deduced from the law of the multiplication of effects. The same thing happened at later stages. The generalization which immediately preceded the publication of the essay on Progress: its Law and Cause—the instability of the homogeneous—was also an induction. So was the direction of motion, and the rhythm of motion. Then having arrived at these derivative causes of the universal transformation, it presently dawned upon me (in consequence of the recent promulgation of the doctrine of the conservation of force) that all these derivative causes were sequences from that universal cause. The question had, I believe, arisen, Why these several derivative laws? and that came as the answer. Only then did there arise the idea of developing the whole of the universal transformation from the persistence of force. So you see the process began by being inductive and ended by being deductive; and this is the peculiarity of the method followed. On the one hand, I was never content with any truth remaining in the inductive form. On the other hand, I was never content with allowing a deductive interpretation to go unverified by reference to the facts."

It remains for us now, so far as space will permit, to pass in rapid review a few of the most salient features of the evolutionary philosophy thus wrought into a firmly knit, logical whole a philosophy which, as a science of the sciences resting upon universal law, is properly called Synthetic.[12]

To the exposition and elaboration in their broadest aspects of the all comprehensive truths above epitomized, Mr. Spencer devotes the initial volume of his series—First Principles. Such a presentation of arguments and results constitutes what he defines as General Philosophy. The nine following volumes of the system are devoted to Special Philosophy—that is, to the task of carrying these universal truths, as an organon, forward into the particular phenomena which form the subject-matter of biology, psychology, sociology, and ethics, and of interpreting such particular phenomena by them.

Strictly speaking, of course, at the very opening of this serial undertaking a large gap remains unfilled, since the application of the fundamental principles already established should first of all be made to inorganic Nature. But this great division is passed over entirely, "partly," to quote the words of the prospectus, "because, even without it, the scheme is too extensive; and partly because the interpretation of organic Nature after the proposed method is of more immediate importance." We thus enter at once, in The Principles of Biology, the field of organic life; the purpose of the two volumes composing this work being, as stated in the preface, "to set forth the general truths of biology as illustrative of and as interpreted by the laws of evolution." Due notice should be taken of the phrase here employed—"the general truths of biology." To write a detailed and exhaustive treatise on the subject was manifestly no part of Mr. Spencer's plan, which called only for such a co-ordination and synthesis of fundamental principles as, expressed in terms of the universal laws of the redistribution of matter and motion, and finally affiliated upon the ultimate truth, the persistence of force, would present in broadest outline the science of life.

From the historical point of view no part of this masterly work is of greater interest than the closing division of the first volume, in which Mr. Spencer, after dismissing the special-creation theory of things as untenable, displays at length the a priori and a posteriori evidences of organic evolution. To appreciate the full significance of his arguments, it is necessary to remember that at the time when the chapters containing them were written, the doctrine of development was currently regarded, even by the large body of naturalists, as a more or less fantastic hypothesis. But while thus presenting the case for evolution in its inductive and deductive aspects, Mr. Spencer did much more than this. He showed that the processes observable in the world of organic life are but phases of the universal cosmical processes formulated in First Principles; and that thus the deepest laws of morphological and physiological development are, deductively viewed, necessary corollaries from the doctrines already established. Even the Darwinian principle of natural selection (or, as Mr. Spencer called it, the survival of the fittest in the struggle for existence) is exhibited as falling into its place as a single manifestation of a far wider law—the law of equilibration.

As here developed in its biological aspects, this law of equilibration[13] deserves the closest attention. Life is defined by Mr. Spencer as "the continuous adjustment of internal relations to external relations"; and he shows that the degree of life varies as the correspondence varies between organism and environment; the highest point being reached where the correspondence exhibits a maximum of complexity, rapidity, and length. Lack of correspondence—that is, inability on the part of an organism to balance external actions by internal actions—means death; absolutely perfect adjustment, on the other hand, would be absolutely perfect life. Now, equilibration, biologically considered, expresses the tendency on the part of an organism to adapt itself to its environment, the environment itself being, it must be remembered, in a state of constant change; and such equilibration is direct where the organism responds immediately to the demands of its surroundings, and indirect where variations which are in the line of greater correspondence are gathered up and transmitted to following generations. Under the one head, it is manifest, we formulate the doctrine of use and disuse; under the other, the doctrine of natural selection. Nor is this all. Followed through its wider sweep of meaning, the law of equilibration is found to throw a flood of fresh light on the vexed question of population. Individuation and genesis are in necessary antagonism; and while "excess of fertility has itself rendered the process of civilization inevitable," the process of civilization must in turn "inevitably diminish fertility, and at last destroy its excess."[14] Gradual approach will thus be made toward an equilibrium "between the number of new individuals produced and the number which survive and propagate."[15]

