Herbert Spencer

Born in Derby, England, Herbert Spencer was raised in an atmosphere of religious dissent and staunch individualism. During his childhood and adolescence, Spencer was influenced largely by the Quakers and the Unitarians of the Derby Philosophical Society. His father and uncle also held strong anti-clerical and anti-establishment views. Spencer was formally trained as a civil engineer but soon began to be interested in the those intellectual pursuits which we today might term the social sciences. It was Spencer who first published a theory of evolution and coined the term "survival of the fittest"--not Charles Darwin as many people today assume. Spencer's early works, such as Social Statics, or the Conditions Essential to Human Happiness, were concerned with the notion of civil liberties and the progression of human rights viewed through the lens of early evolutionary theory. Spencer's work was therefore largely influenced by his ideas on the evolution of human beings' physical body as well as their mind. In his largest work, A System of Synthetic Philosophy, Spencer applies his evolutionary theory to account for many aspects of human culture and its development over time. For instance, human nature, according to Spencer, is not contained within a group of essential characteristics; instead, it is based upon an ever changing and evolving set of social circumstances. Several of his volumes are included within A System of Synthetic Philosophy, which discusses such topics as biology, psychology, sociology, and ethics--all of which, Spencer believed, can be explained by appealing to one unifying theory (that of evolution)--a prime example of nineteenth-century reductionism.

Major Works

Social Statics, or the Conditions Essential to Human Happiness Specified

The Classification of the Sciences (1864)

The Man versus the State (1884)

A System of Synthetic Philosophy (1910; multi-volume work)


"And now, we have prepared ourselves, so far as may be, for understanding primitive ideas. We have seen that a true interpretation of these must be one which recognizes their naturalness under the conditions. The mind of the savage, like the mind of the civilized, proceeds by classing objects and relations with their likes in past experience. In the absence of adequate mental power, there results simple and vague classings of objects by conspicuous likenesses, and of actions by conspicuous likenesses; and hence come crude notions, too simple and too few in their kinds, to represent the facts. Further, these crude notions are inevitably inconsistent to an extreme degree."

- from Herbert Spencer, The Principles of Sociology (1899)

Select Web Resources on Spencer

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Herbert Spencer

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Herbert Spencer

The Victorian Web: Herbert Spencer

Secondary Literature on Spencer and Religion

Eric J. Sharpe, Comparative Religion: A History, pp. 32-5. Open Court Press, 1986.

Brian Morris, Anthropological Studies of Religion: An Introductory Text. Chapter 3. Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Walter H. Capps, Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline, pp. 74-8. Fortress Press, 1995.

Garry W. Trompf, "Spencer, Herbert," The Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd edition. vol. 13, pp. 8678-8679. Macmillan Reference USA, 2005.

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