Popular Science Monthly/Volume 8/March 1876/Sketch of Herbert Spencer

PSM V08 D530 Herbert Spencer.jpg



HERBERT SPENCER was born in Derby, April 27, 1820. He comes of a race of pedagogues—his father, grandfather, and uncles, having followed the profession of teaching. He has written a book upon education, which some people think "theoretical;" but it was a product of experience, for he was himself subjected to much the same method as that he lays down in his work.

The father of Mr. Spencer was a gentleman of fine culture, of engaging manners, and enlightened views which he carried into practice as a teacher. He was strongly disinclined to the prevailing method of imparting knowledge and loading the memory with book acquisitions. He believed that true mental development can only come through self-instruction, and he constantly encouraged his pupils to find things out for themselves. He held it to be of great importance to foster independence and originality of thought. He hence aimed to arouse feelings of interest, curiosity, and love of inquiry in the minds of the young, and then leave them to solve their own problems. One of the objects he constantly sought to attain was to quicken and give scope to the constructive and inventive faculties. He was an excellent mathematician, but in dealing with this subject he sought to secure objects not usually recognized in the method of this study. He prepared for the use of beginners a little manual entitled "Inventional Geometry,"[1] consisting of questions and problems designed to familiarize the pupil with geometrical conceptions, and to exercise his inventive capacity in actual and accurate constructions with the use of simple instruments.

It was in this discreet way, never crowding or cramming, but kindling his interest and leaving him much to himself, that Mr. Spencer conducted the education of his son.

When Herbert was three years of age, his father's health having broken down, he was compelled to give up his school, and removed to Nottingham. He here entered into the manufacture of lace by machinery, which was just then the rage.

Herbert was the only surviving child, and his health was so delicate that his parents had. little hope of raising him. As a lad his health was not strong, although he was not ill; his constitution being well balanced but not hardy. His father, fearing that he would give way under strain, did not press him to study. Three years were spent at Nottingham, in which the boy attended, for a short time, a common day-school kept by a mistress.

When Herbert was between six and seven the family returned to Derby, but Mr. Spencer did not resume his school; he took to private teaching. The lad did not read until he was seven. The first book to which he was attracted was "Sanford and Merton." When, afterward, he went to school, he was very inattentive and idle, having a repugnance to lesson-learning, and never reciting a lesson correctly that was learned by rote. He was, however, leniently dealt with, his father probably directing that he should not be urged. During boyhood he was greatly given to playing games, fishing, birds-nesting, country rambles, gathering wild fruits and mushrooms—all Saturday afternoons being turned to such purposes. Apart from school-studies, his father early led him into drawing, especially from objects. During this same period he encouraged him to keep insects through their transformations, and for years the finding and rearing of caterpillars, the catching and preserving of winged insects were constant and enjoyed occupations. He was also incited to make drawings of these insects. He rarely made friends of bigger boys, being intolerant of any thing like bullying. But his father mentions the fact in one of his letters that the younger boys were very fond of him; implying, perhaps, that while he would not be imposed upon by his elders, he did not bully his juniors. The latter part of his school-days at Derby was passed at a school set up by an uncle who, also having rational ideas of teaching, carried out his father's views. Among some dozen or so of boys he was characterized as backward in things requiring memory and recitation, but as in advance of the rest in intelligence. Drawing from objects was here continued. They had some experimental lessons in mechanics, and Herbert took to reading a good deal; Rollin's "Ancient History" and many miscellaneous books being gone through. He found, a very varied literature in his father's house. Mr. Spencer, Sr., was Secretary of the Derby Philosophical Society, and also member of a Methodist book-committee. Besides many works of different kinds, there came various periodicals and magazines—the Lancet, the medical quarterlies, Athenæum, Chambers's Journal, volumes of travel, and occasionally graver works. All these he habitually looked into as a boy, picking up medical, mechanical, and various information. Mr. Spencer and his brothers, when they were together, habitually discussed all kinds of questions, political, ethical, religious, and scientific: All were liberal and independent thinkers—radicals when radicalism was unpopular. Both Mr. and Mrs. Spencer were brought up Methodists, but, during his boyhood, the father acquired so strong a repugnance toward the priestliness of the Methodist organization, that he early ceased to attend their services, and went to Quaker meeting—never adopting their peculiarities, but approving their unsacerdotal system. As his mother continued a Methodist, it resulted that on Sunday he went with his father in the morning, and with his mother in the evening. The enforced learning of hymns, and reading of chapters, at this time, produced, a lasting repugnance to Scriptural language.

Mr. Spencer encouraged his son in all kinds of little constructive operations, as carpentering, the making of his own fishing-tackle, etc. Readiness in manipulation was thus cultivated. During this period, Mr. Spencer from time to time had at the house assemblies of his private pupils to witness electrical, mechanical, and air-pump experiments. In these Herbert always assisted, becoming thus familiar with the facts, explanations, and practical manipulations. At the same time he made chemical experiments. He is reported as being much in disgrace as a disobedient boy, always more or less in hot water, which led to desponding anticipations of his future.