From The Principles of Biology we pass to The Principles of Psychology, the massive superstructure of which is firmly reared on the general foundations already laid. Life at large is the genus; what we distinguish as bodily life and mental life respectively are species; and though if, after the ordinary fashion, we insist on contemplating only the extreme forms of the two, it would appear that the hardest line of demarcation is to be drawn between them, such line necessarily vanishes the moment the evolutionary point of view is assumed. Acceptance of this point of view, furthermore, enables us to realize that mind can be understood only in the light of its evolution. "If creatures of the most elevated kinds have reached those highly integrated, very definite, and extremely heterogeneous organizations they possess, through modifications upon modifications accumulated during an immeasurable past—if the developed nervous systems of such creatures have gained their complex structures and functions little by little; then, necessarily, the involved forms of consciousness which are the correlatives of these complex structures and functions must have arisen by degrees. And as it is impossible truly to comprehend the organization of the body in general, or of the nervous system in particular, without tracing its successive stages of complication; so it must be impossible to comprehend mental organization without similarly tracing its stages."[16]

As in The Principles of Biology the general truths of life were interpreted through the fundamental laws of evolution, so, therefore, in The Principles of Psychology the general facts and problems of mind are elucidated in the same way. The work opens with a consideration of data and inductions, and then—given the psychical shock which Mr. Spencer distinguishes as the primordial and unresolvable element, or ultimate unit, of consciousness—proceeds to trace the evolution of intelligence, stage by stage, through reflex action, instinct, memory, reason, the feelings, and the will. This progress is then exhibited as part of evolution at large; the phenomena belonging to the intellectual, as contradistinguished from the emotional life, are examined in detail; and the ultimate question of the relation between thought and things—between subject and object—is raised and dealt with. Finally, a number of extremely suggestive chapters are devoted to corollaries concerning the expression of feeling, sociality and sympathy, egoistic, ego altruistic, and altruistic sentiments, and the evolution of æsthetic activities and gratifications—all these matters being of great importance in the synthetic system as developing that special part of human psychology upon which sociology and ethics must rely for their foundations.

With the way thus prepared, Mr. Spencer enters upon what, quantitatively considered, represents by far the largest portion of his undertaking—the application of the laws of evolution to the phenomena of society. The Principles of Sociology as actually completed exhibit the only important departure of the author from the prospectus issued thirty-six years ago; for the volume in which linguistic, intellectual, moral, and aesthetic progress was to have been traced out, is left unwritten. Sundry of the more momentous questions connected with these phases of human development, however, are touched upon in other parts of the system, and the hiatus is, therefore, by no means a serious one.

On the other hand, the remaining divisions of the work have, in the writing, undergone unlooked-for expansion; the three bulky volumes now before us containing, in addition to nearly six hundred pages setting forth data and inductions, elaborate treatises on domestic, ceremonial, political, ecclesiastical, professional, and industrial institutions, their genesis, growth, characteristics, significance, and probable future developments.

Of the direct bearings of these volumes upon the urgent problems of modern social life, this is, unfortunately, not the place to speak; though we may note in passing that here, as elsewhere, the Spencerian philosophy reveals its eminently practical qualities. No matter to what profound depths its arguments may take us, its doctrines relate themselves at every point with vital issues, and thus, in Lord Bacon's phrase, come home to men's business and bosoms. We feel, in following its speculations, that, remote and labyrinthine as these must necessarily sometimes seem to be, we are never, after all, very far away from the broad highway of human affairs. But if we must not now dwell upon this particular point, still less must we allow ourselves, in connection with it, to be drawn off into any discussion of Mr. Spencer's individualism.[17] We must confine ourselves to the merest statement of the purpose of the Sociology, taken as a whole.

Such purpose is, of course, in a word, the interpretation of the phenomena of social growth and organization, from the simplest to the most intricate, in terms of universal evolution. Societies are organisms—evolving aggregates; and their progress is clearly marked by even greater and greater multiformity in unity—that is, by gradual advance from the comparative homogeneity, indefiniteness, and incoherence of the simple tribe, to the constantly increasing heterogeneity, definiteness, and coherence of the civilized nation. To work out this continuous process of integration and differentiation along the great lines of social structure and function; to make clear that the transformations everywhere going on, from the minutest change in a tribal group to the far-reaching metamorphoses of modern civilization, are at bottom exemplifications of the ultimate laws of evolution; and to show that the complex play of forces in the superorganic, no less than in the organic, world tends inevitably toward equilibration; in such a general consensus of results, then, the various detailed portions of the Sociology all merge; in such a consensus the fundamental connecting link is to be found between the work in its totality and the other divisions of the Synthetic Philosophy.

