The American Historical Review/Volume 23/Reviews of Books/Herbert Spencer

Herbert Spencer. By Hugh Elliot. [Makers of the Nineteenth Century, edited by Basil Williams.] (New York: Henry Holt and Company. 1917. Pp. vi, 330. $2.00.)

The editor of the series in which this volume belongs is safe in his observation that (p. v), "Whatever may be thought to-day of the value of Spencer's writings, no one who wishes to understand the thought of the nineteenth century can neglect him." There will be more dissent from the editor's further opinion (p. vi), "As far as one can see, whether as a philosopher or as a man of science, Spencer is not likely to live for future generations."

Not all the men and women who, in the seventies of the nineteenth century, were beginning to take philosophical problems seriously, and who were fascinated by Spencer, have thought beyond their preceptor. A faithful few remain whom Mr. Williams's objectivity will affect as impiety. What will these few say to the brutal frankness of the biographer himself? He tells us that he accomplished his first reading of the Synthetic Philosophy while he was in active service on the South African veldt. His appraisal of that work at the time may be inferred from the further detail: "Not infrequently I had little other baggage than a toothbrush and a volume of The Principles of Psychology" (p. 5). Fifteen years later, after a second reading of Mr. Spencer's works, together with a collateral study and consultations with many of the author's most intimate friends, Mr. Elliot had reached the conclusions which his book elaborates:


His life was par excellence in his writings; and a true biography of Spencer must consist chiefly of an account of his works. He was one of those authors of whom it may be most truly said that his works were much greater than himself; and all the best of him will be found in his philosophy. His personality, outside his works, was meagre and petty.

We must certainly discard the whole dogmatism and formulary of Spencer's social philosophy: we cannot force the conclusions of sociology into a few narrow and rigid laws, as Spencer endeavoured to do (pp. 8–9).


Whether one is of the minority or of the majority in estimating the present worth of Spencer's writings, one can scarcely imagine students, for a long time to come, with sufficient detachment from the more urgent problems of the day to dedicate themselves, as men did while the publication was in process, to eager line-upon-line study of everything which Spencer wrote. With the utmost respect for Spencer's services as a path-breaker for positivism, all but the few for whom we have made allowance realize that his chief significance at present is as a factor in the evolution of thought, not as an authority for present thinking. In other words, even those of us who have profited most by following Spencer through his solution of his problems, must be painfully aware that for men now in their formative years Spencer is largely archaeology. That being the case, a sympathetic introduction, with indication of the main positions in the system, and with a plot of the traps that guard those positions, is the most serviceable addition that could be made to Spencerian literature. Mr. Elliot has admirably satisfied these requirements.

For example, after a succinct statement of the general character of Spencer's philosophy the biographer is equally lucid in showing that it was wholly "worked out by the deductive method … the outstanding fact remains that the two great doctrines of his Sociology and Ethics are just the two doctrines which he imbibed with the greatest avidity in his early years as a political agitator" (pp. 84-85). Equally wise is the indication of prematurity in Spencer's insistent division of societies into "militant" and "industrial" (p. 95 ff., cf. p. 162). Again, the author is at his best when elaborating such propositions as: "Spencer's sociology was unfortunately under the immediate and powerful bias of his Ethics. … But Spencer had no historical sense" (p. 101); "We cannot admit that the dogmas of the fifties are the last word in the science of sociology or in the art of ethics. … Liberty should not be a dogma, but should constitute the atmosphere of social and political thought."

Mr. Elliot successfully locates the fatal flaw in the Spencerian method of explaining social evolution. He indicates it by varying the proposition: "Spencer's perennial search for a logical origin blinds him to the truth that the origin is psychological" (p. 168). He applies the same test to the Spencerian ethics: "Man is primarily a being of emotions and feelings; and in that region we must seek explanations of his behaviour" (p. 185).

In the chapter Metaphysics and Religion the biographer neatly hits off the humor of Spencer's attempt in First Principles, to deal with problems so far beyond his competence that he chiefly makes the impression of having imperfectly learned what Sir William Hamilton had so convincingly taught. "If 'the Unknowable' is really unknowable, there is surely nothing more to be said about it; and the ascription of various attributes to the Unknowable is in reality a sufficient condemnation of the whole doctrine" (p. 217).

After all the drawbacks are charged off, it still remains true that men who are able to be more critical than credulous may add cubits to their mental stature by studying the Synthetic Philosophy. If one is wavering about the value of such study, Mr. Elliot's book would almost surely remove the doubts, and it might most profitably be used as the brief for the respondent.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1925.

The author died in 1926, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.