Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Spencer, Herbert
SPENCER, HERBERT (1820–1903), philosopher, was born in Derby on 27 April 1820. The Spencer family had been settled for several centuries in the parish of Kirk Ireton in Derbyshire. All Spencer's four grandparents were among the early followers of John Wesley. His paternal grandfather, Matthew Spencer, settled in Derby as a schoolmaster; he had six sons, and on his death left his property in Kirk Ireton, consisting of a few cottages and two fields, to his eldest son, William George Spencer [q. v.], the father of Herbert Spencer. George Spencer, as he was commonly called to distinguish him from his youngest brother, who was also William, was a man of extremely strong individuality and advanced social and religious views. In 1819 he married Harriet Holmes, the only daughter of a plumber and glazier in Derby. On her mother's side a dash of Huguenot and Hussite blood was traceable. Of this, however, she showed little trace in her character, which was patient, gentle, and conforming. Neither in intellect nor in force of character was she able to cope with her somewhat overbearing husband, and the marriage was not a happy one. Herbert was eldest and only surviving child. Four brothers and four sisters succeeded him (Duncan), but all died within a few days of their birth, with the exception of one sister, Louisa, who lived for nearly three years. His father's energies were taken up with teaching, and Herbert's early education was somewhat neglected. Until the age of thirteen he lived at Derby, with an interlude of three years in the neighbourhood of Nottingham; he attended a day school, but was particularly backward in Latin, Greek, and the other usual subjects of instruction. On the other hand, in natural history, in physics, and in miscellaneous information of all kinds he was advanced for his age. He acquired some knowledge of science from the literature circulated by the Derby Philosophical Society, of which his father was honorary secretary. His father did everything to encourage him in the cultivation of his natural tastes for science and observation of nature. At thirteen he was sent to Hinton Charterhouse, near Bath, to live with his uncle, Thomas Spencer [q. v.], who was an advanced radical and a leader of various social movements, such as temperance reform. From his strict regime the lad quickly ran away, walking to Derby in three days (48 miles the first day, 47 the next, and about 20 the third day), with little food and no sleep. He was sent back to his uncle, however, and for three years his education was carried on at Hinton Charterhouse with greater success.
At sixteen he returned to Derby, with his education completed. A year later he commenced his career as assistant to a schoolmaster at Derby. After some three months, however, his uncle William obtained for him a post under (Sir) Charles Fox [q. v.], resident engineer of part of the London and Birmingham railway. He was thus definitely launched in 1837 on the career of civil engineer, a profession which was recognised as well suited to him. Fox soon perceived his capacities, and in less than a year he was promoted to a better post on the Birmingham and Gloucester railway (now absorbed by the Midland railway), with headquarters at Worcester. Capt. Moorsom, the engineer-in-chief, appointed him his private secretary for a few months. Spencer continued to work on the construction of the line till its completion in 1841, when his services were no longer required and he was discharged. 'Got the sack — very glad' was the entry-in his diary ; and he refused a permanent appointment in the locomotive service, without asking what it was. During this period of a little over three years' engineering his interest had centred largely on geometrical problems, which fill his letters to his father. He also published a few short articles in a technical newspaper, and made one or two inventions of considerable ingenuity, such as a velocimeter for determining velocities in the trials of engines. Good-looking in appearance, but with brusque and unpolished manners, he was on the whole liked by his companions ; but was probably somewhat hampered in promotion by his excessive self-assertiveness and tendency to argue with his chiefs.
After his discharge Spencer returned to Derby, and a period of miscellaneous speculation and activity commenced : natural history, mechanical inventions, phrenology, modelling all occupied his attention. The following year his first serious literary attempt took the form of a series of letters to the 'Nonconformist,' an organ of the advanced dissenters. There he urged the limitations of the functions of the State and displayed the extreme individualism which characterised the whole of his social writings in after life. The same year he plunged into active politics, becoming associated with the 'complete suffrage movement,' which was closely connected with the chartist agitation, and was honorary secretary of the Derby branch. In 1843 he was sanguine enough to republish his letters to the 'Nonconformist' as a pamphlet entitled 'The Proper Sphere of Government' ; but it attracted no attention, beyond a polite acknowledgment from Carlyle of a presentation copy. One or two articles sent to reviews were refused ; but at last, in 1844, Spencer was selected as sub-editor to a newspaper called the 'Pilot,' which was at that time being established in Birmingham as organ of the complete suffrage movement. In the anti-corn-law agitation, the anti-slavery agitation, and that for the separation of church and state he took an active part, and was described by one of his friends as 'radical all over.'