One large aspect of universal evolution remains to be considered before the organization of knowledge demanded by philosophy can be taken as complete; and this aspect—of such importance as to lead Mr. Spencer to describe all other parts of his work as subsidiary to its interpretation[18]—we at length reach in the concluding two volumes of the series comprising The Principles of Ethics. To the student of the earlier divisions of the Spencerian system the point of view adopted in the elucidation of the facts and problems of conduct will appear a matter of course. Ethics necessarily depends upon the simpler sciences, and generalizations furnished by these must be accepted as data for the systematization of the principles of right living. Moreover, conduct at large, including those portions of it which form the subject-matter of morality, can be fully understood only when regarded as one phase of evolving life. This conception of things will now seem so natural as to call for nothing beyond the baldest statement.

In his work of reconstructing ethical theory along the lines thus indicated, and in harmony with the fundamental doctrines of his philosophy, Mr. Spencer takes a great and most important step in advance of the results reached by the various schools of scientific moralists in the past. His system is, of course, hedonistic or utilitarian—that is, the final criterion and ultimate end of conduct is for him happiness, pleasure, or well-being. But he was naturally discontent with the merely empirical conclusions in which the older utilitarians had been willing to rest. They had not pushed beyond the inductive stage of inquiry; and their generalizations, however interesting and valuable they might be, were merely generalizations after all—statements founded simply upon accumulated observations of results. But, though every science begins with such observations and generalizations, it has no claim to be considered a developed science until the principle of causation is fully recognized and inductive results are set forth in deductive form. It is the scientific presentation of ethical principles, in this strict sense of the word scientific, that Mr. Spencer has, therefore, undertaken. He has sought to convert the laws of conduct from truths of the empirical into truths of the rational order. As he wrote in his letter to Mill:[19] "I conceive it to be the business of moral science to deduce from the laws of life and the conditions of existence what kinds of action necessarily tend to produce happiness and what kinds to produce unhappiness. Having done this, its deductions are to be recognized as laws of conduct, and are to be conformed to, irrespective of a direct estimation of happiness or misery."

If it is asked toward what general conclusions regarding the moral prospects of the race the Spencerian ethics may be said to point, the broadest answer will be found in the statement of the universal law, already frequently referred to—the law of equilibration. We bring with us into life instincts and impulses which we derive from our long line of animal and barbarous ancestry: our natures are very imperfectly adjusted to the demands of social life. But the influences of advancing civilization have throughout human evolution been gradually molding character into more and more complete harmony with the sum-total of the conditions under which we live. Hence we may anticipate a time, far distant though it must needs be, when the internal forces which we know as feelings will be in fairly perfect balance with the external forces which they encounter; when, in other words, the nature of man will have become fully adapted to the associated state. Mr. Spencer has, indeed, within recent years spoken less optimistically about this consummation than he did when, in Social Statics, he asserted the evanescence of evil. But he still looks forward to an "approximately complete adjustment"[20] of constitution to conditions as the goal of moral evolution, toward which we are actually, if slowly, moving.

And now, even in so slight a sketch as this, we can not leave the synthetic system without broaching one last issue of the profoundest importance. What are the bearings of the Spencerian philosophy upon the ultimate questions of religion?

We have seen that on the very threshold of his undertaking Mr. Spencer cleared the way for constructive effort by defining philosophy as knowledge of the highest generality, and thus asserting its limitations within the sphere of the phenomenal. Ontological speculations are thus abandoned, and our concern is not with the absolute, the unconditioned, the infinite, but with the relative, the conditioned, the finite. We have seen, furthermore, that in the application of the universal laws of evolution to the various phenomena of the sciences we have to seek the final interpretation of even the highest manifestations of psychical life in terms of matter, motion, force. To what general conclusions do we thus seem to stand committed? Surely, it may be urged, there is but one inference possible. Our philosophy is a philosophy of materialism pure and simple.

Such an inference, however, though often loudly proclaimed by the ignorant and the perverse, is one that the careful student, recalling the many luminous passages in which Mr. Spencer has stated and restated his position, will of necessity refuse to indorse. So frequently, indeed, has our author repudiated, not by phrases only, but by arguments, the charges made against him on this popular count, that repetition of them must be taken to imply either oversight, or misconception, or deliberate attempt to force upon him, for polemical purposes, opinions which he has consistently disowned and even vigorously opposed. How, then, we may ask, turning directly to his own writings, does the case really stand?