At thirteen (1833) he was sent to his uncle, a clergyman, with whom he remained three years. This uncle, the Rev. Thomas Spencer, Rector of Hinton, was a cultivated scholar, who graduated with honors at Cambridge. He was a man of great liberality, advanced in his political views, broad in his theology, and the first clergyman of the Established Church to take a public and prominent part in the movement for the repeal of the corn-laws; having written and published extensively upon the subject. He will be remembered by some as having made a tour through this country some twenty-five years ago, delivering occasional lectures. His uncle was anxious that Herbert should prepare for the university, but he was disinclined to this, and the question was a matter of controversy between them. His uncle, however, lived to acknowledge that Herbert probably took the right view of the matter. Yet his prescribed studies were those which constitute the usual preparation for a university course. Latin and Greek, which had been taken up at Derby, though but to little purpose, were resumed at Hinton, but they were pursued without interest, and no satisfactory progress was made in them. But in mathematics the pupil made rapid advancement, being the equal or superior of fellow-students several years his seniors, who were studying with him. Geometry, trigonometry, algebra, mechanics, and the beginning of Newton's "Principia," were gone through. Though his memory was never a good one for details, yet it is noted that principles were habitually so seized as to remain. The tendency to independent exploration was shown in the spontaneous making of problems, and finding out new demonstrations. The discipline to which Herbert was subjected was here more decided than it had been at home. Yet during his stay at Hinton there were various accusations of disobedience which led to temporary disgrace.

At sixteen (1836) Herbert returned home, and one year was passed in miscellaneous but not very persistent study. He went through perspective with his father, on the principle of independent discovery; the successive problems being put in such older that he was enabled to find out the solutions himself. There was evidently a natural readiness here, as during this year he hit upon a curious theorem in descriptive geometry, which was afterward published with the demonstration in the Civil Engineer's and Architect's Journal.

At midsummer, 1837, after being a year at home, he had three months' experience in teaching, taking the place of assistant in the school to which he had first gone as a boy. His father had always been anxious that he should follow the profession of teacher, the dignity of which he estimated highly. This wish was strengthened by the success which he had in this trial, as he evinced a strong natural faculty for exposition, and the capacity of leading pupils to feel an interest in their lessons by the use of copious and correct illustrations.

In the autumn of that year, young Spencer was offered an engagement under Mr. Charles Fox (afterward Sir Charles Fox), a civil-engineer who had been a pupil of his father, and who subsequently became widely known as the builder of the Great Exhibition building of 1850. He was at that time resident engineer on the London & Birmingham Railway, then in process of construction. Here, partly in making surveys and drawings, he passed nearly a year, still carrying on his mathematical studies, and showing in his letters that inventions and improvements were much in his thoughts. In the autumn of 1838 he was recommended to Captain Moorsum, engineer of the Birmingham & Gloucester Railway. He took this place, and some eighteen months were passed in making engineers' drawings, and other railway works, with some contributions to the Civil Engineer's Journal, describing improved methods and constructions. Toward the end of this period he became for a time Captain Moorsum's engineering secretary, and during this time he devised the little instrument which he called the velocimeter, and described in the Civil Engineer's Journal. It was for the purpose of calculating, by mechanical means, the speeds of locomotive engines from given fractional distances and times, which otherwise required much trouble in estimating the velocity. Then followed a period of some six months occupied in out-door works, partly in superintending the completion of constructions, and partly in testing the performances of engines.

During this period he was led, by collecting fossils, into the study of geology, and read Sir Charles Lyell's "Principles," then recently published. The noteworthy fact respecting this is, that in it the doctrine of Lamarck respecting the development of species is there set forth, combated and rejected. Mr. Spencer cannot say whether he was before familiar with this doctrine, but he remembers that Lyell's arguments failed to disprove it to him, and he became, thereafter, a firm believer in the general idea that all organized beings had arisen by development (1839). He had so profound a belief in natural causation, in general so strong a tendency to see a unity of processes in things, that an hypothesis of this kind, which suggested that the genesis of organisms had arisen from physical actions, was one that he was prepared to accept as congruous with the system of things known by experience. Such a notion as that of miracle, utterly inharmonious with the ideas of cause and law and order which had become ingrained in him, was inadmissible, and hence the only alternative view presented itself to his mind as obviously necessary. Nothing ever afterward shook this belief. There naturally went along with this a gradual dropping of the current theology, although Mr. Spencer cannot say when it began or when it ended. The conception of the natural genesis of things gradually replaced the conception of the supernatural genesis, and belief in the prevailing creed gradually faded away.

