COMPANION

Herbert Spencer

Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), influential English philosopher and prominent liberal political theorist. He is quoted by F. M. Alexander.

Herbert Spencer’s work and philosophy

Herbert Spencer espoused a philosophy of inevitable progression and positivism with a belief in a unity of scientific method, a belief in natural law governing everything including human thinking and behaviour.

Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics (1851) expounded the idea of social evolution as increasing individualism, and this theme was repeated throughout his System of Synthetic Philosophy. The aim of this grand scheme was to reconcile and synthesize science, religion and ethics in a systematic philosophy of ‘everything’. In First Principles (1862) he viewed philosophy itself as the intellectual discipline which could unify the key principles of all the sciences. The principles of individual sciences were dealt with in the following works: ‘Principles of…’: ‘…Biology’ (2 vols. 1864–67), ‘…Psychology’ (1855), ‘…Sociology’ (3 vols. 1876–96), and ‘…Ethics’, (2 vols. 182–93). In Spencer’s work evolution is equated with progress and, applied to humans, means increasing ‘individuation’ and self-improvement. Spencer coined the popular maxim of Darwinism, ‘survival of the fittest,’ and was, in fact, the proponent of what was later termed social Darwinism: an extreme laissez-faire policy aimed at allowing individuals to compete freely, unhampered by any social legislation. Spencer expressed the hopes and aspirations of a rapidly changing society, and he became one of the great exponents of ‘Victorian optimism’ – a belief which equated change with progress, and which held that science could be applied to behaviour guaranteeing social improvement. Education (1861) advocated the teaching of science and freedom of initiative for the pupil; (Alexander may have read this book – it is quoted in MSI). His philosophy of education was progressive and inspired other progressive educationalists.

Spencer enjoyed recognition from the 1860s until the 1880s after which scientific evidence increasingly undermined his philosophy. When Thomas Huxley said that Spencer’s idea of a tragedy was ‘a deduction killed by a fact,’ he drew attention to Spencer’s intellectual methodology which consisted of collecting and employing only those facts which would support his grand hypothesis, ignoring everything else. However, as a popularizer of science and evolution who attempted to examine social phenomena in a scientific way, his influence was substantial, and many of his books remained in print until the 1940s. In particular, his most influential contributions were to the disciplines of sociology and anthropology which continued to rely on an evolutionary framework until the beginning of the 20th century.[1] [2] [3] [4]

Alexander quoting Spencer

Alexander quoted Spencer several times and referred, with some admiration, to First Principles in MSI,[5] and Alexander’s scientific and evolutionary framework shows a Spencerian influence. However, Alexander didn’t need to read Spencer for this: Spencer’s ideas were quoted and developed by many other people.[6]

Alexander first quoted Spencer in his 1907 pamphlet, ‘The Theory and Practice of a New Method of Respiratory Re-Education’:

Whoever hesitates to utter that which he thinks the highest truth, lest it should be too much in advance of the time, may reassure himself by looking at his acts from an impersonal point of view. . . .  It is not for nothing that he has in him these sympathies with some principles and repugnance to others. He, with all his capacities, and aspirations, and beliefs, is not an accident, but a product of the time. He must remember that while he is a descendant of the past he is a parent of the future; and that his thoughts are as children born to him, which he may not carelessly let die.

Herbert Spencer [7] [8]

The following quote by Herbert Spencer is quoted twice, in the 1907 pamphlet, ‘The Theory and Practice of a New Method of Respiratory Re-Education’ and in MSI:

Each faculty acquires fitness for its function by performing its function; and if its function is performed for it by a substituted agency, none of the required adjustment of nature takes place, but the nature becomes deformed to fit the artificial arrangements instead of the natural arrangements.

Herbert Spencer[9] [10] [11]

These two quotes by Herbert Spencer appear in MSI:

If we contemplate the method of Nature, we see that everywhere vast results are brought about by accumulating minute actions.

Herbert Spencer[12] [13]

(Note the actual quote in Spencer’s The Study of Sociology is: ‘If we contemplate the order of nature, we see that everywhere vast results are brought about by accumulations of minute actions.’ The chapters were first published in periodicals and revised by Spencer for the book version, and Alexander’s source for the quote is not known.)

In what way to treat the body; in what way to treat the mind; in what way to manage our affairs; in what way to bring up a family; in what way to behave as a citizen; in what way to utilize those sources of happiness which nature supplies—how to use all our faculties to the greatest advantage . . . ; how to live completely? And this, being the great thing needful for us to learn, is, by consequence, the great thing which education has to teach. To prepare us for complete living is the function which education has to discharge.

Herbert Spencer, Education.[14] [15]

And Alexander refers to Spencer again elsewhere in MSI:

Could Spencer have written his First Principles, or Darwin his Descent of Man, if either had been forced to any rigid narrowing effort in order to keep his mind on the subject in hand?[16]

Herbert Spencer *27 April 1820 – †8 December 1903.

References

[1] Entry on Herbert Spencer in The Encyclopaedia Britannica 15th edition (1989).
[2] Herbert Spencer, Political Writings, John Offer (ed.) (1994), pp. vii–xxix.
[3] S. Kunitz (ed.), British Authors of the Nineteenth Century (1936), pp. 578–580.
[4] Justin Wintle (ed.), Makers of Nineteenth Century Culture (1982), pp. 583–586.
[5] Man’s Supreme Inheritance by F. Matthias Alexander (Chaterson, 1946), p. 62.
[6] Articles and Lectures by F. Matthias Alexander, edited by Jean M. O. Fischer (Mouritz, 1995), endnote 62, p. 277–78.
[7] Quoted in ‘The Theory and Practice of a New Method of Respiratory Re-Education’ by F. M. Alexander quoted in Man’s Supreme Inheritance by F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 1996), p. 195.
[8] A System of Synthetic Philosophy, First Principles, Volume 1 by Herbert Spencer (Williams And Norgate, London, 1863), p. 123.
[9] Quoted in ‘The Theory and Practice of a New Method of Respiratory Re-Education’ by F. M. Alexander quoted in Man’s Supreme Inheritance by F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 1996), p. 200.
[10] Quoted in Man’s Supreme Inheritance by F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 1996), p. 59.
[11] The Principles of Ethics (D. Appleton and Company, New York, 1900) by Herbert Spencer, p. 259.
[12] Quoted in Man’s Supreme Inheritance by F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 1996), p. 203.
[13] The Study of Sociology by Herbert Spencer (D. Appleton and Company, New York, 1896), pp. 366-67.
[14] Quoted in Man’s Supreme Inheritance by F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 1996), p. 67.
[15] ‘What knowledge is of most worth?’ (1859) in Essays on Education and Kindred Subjects (1861, 1911) by Herbert Spencer.
[16] Man’s Supreme Inheritance by F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 1996), p. 63.
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