Briefly thus. The chemist can not explain the ultimate nature of matter, nor the physicist the ultimate nature of motion, nor the psychologist the ultimate nature of mind. Matter, motion, mind are but symbols, expressing for us the manifestations of an unknown power, and, pushed to the utmost limits of simplification, the symbols remain symbols still. The question at issue between spiritualists and materialists, therefore, viewed from the Spencerian standpoint, resolves itself into a question of these symbols, and any answer that can conceivably be given leaves us as completely outside the reality as we were at first. Spirit and matter must thus be regarded simply as signs of the ultimate existence which underlies both; and though we may lean to the spiritualistic rather than to the materialistic side—though of the two it may seem "easier to translate so-called matter into so-called spirit than to translate so-called spirit into so-called matter (which latter is indeed wholly impossible"[21]), yet we must remember that no such translation will carry us beyond our symbols into a knowledge of that for which they stand.

Manifestly, then, the absolute and unconditioned existence which transcends human intelligence and in which the subject, object, spirit, matter of our finite consciousness merge and are united, is not for Mr. Spencer mere zero—a negation of thought. It is a positive fact of the profoundest certitude; or rather let us say it is the final fact sustaining all others—the fact which science finds at the back of its widest generalizations and beneath its deepest truths. And this final fact of science, this ultimate datum of consciousness, upon which all knowledge depends, this cause of all causes in the universe as it is revealed to us, is the permanent foundation of all religion as well. Here the ancient foes meet in complete reconciliation. Science must necessarily end in the mystery with which religion begins. "That which persists unchanging in quantity but ever changing in form," under the sensible appearances "which the universe presents to us," is an "unknown and unknowable power which we are obliged to recognize as without limit in space and without beginning or end in time," and this noumenal power of philosophy, of which all phenomena are but manifestations, is the God of religion "the infinite and eternal energy from which all things proceed."


  1. In this and a few other matters I am able, through the kindness of Mr. Spencer himself, to correct not only some current misapprehensions, but also several errors of detail in the biographical chapter in my Introduction to the Philosophy of Herbert Spencer.
  2. Here, and in a few other places in this brief outline, I have not scrupled to make use of the very phrases that I have employed in the more extended treatment of the same subject in my Introduction to the Philosophy of Herbert Spencer.
  3. First Principles, § 37.
  4. First Principles, § 44.
  5. Ibid, § 45.
  6. Ibid,§ 62.
  7. First Principles, § 89.
  8. Ibid., § 90
  9. Ibid., § 92.
  10. It is, of course, a necessary corollary from the doctrine of the rhythm of motion that the processes of evolution and dissolution are continually in conflict, locally and generally: and in no theory of the evolution of things—whether we consider individual existences, or aggregates of such, or the total aggregate that we call the cosmos—is it possible, therefore, to leave the process of dissolution out of the account. Individuals die, organisms disintegrate, societies collapse, races and civilizations are extinguished; while we are bound to acknowledge that for our earth itself, and the system of which it forms a part, and the universe in its entirety, the hour of dissolution must at length be sounded—the disintegrating force must finally begin to undo the work of eons upon eons of slow and gradual integration. In the life and death of a gnat we find a tiny symbol of the pulsations that produce the rise and decay of worlds. But in our own system and on our planet, however certain the ultimate course of things may seem to be, the process of evolution has long predominated, and still predominates, over the process of dissolution; and it is upon the former process, therefore, that we fix attention, though the rhythm of motion and the flux of existence reveal themselves wherever we look.
  11. In this letter Mr. Spencer called my attention to the fact that certain paragraphs in my Introduction (chapter iii, § ii) would, taken by themselves, be likely to leave the reader with a mistaken impression of the philosophic method pursued by him. For this reason I am glad to have the opportunity of returning to the matter here.
  12. Readers who desire to know something of Mr. Spencer's reasons for the selection of the term Synthetic Philosophy as the general title of his system will find a good deal of information in Mr. John Fiske's extremely interesting life of Edward Livingston Youmans. See especially pages 233, 290, and 291.
  13. The general law is worked out in full in First Principles (Part II, chapter xxii). The question is there raised, Can the changes constituting evolution go on without limit? And the answer is. No. "The changes go on until there is reached an equilibrium between the forces which all parts of the aggregate are exposed to, and the forces these parts oppose to them."
  14. Principles of Biology, § 376.
  15. Ibid., § 377.
  16. Principles of Psychology, § 129.
  17. I may perhaps be allowed to refer the reader who is interested in this special matter to the chapter on The Spencerian Sociology in my Introduction. I there endeavored to show that Mr. Spencer's political views grow naturally out of the body of his thought, and constitute an essential part of his general doctrine of evolution. The subject is a vast one for brief treatment, and I was, therefore, the more gratified when Mr. Spencer expressed entire satisfaction with my analysis of his arguments and conclusions.
  18. See original preface to The Data of Ethics (1879).
  19. Reprinted in The Principles of Ethics, § 21.
  20. The Principles of Ethics, § 244.
  21. The Principles of Psychology, § 63.