The insecurity of the 'Pilot' and some of its promoters' dislike of his anti-religious views, which were becoming manifest, made him welcome an opportunity of returning to his old profession. For the next two years Spencer was engaged in one capacity or other in the work of railway construction. The railway mania was at its height. He continued to improve his position with his colleagues ; but with the failure of some of his chief's schemes his appointment was again brought to an end — this time permanently — through no fault of his own. In 1846-7 he was occupied with various mechanical inventions and projects, including one for a sort of flying machine ; but only on one of them did he succeed in making a little money — a binding-pin for binding together loose sheets of music or printed periodicals. At last the nomadic period of his life came to an end, when in 1848 he was appointed sub-editor of the 'Economist' at a salary of 100 guineas a year, with free lodgings and attendance. The 'Economist' was the property of James Wilson, M.P. (1805-60) [q. v.], who had under his own editorship brought it to a high degree of prosperity.
The years during which Spencer was at the 'Economist' were fruitful in laying the foundations of many of the friendships which profoundly affected his later life. John Chapman [q. v. Suppl. I] carried on a publiUshing business just opposite the 'Economist' office in the Strand, and through Chapman's soirees Spencer made many acquaintances. Among these was George Henry Lewes [q. v.], first met in the spring of 1850, who afterwards became one of his most intimate friends. Among them also was Miss Mary Ann or Marian Evans, then chiefly known as the translator of Strauss, and afterwards famous as 'George Eliot.' By Lewes, Spencer was introduced to Carlyle; but their temperaments were too much opposed to permit the acquaintanceship to endure. With 'George Eliot' Spencer's relations were so intimate as to excite gossip about the likelihood of their marriage. Though in the abstract he was very desirous of marrying, and regarded ’George Eliot' 'as the most admirable woman, mentally, I ever met,' yet he did not embark upon a suit which, in all probability, would have been successful. Apparently the absence of personal beauty restrained the growth of his affection (Autobiog. ii. 445). Another acquaintance, made in 1852, was that of Huxley, still quite unknown. By Huxley he was introduced the following year to Tyndall, the physicist ; and with both Huxley and Tyndall there commenced friendships which ripened into close intimacy.
The comparative hberty which Spencer's duties at the 'Economist' office afforded gave him an opportunity of writing his first book, 'Social Statics : or the Conditions Essential to Human Happiness specified, and the first of them developed.' The main object of this work, which appeared at the beginning of 1851, was to set forth the doctrine that 'every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man.' From this general principle he deduced the public claims to freedom of speech, to property, &c. He went so far as to assert the right of the citizen to refuse to pay taxes, if he surrendered the advantages of protection by the state. The functions of the state were limited solely to the performance of police duties at home, and to protection against foreign aggression by the maintenance of an army and navy. National education, poor laws, sanitary supervision are all explicitly condemned, as well as every other branch of state activity that is not included in the above formula.
'Social Statics' was unexpectedly successful. The extreme individualism which characterised it fitted in well with the views of the philosophical radicals and the Manchester school, then reaching the height of their influence. He was asked by Lewes, who was literary editor of a radical paper called the 'Leader,' to contribute articles ; and wrote several anonymously which have since been republished in his essays. Most important of these was that on the 'Development Hypothesis' in March 1852, in which the theory of organic evolution was defended (seven years prior to the publication of the 'Origin of Species'). For the 'Westminster Review,' now in the hands of Chapman, he elaborated a 'Theory of Population' which adumbrated one of the doctrines subsequently embodied in ’The Principles of Biology.' Relations were also estabUshed with the 'British Quarterly Review' and the 'North British Review.' In 1853 his uncle Thomas Spencer died, leaving Herbert Spencer a little over 500l. With this sum in hand, and the literary connections he had formed, he felt he could safely sever his connection with the 'Economist,' and in July of that year he brought his engagement to an end.
