|There are other philosophers?? Wow...|
No, but seriously, folks, it's great to be here, tonight. Let me tell you about my favorite philosopher, Herbert Spencer.
Herbert Spencer: Recovery of a Lost Resource
By Michael E. Marotta
SOCL 640: Advanced Sociologicall Theory
Dr. Robert Orrange
March 2, 2009
Herbert Spencer’s massive three-volume Principles of Sociology was only a subset of a much larger Principles of Synthetic Philosophy, sold originally by subscription. (Wiltshire 59) The project began in 1860 and ended in 1896. The first volume in book form came out in 1873. It is also arguable that the subject is “sociology” as opposed to “anthropology.” In truth, Spencer provided a broad and deep comparative sociology that examined domestic, political, ecclesiastic, professional and industrial institutions across the fullest possible range of recorded human societies.
The more portable and tractable Study of Sociology in a single volume also began as a series of installments, this time in an American magazine, Popular Science Monthly, from May, 1872 to October 1873, after which it appeared in book form.
Spencer says that it is a superstition to attribute the creation of the solar system, plants and animals to God. (29) He goes on to say that it is also superstitious to claim that great men make societies. “Before he can remake his society, his society must make him.” (31) Even if we grant that a “great man” has certain attributes by birth, he is “powerless in the absence of the material and mental accumulations which his society inherits from the past, and he is powerless in the absence of the co-existing population, character, intelligence, and social arrangements.” (31) Spencer warns his reader against the self-serving distortions of business, politics, and religion. (84)
Like Marx, Spencer saw an evolutionary pattern in human society. Like Marx, he identified the source of social stratification in that evolution. Unlike Marx, Spencer regarded this evolution as neutral or benign, a fact of nature, no different from sunspots. For Marx, the model was metaphysical: the dialectic materialism of thesis-antithesis-synthesis that underlies and powers the physical world. As an economist, Marx explained all human relations in terms of the modes of production. For Spencer, the model was biological: living entities respond to their environments by processes of differentiation and specialization. Spencer considered societies to be analogous to plants and animals because societies are comprised of living things. “The nature of the aggregate depends on the nature of the unit.” (43; 44; 45)
Structures begin with a heterogenous and generalized stage: At first, the chief of a tribe may have a higher perceived status but will still fashion his own weapons and directly manage his own affairs. As this “operative” function meets more complex demands, it differentiates into “regulative” structures: priest, captain, judge, warrior; with further differentiation and specialization within each. (55-56) But Spencer does not stop there. He asks the cogent questions. It is not that structure supports growth, but that structure is complete with the arrest of growth. (57) And he offers evidence. In the United Kingdom, rails were narrow gauge because they evolved from carriage stagecoaches and the roads along which they ran. However, in the U.S. there was no prior infrastructure of coaches and roads, so rails here could be of wider gauge. A city sewage system, once in place, is impossible to replace. A functioning national educational system prevents different kinds of educational systems from being created. (58-62)
Throughout all of this and beyond, Spencer is fully aware of the limitations of his model and of sociology as a science. He points out that meteorology tells us that summer is warmer than winter, and yet we still may need to light a fire for heat in July. Geology and even astronomy are established and general and yet often inexact. (34-35) So, too, do biology and ultimately sociology “yield much less definite results.” (91)
Spencer’s Study of Sociology devotes several chapters to these “difficulties” of prejudice. Having ignored his work, we think that our problems are new and unique. In discussing just that prejudice, Spencer says ironically that up until the 18th century, illiteracy was a “virtue” in the upper classes. However, from 1771-1781 the first Quaker schools were established for commoners. In his time, public funding for education in the United Kingdom rose from £20 thousand per annum in 1834 to £1 million 30 years later–“and it is claimed that we are perishing for lack of education.” The lack of results from a 5000% increase in public spending on education over the course of a generation could be from today’s news. In other words, what happens directly to us takes on greater importance only by proximity, a caution still found in today’s textbooks.
In short, as the roles of society differentiate, each becomes mutually dependent on the other. The farmer depends on the warrior to defend him. The guardian gets his weapons from a smith who wears the product of a weaver, and so on. Moreover, we evolve different kinds of farming, soldiering, merchandizing, etc. In this light, it is more useful to understand Spencer as a structural-functionalist. Talcott Parsons made this point in the “Introduction” to the 1961 reprint of The Study of Sociology by the University of Michigan Press.
