Herbert Spencer

The Work

HerbertSpencer was a theorist whose valuable insights have often been drownedin a sea of irrelevance and specious reasoning. What is relevant in hiswork will therefore have to be selected in a manner recommended byRichard Hofstadter when he wrote about Frederick Jackson Turner, "Themost valid procedure with a historical thinker of his kind is not to tryto have sport with his marginal failings but to rescue whatever isviable by cutting out what has proved wrong, tempering what isoverstated, tightening what is loosely put, and setting the whole in itsproper place among usable perspectives." This account of Spencer'swork will be severely selective. Here, as elsewhere in this book, onlythe writer's sociological contributions, and among these only thecentral ones, will be considered. Spencer's general metaphysics, orantimetaphysics, will be touched upon only tangentially. This is allthe easier since critics now seem to be of the opinion that deep downSpencer was a rather shallow philosopher.

Some historians ofsociology tend to see Spencer as a continuator of Comte's organicist andevolutionary approach. Although Spencer seems to have protested toomuch in disclaiming any profound influence of Comte's thought on hisown, it is true that his general orientation differs significantly fromComte's. Spencer described their different approaches in this way:

What is Comte's professed aim? To give a coherent account of theprogress of human conceptions. What is my aim? To give acoherent account of the progress of the external world.Comteproposes to describe the necessary, and the actual, filiation of ideas. I propose to describe the necessary, and the actual, filiation of things. Comte professes to interpret the genesis of our knowledge of nature. My aim is to interpret . . . the genesis of the phenomena whichconstitute nature, The one is subjective. The other is objective..

Comte was, of course, not only interested in the development of ideasbut also in the correlative changes in social organization, and he dealtwith social order as well as with progress. Nevertheless, Spencercorrectly perceived the essential differences between them. Spencer'sfirst and foremost concern was with evolutionary changes in socialstructures and social institutions rather than with the attendant mentalstates. To Spencer, like to Marx, ideas were epiphenomenal. "Theaverage opinion in every age and country," he writes, "is a function ofthe social structure in that age and country."

Evolution, thatis, "a change from a state of relatively indefinite, incoherent,homogeneity to a state of relatively definite, coherent,heterogeneity," was to Spencer that universal process, which explainsalike both the "earliest changes which the universe at large is supposedto have undergone . . . and those latest changes which we trace insociety and the products of social life." Once this master key to theriddles of the universe is used, it becomes apparent, Spencer argued,that the evolution of human societies, far from being different fromother evolutionary phenomena, is but a special case of a universallyapplicable natural law. Sociology can become a science only when it isbased on the idea of natural, evolutionary law. "There can be nocomplete acceptance of sociology as a science, so long as the belief ina social order not conforming to natural law, survives."

It isaxiomatic to Spencer that ultimately all aspects of the universe,whether organic or inorganic, social or nonsocial, are subject to thelaws os evolution. His sociological reflections concentrate, however,on the parallels between organic and social evolution, betweensimilarities in the structure and evolution of organic and social units. Biological analogies occupy a privileged position in all of Spencer'ssociological reasoning, although he was moved to draw attention to thelimitations of such analogies. Because Spencer was a radicalindividualist, organic analogies caused him some sociological andphilosophical difficulties, which Comte, with his collective philosophy,was spared.

Spencer's most fruitful use of organic analogies washis notion that with evolutionary growth come changes in any unit'sstructure and functions, that increases in size bring in their wakeincreases in differentiation. What he had in mind here, to use a homelyexample, is the idea that if men were suddenly to grow to the size ofelephants, only major modifications in their bodily structures wouldallow them to continue being viable organisms.

From Coser, 1977:89-90.


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