Increased freedom enabled Spencer to cultivate friends, already made, who lived in the country. Mr. and Mrs. Richard Potter, of Standish House, on the Cotswold Hills, and Mr. Octavius Smith, of Ardtomish in Argyllshire, where Spencer paid a long series of visits, thenceforth furnished him with his chief pleasures and holidays. A visit to Switzerland at this time, involving physical over-exertion, produced cardiac disturbances of disastrous effect hereafter. Further articles were written for reviews on diverse subjects before Spencer again gathered his energies for another book — 'The Principles of Psychology,' published in 1855. To this work Spencer gave astonishingly little preparation. He was never a large reader, and rarely read through a serious book. He had read one or two books, like Lewes's 'Biographical History of Philosophy,' which chanced to come his way ; but neither then nor afterwards did he ever read the philosophical classics ; and he was fond of relating how he had always thrown down Kant with disgust on finding he disagreed with the first two or three pages. 'The Principles of Psychology ' exhibits the results of this habit ; for it had little connection with previous psychological results, but was an independent excursion into an almost new line of inquiry. Later editions of this book formed an integral portion of Spencer's 'Philosophy,' which is described below. Naturally the sale was small. Richard Holt Hutton [q. v. Suppl. I] attacked it in an article entitled 'Modern Atheism' in the ’National Review,' a quarterly organ of the unitarians, and the anti-reUgious tone of the book caused much adverse criticism.
During the writing of 'The Principles of Psychology' Spencer's health finally gave way. While engaged upon it, he stayed at various country places, and the continuous hard work, unrelieved by society, caused a nervous breakdown from which he never afterwards recovered. The disorder took the form of a peculiar sensation in the head, which came on when he tried to think, as a result of cerebral congestion, and led to inveterate insomnia. For eighteen months he travelled in various country places, avoiding all kinds of work and excitement, spending some of his time in fishing. At length it became necessary for him to earn money ; and, though little improved, he returned to London at the end of 1856, and wrote the article on 'Progress : its Law and Cause' for the 'Westminster Review,' foreshadowing one of the doctrines of 'First Principles.' Other articles followed : and although his health remained dis-organised, he was able with frequent breaks to carry on a certain amount of work.
It was in 1857 that the idea of writing a system of philosophy first occurred to Spencer. In that year he was engaged in revising his essays to be re-published in a single volume ; and the successive reading of the scattered ideas embodied in them revealed to him a marked unity of principle. They all adopted a naturalistic interpretation of phenomena, they were nearly all founded upon the doctrine of evolution. In the early days of 1858 he drew up a plan for a system of philosophy in which these fundamental principles were to be set forth, and their applications traced. To obtain the necessary leisure, he endeavoured to obtain various official posts, with the help of strong testimonials from John Stuart Mill 1 and others ; but finding his efforts fruitless, he at length hit upon the plan of issuing the work by subscription. In 1860 the programme of the 'Philosophy' was published, and subscriptions invited at the rate of 10s. a year for four quarterly instalments. With the help of friends a strong backing of weighty names was secured, and over 1 400 subscribers were registered in England ; while m America Professor E. L. Youmans helped to obtain about 200 more. With this arrangement Spencer commenced to write 'First Principles' ; but he soon found difficulties in his way. A nervous break-down involved a delay of a month or two in the issue of the first instalment. Repetition of these attacks before long caused him to abandon all attempt to keep regular intervals between the issues. Subscribers moreover did not pay up as well as was hoped ; but the death of his uncle William Spencer, bringing a legacy, saved the situation. The book was at last completed in 1862. It was received with little attention ; the few notices were mainly devoted to adverse criticism of the metaphysical portion. During the writing of 'First Principles' Spencer collected together four essays written for reviews, to form the four chapters of his book on 'Education,' of which the first edition appeared in 1861. This famous work, now translated into all the chief languages of the world and into many of the minor languages such as Arabic and Mohawk, strongly urged the claims of science, both as intrinsically the most useful knowledge, and as the best mental discipline. The method of education advocated resembles that of Pestalozzi in aiming at a natural development of the intelligence, and creating pleasurable interest. The child is to be trained, not by the commands and prohibitions of its parents, enforced by punishments, but by giving it the greatest possible amount of freedom, and allowing the natural consequences of wrong actions to be felt by it, without parental interference. The 'Education' has had an enormous influence, and is still recognised as a leading text-book.
