Spencer, Herbert
(1820–1903)
English philosopher of evolution. Spencer was born in Derby of radical Wesleyan parents, and suffered a sporadic education, leaving him largely self-taught. His early individualism is recorded in the story that, having been sent to school with an uncle in Somerset at the age of thirteen, he ran away, returning to Derby in three days, by walking 48 miles the first day, 47 the second, and about 20 the third, with little food and no sleep. He became involved in radical politics, and from 1848 worked in London on the journal the Economist, becoming known in literary circles, and narrowly failing to become a suitor of the novelist George Eliot. His health growing precarious, he lived on small legacies and then on the considerable proceeds of his writings. His first major work was the book Social Statics (1851), which advocates an extreme political libertarianism . The Principles of Psychology was published in 1855, and his very influential Education advocating natural development of intelligence, the creation of pleasurable interest, and the importance of science in the curriculum, appeared in 1861. In 1857 he began to plan a vast system of philosophy, which, after Darwin's publication of the Origin of Species in 1859, turned into a scheme for a synthesis of the whole of scientific knowledge based upon the principles of evolution. His First Principles (1862) was followed over the succeeding years by volumes on the Principles of biology, psychology (recasting the earlier work of the same title), sociology, and ethics. Although he attracted a large public following and attained the stature of a sage, his speculative work has not lasted well, and in his own time there were dissident voices. T. H. Huxley said that Spencer's definition of a tragedy was a deduction killed by a fact; Carlyle called him a perfect vacuum, and James wondered why half of England wanted to bury him in Westminster Abbey, and talks of the ‘hurdy-gurdy monotony of him…his whole system wooden, as if knocked together out of cracked hemlock boards’ (Pragmatism, p. 39).

Philosophy dictionary. . 2011.

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