Herbert Spencer: The Philosopher of Evolution

Engineer, journalist, inventor, Herbert Spencer became one of the most influential prophets of the Victorian Age. J.W. Burrow describes how his Synthetic Philosophy was an encyclopedic attempt to construct a system of “unified knowledge,” in which the facts of Darwinian natural science were blended with transcendental metaphysics.

Probably no playwright today, however addicted to voluminous stage-directions, would furnish his character’s study, except as a surrealist fantasy, with a bust of Herbert Spencer. Bernard Shaw does just this in the stage-directions to Man and Superman, and means something by it.

Doubtless few of Shaw’s readers had actually read the enormous volumes of the Synthetic Philosophy, but the name of their author was part of the general currency of culture; his bust symbolized a set of attitudes which would be recognized, though the intention was now to laugh at them. Spencer himself died later in the same year (1903), bitterly conscious that his influence and prestige were waning.

His present oblivion makes it difficult to appreciate how great that prestige had been. He had refused innumerable honorary degrees, it being against his principles to accept them. In America his philosophy, industriously propagated by publicists like Fiske and Youmans, had penetrated the universities; it was even seriously suggested that if the South had read Spencer there would have been no Civil War.

His Principles of Biology made Darwin feel “that he is about a dozen times my superior”; and he thought Spencer might one day be regarded as the equal of Descartes and Leibniz, rather spoiling the effect by adding characteristically “about whom, however, I know very little.”

His works were translated into Oriental as well as European languages; and he had achieved the final distinction of a nineteenth-century liberal when a student in St. Petersburg was arrested for possessing a copy of Social Statics.

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