The two years following the publication of 'First Principles' were devoted to the first volume of 'The Principles of Biology,' published in 1864. Since Spencer had not a specialist's knowledge of biology, he arranged with his friends Huxley and Sir Joseph Hooker [q. v. Suppl. II] to read the proofs. The publication evoked little notice : a fate which likewise befell a second series of 'Essays,' which he re-published the previous year. Other occupations of 1864 were the essay on the 'Classification of the Sciences,' published as a separate brochure, to which was appended 'Reasons for dissenting from the Philosophy of M. Comte.' Spencer's branched classification undoubtedly represents a great advance on the linear classification of the older philosopher. The second volume of the 'Biology' was commenced immediately on the conclusion of the first, and published in 1867. But before it was completed, Spencer's financial position obliged him to give subscribers notice of cessation. The diminution in the number of subscribers, and the difficulty of collecting their sub scriptions, together with the fact that he had now to give support to his aged father, rendered the continuance of the issues impossible. In vain did John Stuart Mill offer to indemnify his publishers against possible future losses. A movement was set on foot by Mill, Huxley, Tyndall, Busk, and Lubbock (now Lord Avebury) for obtaining subscribers for a large number of extra copies ; but the death of his father in 1866 greatly improved his position, and enabled him to continue the issues without the help of friends. Already, however, his vehement adherent Youmans had been active in America, with the result that Spencer's admirers in that continent presented him with a valuable gold watch, and invested 7000 dollars in his name in public securities, so as to deprive him of the option of refusal. The second volume of 'The Principles of Biology' was not sent round to the critical journals, and was therefore ignored by the press. But Spencer's name was by this time widely known. He was a member of the celebrated x club, to which Huxley, Tyndall and other of his friends belonged. In 1866 he was, in common with most of the other leading evolutionists, an active member of the Jamaica committee for the prosecution of Governor Eyre [q. v. Suppl. II]. The death of his father revived his inventive faculties ; and he invented a new kind of invalid bed which obtained the approval of medical men. In 1866, for the first time, he fixed upon a settled abode at a boarding-house in Queen's Gardens, Lancaster Gate, with a room in the vicinity to serve as a study.
Henceforward Spencer's life becomes a mere record of the publication of his books. He was elected a member of the Athenaeum Club by the committee in 1868, and went there regularly in the afternoons to play billiards and see his friends. Ill-health negatived any extended social relationships, as well as every other mode of activity beyond that of completing the 'Synthetic Philosophy.' Every autumn there was a visit to Scotland. Once he made a tour in Italy, once in Switzerland, once in the Riviera, once in Egypt. Signs of public appreciation were soon manifest ; the first in 1871 when he was offered the lord rectorship of St. Andrews University. But neither this nor any other honour could he be induced to accept. His works, which had hitherto been a dead loss, began to pay ; and since he had adopted the principle of publishing on commission, he obtained the full benefit of their sale.