In April, 1841, having declined the offer of an engineering appointment, Mr. Spencer returned home, intending to carry further his mathematical studies. Very little came of this intention, however, and some two years were spent at home in a miscellaneous and seemingly futile manner. Botany occupied his attention for some months. He made a botanical press and an herbarium. He practised drawing to some extent, and made pencil-portraits of various friends. Phrenology, of which he did not at that time see the fallacies, occupied some attention. All the time, however, he had in progress one or other scheme of invention. Improvements in watch-making, machines for making type by compression of the metal instead of casting, a printing-press of a new form, the application of the electrotype for engraving, afterward known as the glyptograph, occupied his attention. The great flood in Derby, in 1842, caused by the sudden overflow of a tributary of the Derwent, having occurred, Mr. Spencer wrote a detailed report upon it with proposals for remedy to the town council, which was printed by that body. The summer of that year was spent in a visit at Hinton, and while there he modeled a bust of his uncle, having during the previous year given some attention to that art. He also there commenced contributing to the Nonconformist a series of letters on the proper sphere of government. These were completed in the autumn. Shortly after there was commenced in England a movement called the complete-suffrage agitation, which arose out of a pamphlet published by the editor of the Nonconformist, Mr. Miall. In this agitation Mr. Spencer took an active part, becoming the local secretary for Derby, and he was afterward delegate to a conference at Birmingham, where a futile attempt was made to cooperate with the Chartists. In the spring of 1843 he went to London, with the vague idea of getting some literary occupation, and while there he made an engineering engagement, which lasted a few months till the work was complete. Returning then to Derby, he was again occupied chiefly with inventions. The railway mania, which was rising in 1844, drew him again to engineering, and he was for some months in charge of a London office, where he had at one time about sixty men under him. That winter and the subsequent spring were spent before parliamentary committees. But the lines in which he was interested failed to be chartered, and he then had much experience in legal proceedings, helping the engineer to recover his charges.

During 1846 and the beginning of 1847 he was occupied with inventions, and took out a patent for a sawing and planing machine, but, the friend who joined him in it going to India, the business dropped through. During these years he contributed papers to the Philosophical Magazine and to the Zoöist, in one of which he propounded a view respecting the nature of sympathy, which he afterward found that Adam Smith had previously proposed. In 1848 he commenced writing "Social Statics." In the autumn of that year he was engaged as the sub-editor of the Economist, and during 1849 and 1850 while occupying that post he completed the volume, his first-considerable work, "Social Statics."

It is unnecessary to sketch here the intellectual labors of Mr. Spencer, as that has been already done with some degree of fullness in our pages.[2]

Much solicitude regarding the disturbed health of Mr. Spencer has been expressed by many who are interested in the progress of his work, and exaggerated rumors have been circulated respecting it. As we have said, his constitution was never robust, but it was sound in the earlier portions of his life. His health gave way when thirty-five years old, from intense application in writing "The Principles of Psychology," published in 1855. Since that time he has been incapable of steady mental application, and has been compelled frequently to suspend labor entirely for varying intervals to recover his working condition. When he entered upon his philosophical undertaking in 1860—laying out twenty years of original work—his health was so insecure that many thought the project foolhardy, and that it would prove fatal to him. But, forced by painful experience to economize his energies, he has become an adept in the art of taking care of himself; so that, instead of breaking down, his condition has perhaps improved with the progress of his work. He would probably never have been able to write the volumes of his philosophy, but in 1859 he adopted the expedient of dictation to an amanuensis, and attributes his power of going on to the immense economy and advantages of this practice. He has latterly not been so well as usual, for, though turning off a large amount of work on "The Principles of Sociology," and also carrying along the "Descriptive Sociology," both of which works are well advanced, he has yet been interrupted by more prolonged intervals of inability to labor. He has, besides, had to spend a great deal-of his force in attention to business, which is not a very exhilarating occupation, as he has now sunk nearly $20,000 in the preparation and publication of his "Descriptive Sociology." He has, besides, had to maintain a burdensome correspondence, which growing at last intolerable, he has lately sought relief by lithographing the following form of a letter, which will explain itself:

"Mr. Herbert Spencer regrets that he must take measures for diminishing the amount of his correspondence.

"Being prevented by his state of health from writing more than a short time daily, he makes but slow progress with the work he has undertaken, and this slow progress is made slower by the absorption of his time in answering those who write to him. Letters inviting him to join committees, to attend meetings, or otherwise to further some public object; letters requesting interviews and autographs; letters asking opinions and explanations—these, together with presentation copies of books that have to be acknowledged, entail hindrances which, small as they may be individually, are collectively very serious—very serious, at least, to one whose hours of work are so narrowly limited.

"As these hindrances increase, Mr. Spencer finds himself compelled to do something to prevent them. After long hesitation, he has reluctantly decided to confine himself absolutely to the task which he is endeavoring to accomplish—to cut himself off from all engagements that are likely to occupy any attention, however slight, and to decline all correspondence not involved by his immediate work.

"To explain the absence of a special reply to each communication, he has adopted the expedient of lithographing this general reply; and he hopes that the reason given will sufficiently excuse him for not answering, in a more direct way, the letter of Mr.——.

"37 Queen's Gardens, Bayswater, W."

  1. Now in the press of D. Appleton & Co.
  2. See Popular Science Monthly for November, 1874.