A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature/Spencer, Herbert

Spencer, Herbert (1820-1903). -- Philosopher, b. at Derby, the s. of a teacher, from whom, and from his uncle, mentioned below, he received most of his education. His immediate family circle was strongly Dissenting in its theological atmosphere, his f., originally a Methodist, having become a Quaker, while his mother remained a Wesleyan. At 13 he was sent to the care of his uncle, Thomas S., a clergyman, near Bath, but a Radical and anti-corn-law agitator. Declining a Univ. career he became a school assistant, but shortly after accepted a situation under the engineer of the London and Birmingham railway, in which he remained until the great railway crisis of 1846 threw him out of employment. Previous to this he had begun to write political articles in the Nonconformist; he now resolved to devote himself to journalism, and in 1848 was appointed sub-ed. of the Economist. Thereafter he became more and more absorbed in the consideration of the problems of sociology and the development of the doctrine of evolution as applied page 353thereto, gradually leading up to the completion of a system of philosophy which was the work of his life. His fundamental proposition is that society, like the individual, is an organism subject to evolution, and the scope of this idea is gradually expanded so as to embrace in its sweep the whole range of cognisible phenomena. Among the books which he pub. in exposition of his views may be mentioned Social Statics (1850), Principles of Psychology (1855), First Principles (1862), Principles of Biology (1867), Data of Ethics (1879), Principles of Sociology (1877), Political Institutions (1882), and Man versus the State (1884). His works have been translated into most European languages -- some of them into Chinese and Japanese. The most characteristic qualities of S. as a thinker are his powers of generalisation and analysis. He left an autobiography, in which he subjects his own personality to analysis with singular detachment of mind.

Life by David Duncan, LL.D., Life by A.J. Thompson. See also Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy, Fiske (1874), and books on S. and his philosophy by Hudson (1894), White (1897), and Macpherson (1890).