Spencer's first business on concluding the 'Biology' was to re-cast 'First Principles,' in the first edition of which he now recognised sundry imperfections. He then turned his attention to 'The Principles of Psychology,' the next portion of the 'Philosophy.' By adding various divisions he brought his previously published work on 'Psychology' into line with the plan of the rest of the 'philosophy.' The first volume was published in 1870, and the second in 1872. The next step was to deal with 'The Principles of Sociology.' As early as 1867 Spencer had recognised that it would be necessary for him to collect large masses of facts on which to found his sociological generalisations. Accordingly, he secured the services of Mr. David Duncan (afterwards his biographer) to read books of travel and accounts of primitive peoples, selecting all statements of sociological significance, and classifying them according to a plan drawn up by Spencer. Two other gentlemen, Mr. James Collier and Dr. Richard Scheppig, were subsequently engaged for the same purpose ; and Spencer, thinking the collections of facts might be useful to other social inquirers besides himself, decided to publish them. Financially the scheme was a complete failure ; but he persisted, in spite of heavy losses, and by 1881 the 'Descriptive Sociology' had reached eight volumes, when its issue was suspended, not to be revived till after Spencer's death. One other work published in 1873 was the 'Study of Sociology.' Spencer had assisted his friend Youmans to found the 'International Scientific Series,' and found himself now compelled to yield to Youmans' pressure to contribute a volume to it himself. The 'Study of Sociology' was devoted to setting forth the difficulties, objective and subjective, that confront the student of the social science. The many varieties of bias which are likely to perturb his judgment were discussed in full. The book, being of a comparatively popular character, was immensely successful ; and the preliminary publication of its chapters in the 'Contemporary Review' in England and the 'Popular Science Monthly' in America did much to assist the sale of Spencer's works. Spencer's next task was the preparation of the first volume of 'The Principles of Sociology,' published in 1877. Hitherto the serial method of publication had been adhered to, but with the conclusion of this volume Spencer sent to subscribers a notice of discontinuance, determining in future to publish the volumes as they were completed. He began the second volume of 'The Principles of Sociology,' but finding his health still very precarious abandoned it to write 'The Data of Ethics.' Any form of continuous application brought on symptoms due to cerebral congestion, and many expedients were tried to prevent them. He would dictate to his secretary while rowing on the Serpentine or playing games of racquets. Dictating for twenty minutes or so at a time, he then broke off to row or play vigorously and relieve the brain. When able to do nothing else he would dictate his autobiography ; and the bulkiness of that work is a concrete result of Spencer's efforts to kill time. 'The Data of Ethics,' which subsequently formed part I of 'The Principles of Ethics,' was published in 1879 ; and 'Ceremonial Institutions,' the first instalment of the second volume of ' The Principles of Sociology,' was published shortly afterwards. Having set forth the foundations of his views on ethics, Spencer felt at liberty to revert to the original order of his philosophy, and conclude the second voliune of the 'Sociology' ; and 'Political Institutions' was published in 1882. The foundation in the same year, in conjunction with Mr. Frederic Harrison, Mr. John Morley, and others less known, of an Anti-aggression League, in opposition to aggressive war, greatly over-taxed Spencer's energies. In 1882 he paid a visit to America, resisting the numerous attempts to fete him, save in one instance where a dinner in his honour was given in New York. Thenceforward the decline in health proceeded steadily. In 1884 appeared four articles from the 'Contemporary Review,' now bound together to form 'The Man versus The State.' Spencer had been watching with alarm the gradual encroachment of the state upon the liberty of the individual, and its ever-widening sphere of activity. The purpose of these essays was to propose a new creed for liberals — the limitation of state-functions to protection against foreign aggression and the maintenance of justice at home. He refused an invitation to become parliamentary candidate for Leicester in 1884. 'Ecclesiastical Institutions,' with which the third volume of 'The Principles of Sociology' opens, was published in 1885. There-after Spencer once again turned to 'The Principles of Ethics,' in order to elaborate his final beliefs on the functions of government in ’Justice.' From 'Justice' he passed on to the other divisions of 'The Principles of Ethics,' and published the whole of that work before reverting to the final volume of the 'Sociology.'
In 1889 he took a house in Avenue Road, St. John's Wood, in conjunction with three maiden ladies. For a few years the arrangement worked well ; but, after a time, disputes arose ; and in 1898 he moved to 5 Percival Terrace, Brighton, where he remained till his death. In 1896 the last volume of 'The Principles of Sociology ' was published, and with it the ’Synthetic Philosophy' was completed. Congratulations poured in from all quarters ; among others an influentially signed document, asking permission to employ an artist to take his portrait for presentation to one of the national collections. The portrait was ultimately painted by Sir Hubert von Herkomer. But Spencer could not rest, now that his work was completed. Two further books, entitled 'Various Fragments' and 'Facts and Comments' were issued before his death, each consisting of short essays on a great variety of subjects. The latter work attracted special attention on account of the vehement language with which Spencer denounced the policy of the Boer war. The increasing militarism which he believed he saw everywhere around him largely embittered his later years. Both this and the tendency to increase the functions of government were in close conflict with the social doctrines of his philosophy, which constituted Spencer's strongest sentiments. The chronicle of the last years of his life shows that his nervous system was shattered beyond repair. Everywhere he was trying to correct misrepresentations of his views, or to maintain his priority in some theory or idea. Death at Brighton at the age of eighty-three on 8 Dec. 1903 was a welcome relief from his sufferings. He was cremated at Golder's Green, an address by Mr. Leonard (afterwards Lord) Courtney taking the place of a religious ceremony. The ashes were subsequently buried in Highgate cemetery. In his will he left the bulk of his property in trust for carrying on the publication of the 'Descriptive Sociology.'
