“Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) was an English philosopher and sociologist who defended liberalism from the perspective of social Darwinism. His theories significantly influenced the economy and the theories of twentieth-century government.”
We will see below a biography of Herbert Spencer, as well as his main works and contributions.
Herbert Spencer: biography of this English sociologist
Herbert Spencer was born on April 27, 1820 in Derbyshire, England. Son of the professor and dissident of the Christianity William George Spencer, Herbert Spencer was formed of self-taught way in natural sciences from very young.
He is recognized as one of the most representative intellectuals of the Victorian era, as well as one of the leading exponents of the theories of evolution applied to sociology, and individualism. With a strong conviction, Spencer defended the importance of examining social phenomena from a scientific perspective.
On the other hand, in the pedagogical area Spencer emphasized the importance of personal development, attention and empathy on the part of instructors, observation and problem solving, physical exercise and free play, as well as the learning derived from directly experimenting the natural consequences of the acts (beyond the punishments imposed by the teachers).
His philosophy had an important impact on the justification of the minimum participation of the state in the economy, which in turn promoted competition between individuals and a gradual improvement of society through the survival of the fittest.
Herbert Spencer died on December 8, 1903 in Brighton, Sussex in England.
Sociological perspective: evolution and individualism
Herbert Spencer argued that social evolution occurs through a process of individuation, that is, through the differentiation and development of human beings as individuals. For him, human societies had evolved through a gradual process of division of labor that had converted them from “primitive” groups to complex civilizations.
To argue the above, he made important comparisons between animal organisms and human societies. He concluded that in both there was a regulatory system: for animals a nervous system and for human societies government structures. There was also a support system, which in the first case was food and the second was industrial activity.
They also shared a distribution system, which for the animal organisms was the circulatory system, and in human societies were the communication systems and the means of transport. Thus, what differentiated animal organisms from human societies was that the former exist as a whole, as a unified consciousness; while the latter, consciousness exists only in each group member.
From this Spencer develops a theory about individualism and individuation. In the framework of liberal philosophy, Spencer argues that individualism, as a personal development of the human being as an autonomous member and differentiated from the rest, is closer to civilized societies, unlike other societies such as the military or industrial companies where it favors despotism and hinders the individual development of each consciousness.
In addition, the development of 19th-century English industrial society, according to Spencer, was developing a new Taylorism and preparing society for new forms of slavery in the future. He proposed in this sense to recover the old function of liberalism, which was to limit the power of kings, and at this time could be directed to limit the parliaments.
Spencer’s social Darwinism
Under this idea of individualism, Spencer advocates to allow each member of society to develop as well as possible as a competent member of it, and thus, those who were more apt or talented would be those who would be successful and better adapted. For this reason, his theory is frequently located in the line of social Darwinism, an issue that was gradually criticized by the consequences of widespread poverty of growing industrial capitalism.
However, his proposals were also taken up later by philosophers with similar lines, who found arguments to criticize the welfare state that developed after the war.
Among his most representative works are Social Statics of 1851, and Synthetic Philosophy of 1896. Also his works Principles of Psychology, of 1855, First Principles, of 1862, Principles of Sociology, Descriptive Sociology, and Man Against the State, of 1884 .
Between 1841 and 1845 he published The Right Sphere of Government, while collaborating as a journalist specializing in economics and sociology in The nonconformist, where he held the responsibility of governments in the defense of natural rights; and also in The Zoist and Pilot, with themes dedicated to the science of the moment and the suffrage movements. Finally he participated as sub-editor of The Economist, a position he resigned in 1853.