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Herbert Spencer


Herbert Spencer

Herbert Spencer

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Best Known For:

  • Developing and applying evolutionary theory to philosophy, psychology and the study of society.
  • Helping to develop the functionalist perspective, one of the major theoretical frameworks in sociology.
  • His political thoughts, primarily his defense of natural rights and for criticisms of utilitarian positivism.


Herbert Spencer was born April 27, 1820.


He died December 8, 1903.

Early Life and Education:

Herbert Spencer was born in Derby, England. He was the eldest of nine children, but the only one to survive infancy. Spencer's father was a school teacher, however he was very unconventional and Herbert therefore received a largely informal and undisciplined education. Spencer had many eclectic interests and eventually trained as a civil engineer for railways. In his early 20s, however, he turned to journalism and political writing.

Career and Later Life:

From 1848 to 1853, Spencer worked as a writer and subeditor for The Economist financial weekly. In his early writings, Spencer defended a number of radical causes, particularly on land nationalization, the extent to which economics should reflect a policy of laissez-faire, and the place and role of women in society. He eventually came to abandon most of these causes later in his life.

In 1851 Spencer wrote his first book, Social Statics: The Conditions Essential to Human Happiness. 'Social statics' is a term that Spencer borrowed from Auguste Comte, which deals with the conditions of social order. In Social Statics, Spencer predicted that humanity would eventually become completely adapted to the requirements of living in society with the consequential withering away of the state.

Spencer's uncle died in 1853, leaving him a small inheritance which allowed him to devote himself to writing without depending on regular employment. In 1855, Spencer published his second book, The Principles of Psychology, which was much less successful than his first book. It was about this time that Spencer also began experiencing serious mental health problems, which would affect him for the remainder of his life. Because of this, he sought privacy and rarely went out in public. He was also limited in terms of how much work he could do and was only able to write for a few hours each day. He thus embarked on a lengthy project, which was the nine-volume A System of Synthetic Philosophy, which he wrote between 1862 and 1893. In it, he provided a systematic account of his views in biology, sociology, ethics and politics and presented his idea that societies are organisms that progress through a process of evolution similar to that experienced by living species, a concept known to as social darwinism.

Among many of the honors he was given, Spencer was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1902. He declined most of the honors he was given.

Major Publications

  • Social Statics: The Conditions Essential to Human Happiness (1850)
  • Education (1854)
  • The Principles of Psychology (1855)
  • The Principles of Sociology (1876-1896)
  • The Data of Ethics (1884)
  • The Man Versus the State (1884)


Sweet, W. (2004). Herbert Spencer. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/spencer/

Johnson, A. (1995). The Blackwell Dictionary of Sociology. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers.

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