Several portraits of Spencer are in existence. That by Sir Hubert von Herkomer, painted when Spencer was seventy-seven and had just completed the 'Synthetic Philosophy,' is at Edinburgh in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. The portrait by J. B. Burgess, painted in 1872, hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London, while the copy of it made by J. Hanson Walker is in the Public Library of Derby. In the Derby Museum there is a plaster cast of his hands, and several relics. The marble bust made by Sir Edgar Boehm in 1884 is in the National Portrait Gallery. A bronze bust by E. Onslow Ford was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1897. Mrs. Meinertzhagen owns a portrait painted by Miss Alice Grant in the last year of Spencer's life, mainly from photographs taken in 1898. A cartoon portrait by ’C. G.' appeared in 'Vanity Fair' in 1879.
In appearance Spencer betokened nothing of his years of invalidism. He was 5 ft. 10 in. in height, of almost ruddy complexion, but thin and spare. His face with unwrinkled forehead showed no effects of his long life of thought, and his walk and general bearing were vigorous. Naturally of a robust constitution, he never lost a tooth, and his eyes were so strong throughout life that he never had to wear spectacles for reading. The damage to his nervous system was displayed by his irritability in later life, his morbid fear of misrepresentation, and various eccentricities which gave rise to many false and exaggerated stories. Among the peculiarities which nervous invalidism wrought in him was the use of ear-stoppers, with which he closed his ears when an exciting conversation to which he was listening threatened him with a sleepless night. The extreme originality of mind and contempt of authority, the habit of driving principles to their minutest applications, naturally gave rise to eccentricities, but these toned down in later life.
Although predominantly intellectual, he showed an emotional side, especially in his strong affection for his father. Throughout the greater part of his life he was obsessed by the execution of the 'Synthetic Philosophy,' which absorbed the main intellectual and emotional powers of his mind. One of his least pleasant traits was the tendency to assert his own priority in scientific and philosophic ideas. The claim was never made unjustly, but the animosity with which he defended it showed, as in the case of Newton, that the mere advancement of knowledge was not his sole end. He persistently declined all honours, academic or otherwise. The list of those offered is detailed in Duncan's ’Life' (App. D), but it would undoubtedly have been much longer had not his rule of refusing them become generally known.
Spencer's place in the history of thought must be ranked high. His influence in the latter half of the nineteenth century was immense : indeed it has so woven itself into our modern methods of thinking that its driving and revolutionary energy is nearly spent, and there is little likelihood of its being hereafter renewed. It was the best synthesis of the knowledge of his times ; and by that very fact was from the beginning destined to be replaced and to lose much of its utility when new branches of knowledge were opened up. The central doctrines of the philosophy were, in its social side, individualism and opposition to war ; on its scientific side, evolution and the explanation of phenomena from the materialistic standpoint. It has been said that the advancement of knowledge depends mainly on interrogating nature in the right way. Spencer may be said to have nearly always asked nature the right questions ; but not infrequently his answers to the questions were wrong. He concentrated the attention of mankind on the problems of fundamental importance. The main deficiency of his reasoning was a too free use of the deductive method, more especially in his biological and sociological writings, where this method is always attended by grave dangers. Huxley correctly singled out Spencer's weakness when he laughingly said that Spencer's definition of a tragedy was the spectacle of a deduction killed by a fact.
Spencer's fame extended far throughout the world. In France, Russia, and other European nations he was widely studied. In America his books had a very large circulation, and his fame was certainly not less than in England. During the awakening of Japan, he was one of the authors most studied by the young Japanese ; and probably his opinion was held in higher esteem than that of any other foreign writer whatever. His works were also held in high esteem by the Indian nationalists ; and, shortly after his death, one of them, Mr. Shyamaji Krishna varma, founded a 'Herbert Spencer Lectureship' at Oxford University, by which a sum of not less than 20l. a year was to be paid to the annually appointed lecturer.
