Herbert Spencer and 'Inevitable' Progress

A look into some of the most influential philosophers of the Victorian era.

It is hard to recapture the power of Herbert Spencer's ideas and easy to mock him. At the height of his influence more than a million volumes of his writings were in print and there were editions in all the major, and many minor, languages. He was offered – and declined – honours all over the world. One of America's leading industrialists, the Scottish emigré Andrew Carnegie, began his frequent letters to Spencer, 'Dear Master Teacher'.

Yet when I began doing historical research in the early 1960s, and was beginning my own library of primary sources, the books which were easiest to find and to obtain within my self- imposed limit of fifteen shillings, were those self-same volumes of his great work, The Synthetic Philosophy. The secondhand shops were full of the various editions of these and his other writings. Spencer's best biographer, J. DY'. Peel, explains the decline in Spencer's reputation:
At a time of unprecedented, seemingly uncontrolled and terrifying change, Spencer reassured the bewildered by interpreting the transition that man experienced and setting it within a larger arc of change covering all nature.

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