To Marx, division of labor was the root of alienation. To Spencer, it was life itself. In the ultimate Marxist utopia, where everyone does everything, everyone is interchangeable. In the ultimate Spencerian utopia of differentiated function, each of us becomes irreplaceable … assuming that we are not weak, sick, stupid or lazy. Darwin got the phrase “survival of the fittest” from Spencer. Spencer opens The Study of Sociology by admonishing against charity.
In the chapter on Biology, Spencer returns to the argument that made him infamous.
Every further appliance for meeting an evil, every additional expenditure of effort, every extra tax to meet the cost of supervision, becomes a fresh obstacle to living. For always in a society where population is pressing on the means of subsistence, and where the efforts required to fulfil vital needs are so great that they here and there cause premature death, the powers of producers cannot be further strained by calling on them to support a new class of non producers without in some cases increasing the wear and tear to a fatal extent. (311) In other words, not only does charity reward the unproductive, it kills the goose that lays the golden egg. When we find it difficult to believe that taxation can bring the ruling class to starvation, we need to read the history of the U.S.S.R. In most times and places, of course, it is not the topmost who are jeopardized. The American social Darwinist Ayn Rand called it “sacrificing the underdog to the underdoggier.” Spencer’s original point in the first chapter of The Study of Sociology was that charity prevents enterprise because the money given to the poor is lost to investment. Therefore, future goods and services disappear. This is the unseen consequence of charity.
Spencer was all for industry and had no use for predation. In Social Statics, he condemned colonialism and imperialism.
Spencer’s faith is in moral character, not education. Emotions, not opinions, are the sources of our actions.
Spencer asks rhetorically what connection there can be between literacy and numeracy on the one hand, and morality on the other.
“What possible effect can acquirement of facility in making written signs of sounds have in strengthening the desire to do right? How does knowledge of the multiplication table or quickness in adding and dividing so increase the sympathies as to restrain the tendency to trespass against fellow creatures?” (331)Spencer’s eclipse came because he was never associated with any university, party or cause. Spencer seldom spoke in public. He sold his writings by subscription, so even though he had a printer, he was essentially self-published. Like Protagoras and the Sophists, he made a business out of teaching, though never in person. Turner and Peel both credit him with creating a research enterprise, a fact that we do not appreciate today. He employed college-trained young men to search the printed works of his time, and then to catalog according to his schema the facts they found. Yet, Spencer touched many lives. Andrew Carnegie wrote to him, calling him “Dear Teacher.”
We have lost an important resource. Does our global society evolve according to Spencer’s predictions? I believe that it does. Do other societies–nations, civic clubs–also evolve along these same lines? Again, I believe that Spencer provided useful tools. If Spencer were returned to the discursive space of sociology and given the voice he deserves, we would benefit in our analyses. More importantly, we would empower a new generation of enterprising intellectuals to open new frontiers.
Sources (Partial List)
Cooley, Charles H. 1920. “Reflections Upon the Sociology of Herbert Spencer.” The American Journal of Sociology 26: 129-145.
Haines, Valerie. 1977. “Spencer and His Critics,” Pp. 81-111 in Reclaiming the Sociological Classics: The State of the Scholarship, edited by Charles Camic, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
------. 1988. “Is Spencer’s Theory an Evolutionary Theory?” The American Journal of Sociology 93:1200-1223.
Peel, J. D. Y. 1971. Herbert Spencer: The Evolution of a Sociologist. New York: Basic Books.
Perrin, Robert G. 1976. “Herbert Spencer’s Four Theories of Social Evolution.” The American Journal of Sociology 81:1339-1359.
Shapin, Steven. “Man with a Plan: Herbert Spencer’s Theory of Everything,” The New Yorker, August 13, 2007.
Spencer, Herbert. 1891. The Principles of Sociology in Three Volumes. New York: Appleton and Company.
------. 1954. Social Statics. New York: Robert Schalkenbach Foundation. Second Edition originally published 1877.
------. 1961, 1966. The Study of Sociology (Introduction by Talcott Parsons). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Paperbacks. Originally Published 1873. (This was the copy that I bought, read and marked up. The quotations in this paper come from cutting and pasting from the Google Books archive of the 1904 edition by Appleton and Company.)
------. 1968. Reasons for Dissenting from the Philosophy of M. Comte and Other Essays. Berkeley: The Glendessary Press. Originally published 1864.
Turner, Jonathan H. 1985. Herbert Spencer: A Renewed Appreciation. Hollywood, California: Sage.