The following is a summary of his philosophical works : —
'First Principles' is divided into two parts, of which the first, or metaphysical part, is an attempt at a reconciliation between science and religion by postulating a belief in the 'Unknowable,' as the cause and origin of all phenomenal existence. The doctrine has found scarcely more favour on the side of science than it has on the side of religion, and may be regarded as the least important part of the philosophy. Part ii. sets forth the fundamental principles of the 'Synthetic Philosophy,' as Spencer has named his system. Defining the business of philosophy as the formulation of truths which hold good for all orders of phenomena, as distinct from those of the special sciences, which hold good only for limited departments, he founds his system upon the physical principles of the indestructibility of matter, and the continuity of motion, unified under the general heading of the Persistence of Force. From this is deduced the Uniformity of Law. Spencer then proceeds, in his attempt at the unification of knowledge, to seek for a law of the continuous redistribution of matter and motion, as comprising every department of the 'Knowable.' He finally reaches his famous law : — Evolution is an integration of matter and concomitant dissipation of motion ; during which the matter passes from a relatively indefinite, incoherent homogeneity to a relatively definite, coherent heterogeneity ; and during which the contained motion undergoes a parallel transformation. Evolution is supplemented by the reverse process of Dissolution ; and these formulas express the law of the entire cycle of changes passed through by every existence and at every instant, with no limitations of time or space. Evolution, however, tends ultimately to equilibrium, in which the incessant changes come to an end.
In 'The Principles of Biology 'Spencer applied the law of evolution to animate existence. He defined life in the same manner as in his 'Principles of Psychology.' As factors of evolution he not only named natural selection, or (to use Spencer's own term) survival of the fittest, but he argued strongly in favour of the direct modification of organisms by the environmental action, and also in favour of the inheritance of functionally-produced modifications. In this latter belief he is at variance with the best, though not the unanimous, opinion of modern biologists. In the second volume he promulgated the interesting theory that the shapes of animals and plants are an expression of the environmental forces which act upon them. He sets forth also his well-known law of the antagonism between individuation and reproduction. His attempt to facilitate the comprehension of heredity by supposing the existence of 'constitutional units' (first named physiological units) has attracted wide attention, and is probably not very remote from the truth.
'The Principles of Psychology' was materialistic in its general point of view for, although Spencer emphatically affirmed the existence of mind and its total distinction from matter, yet his efforts were devoted to interpreting mental manifestations by reference to physical and chemical laws. He defined life as 'the continuous adjustment of internal relations to external relations' and argued that the degree of life was proportional to the degree of correspondence between these two sets of relations. The development of memory, instinct, &c., was explained on the very questionable hypothesis that the results upon an organism of the direct action of the environment could be transmitted to its descendants. But although this attempted explanation cannot stand, it is remarkable that an evolutionary basis is given to the whole work, of which the first edition had appeared four years before Darwin published his great book. In the analytical portions he attributes all acts of intelligence to the variously compounded consciousnesses of relations of likeness and unlikeness. Finally he sets forth his famous ' Universal Postulate 'to the effect that the criterion of the truth of a proposition is the inconceivability of its negation. Opinion still differs as to the merits of many parts of this work. Doubtless much of the detail and some of the principles are erroneous ; but much has become generally accepted ; and in view of the state of knowledge at the time when it was written, it must be considered a masterpiece.
'The Principles of Sociology' begins by an exposition of the so-called 'Ghost Theory,' in which Spencer regards all primitive mythological beliefs as modified forms of ancestor-worship. In the part dealing with 'The Inductions of Sociology' he minutely draws the analogy between the social and physical organism. The remaining volumes of the work deal with ceremonial institutions, political institutions, ecclesiastical institutions, professional institutions, industrial institutions. The general result is to distinguish between two main types of society, the militant resting on a basis of status, and the industrial resting on a basis of contract.
'The Principles of Ethics ' was considered by Spencer as the flower of the whole philosophy. His system is hedonistic, in so far as it regards happiness as the object to be attaint ; it is evolutionary, in so far as it represents that evolution is carrying us to a state in which happiness will far exceed what we now experience. The utilitarians are attacked on the ground that, in their enthusiasm for altruism, they attach insufficient importance to a ational egoism. In the second volume, part iv., 'Justice,' is Spencer's final and most philosophic statement of the duties of the state. As in his earliest book, he limits state-functions to the maintenance of justice at home, and the repelling of aggression abroad. His formula of justice is stated by him in the words: 'Every man is free to do that which he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man.' Two further divisions indicate the duties of men towards one another, which are not, however, to be enforced by law.
The following is a list of the volumes published by Spencer: 1. 'Social Statics,' 1850; abridged and revised edition (together with 'The Man versus The State'), 1892. 2. 'The Principles of Psychology,' 1 vol. 1855; 2nd edit. vol. i. 1870, vol. ii. 1872; 4th edit. 1899. 3. 'Essays,' 1st series, 1857; 2nd series, 1863; 3rd series, 1874; American reprints of the first two series; final edit, (in three volumes) 1891. 4. 'Education,' 1861; cheap reprint, 1878. 5. 'First Principles,' 1862; 6th edit. 1900; 3rd impression, 1910. 'The Principles of Biology,' vol. i. 1864, vol. ii. 1867; revised and enlarged edit. vol. i. 1898, vol. iL 1899. 7. 'The Study of Sociology ('International Scientific Series'), 1873; library edit. 1880. 8. 'The Principles of Sociology,' vol. i. 1876; 3rd edit. 1885; part iv. 'Ceremonial Institutions,' 1879; part v. 'Political Institutions,' 1882; parts iv. and v. were subsequently bound together to form vol. ii. of 'The Principles of Sociology,' 1882; part vi. 'Ecclesiastical Institutions,' 1885; part vi. was subsequently bound up with two further divisions and issued as vol iii. of 'The Principles of Sociology' in 1896. 9. 'The Principles of Ethics': part i. 'The Data of Ethics,' 1879; new edit. 1906; part i. was afterwards bound up with two more divisions to form vol. i. of 'The Principles of Ethics,' 1892; part iv. 'Justice,' 1891; part iv. was similarly bound up subsequently with two more divisions and issued as vol. ii. of 'The Principles of Ethics' in 1893. 10. 'The Man versus The State,' 1884; 2nd edit, (bound together with 'Social Statics') 1892. 11. 'The Nature and Reality of Religion,' 1885. This work, published in America, embodied a controversy on the Positivist religion that had taken place between Spencer and Mr. Frederic Harrison. Owing to copyright difficulties raised by Mr. Harrison, Spencer suppressed the book soon after its publication. It was however reissued the same year without his knowledge under the title 'The Insuppressible Book.' 12. 'Various Fragments,' 1897; enlarged edit. 1900. One of these 'fragments,' entitled 'Against the Metric System' (1896), was reissued separately in 1904 with additions, under a provision in Spencer's will. 13. 'Facts and Comments,' 1902. 14. 'Autobiography,' 1904. Portions of various of these works are on sale separately. 'Education,' 'Man versus the State,' 'Social Statics,' and 'Selected Essays' have been issued in sixpenny editions by the RationaUst Press Association, while the trustees contemplate the issue of a complete popular edition of Spencer's 'Philosophy,' and have already published shilling editions of 'First Principles,' 2 vols., 'Education,' and 'The Data of Ethics.' In addition to the above list of works, Spencer issued during his lifetime eight instalments of the 'Descriptive Sociology,' viz.: No. 1, 'English,' 1873; No. 2, 'Ancient Mexicans, Central Americans, Chibchas, and Ancient Peruvians,' 1874; No. 3, 'Types of Lowest Races, Negritto Races, and Malayo-Polynesian Races,' 1874; No. 4, 'African Races,' 1875; No. 5, 'Asiatic Races,' 1876; No. 6, 'American Races,' 1878; No. 7, 'Hebrews and Phoenicians,' 1880; No. 8, 'French,' 1881. Since Spencer's death further instalments have been issued, and No. 9, 'Chinese,' and No. 10, 'Greeks: Hellenic Era,' appeared in 1910. The series is now in regular progress, the intention being to bring the number to some 24 parts. Spencer reissued his father's 'Inventional Geometry' with a preface in 1892; and he also published his father's 'System of Lucid Shorthand' in 1893.