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Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life

Author(s):Francis, Mark
Reviewer(s):Peart, Sandra J.

Published by EH.NET (October 2008)

Mark Francis, Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007. xiv + 434 pp. $45 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-8014-4590-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Sandra J. Peart, Jepson School of Leadership Studies, University of Richmond.

This is a wonderful book, filled with detail, substance and purpose. Mark Francis, professor of political science at the University of Canterbury, rightly informs us that Spencer has been misinterpreted over the years. Francis acknowledges that Spencer himself is partly responsible for those misinterpretations, having been careless about how his arguments might be used by others (p. 285). Consequently, the biographer of Spencer faces ?an intriguing task? (p. 330) ? how to correct the misconceptions while preserving what is worth preserving in the enormous amount of Spencer scholarship that followed upon Spencer?s work.

Francis correctly re-orients our interpretation of Spencer on a number of important fronts, emphasizing that Spencer was first and foremost a philosopher as opposed to a biologist or psychologist. Though the literature has stressed Spencer?s role in the development of professional science, Francis emphasizes Spencer?s major contributions to the philosophy of science (p. 233). Spencer was the ?most consistent evolutionary theorist among the founding fathers of modern social science? (p. 78). But he ?was not pursuing the same goals as Darwin,? Francis writes, and so ?It was therefore painless for him to admit that he and Darwin had used evolution in different ways? (p. 189). Spencer introduced evolutionary theory ?to prop up the intuitionist part of his common-sense philosophy? (p. 175).

In this account Spencer?s defense of liberalism rested neither on libertarianism nor socialism. Instead it is a unique doctrine intertwined with ethics: ?His doctrine was an ethical and humane approach to future social development, which prohibited dominance and aggression towards dependent persons or groups, even if it could be demonstrated that the long-term result would be beneficial? (p. 337).

Economists will find Spencer?s ideas on progress most interesting. Throughout his life he insisted that the goal of human progress was an altruistic one. But his views on progress changed over time; in Francis? telling, ?from the late 1850?s he began to cast aside his philistine faith in the dreams of progress through hard work and the renunciation of pleasure? (p. 48). Was progress a biological notion of improvement for Spencer? The common misconception has Spencer defending ?progress? where some perish in the name of overall human flourishing. Francis rightly presents a contrary argument that reconciles evolutionary change with flourishing for all. His solution to this quandary, Francis argues, ?was to say that with progress drawing them forwards, future human beings would remain part of the natural world (and thus experience evolutionary change); yet, at the same time, they would be above it and thus able to avoid its perils. His vision had humanity ultimately evolving to the point where individuals avoided the cruelty and destruction that the demands of hunger and reproduction had imposed on other organisms? (p. 243).

Spencer?s writings on politics fit with some difficulty into his philosophical system. Francis opposes the commonly-held view that Spencer?s liberalism was fundamentally concerned with limiting social or political control over the individual. In Francis? view, Spencer was no classical liberal (p. 250). More than this, he has been ill-served by ethicists who take his later ideas as conservative or individualistic. Instead, Francis emphasizes the originality of Spencer?s evolutionary theory in which progress was determined by the planning of individuals who increasingly moved into correspondence with each other (pp. 291-92). In this telling, justice rightly limits the sphere of the individual for Spencer (p. 251).

Francis? re-orientation of our thinking on Spencer raises the question of whether we have correctly characterized classical liberalism at all. Our misconceptions about Spencer may simply be a severe example of our misconception of classical political economists one and all.[1] Political economists from Adam Smith through John Stuart Mill held that individuals were connected to each other through sympathy. More than this, they held that people are morally constrained by these connections, in addition to the constraints imposed by the legal system.

Indeed, Smith characterized humans as unique among animals because they connect with others through trade and discussion. From this characterization of humans as sympathetically connected, he developed his system of natural liberty in which individuals come to do the right thing, to care for others as a result of the imaginative process of changing position with each other. Sympathy was a staple of eighteenth and nineteenth century theory of mind as developed by Scottish philosophers, including Smith?s colleague, Dugald Stewart, and two generations of Stewart?s students, James and John Stuart Mill. These philosophers foresaw an extension of the range of sympathy to all mankind (Mill, 1829, 2:278) and, as such, they became identified with philanthropy.

So, too, Spencer held that as sympathy flourishes ?natural selection? is superseded by another, human law of social development (Peart and Levy, 2005, 220-22). For Spencer, the extension of sympathy to encompass universal concern for others is evidence of a fully developed race. Humans become civilized through the development of language and sympathy. Spencer explicitly rejected social Darwinism entailing racial development through misery induced by competition for resources and argued to the contrary that individuals who have developed sympathetic tendencies toward one another will come to reduce misery by reducing births (Peart and Levy, 2005, 222).

But as we know, Spencer has been interpreted quite differently. As Francis points out, when W. G. Sumner taught sociology using Spencer?s The Study of Sociology, he omitted an analysis of Spencer?s final chapter, on altruism (p. 189). And the device of sympathy was successfully attacked by social commentators, such as the co-founder of eugenics, W. R. Greg, who wished to see natural selection in humans unimpeded by concern for others, the ?unfit? (Peart and Levy 2005, 63-64). With the demise of sympathy as an analytical device late in the century, the phrase ?survival of the fittest? came to mean fittest absent concern for others. As Francis has demonstrated so convincingly, this was a re-orienting of our interpretation of Spencer. When sympathy disappeared from the toolkit of economics, we also began to misremember classical political economy.

Note: 1. This of course is not to say that political economists spoke with one and the same voice throughout the nineteenth century. It is, instead, meant to suggest that from Smith through J. S. Mill, the dimension of sympathy is important in their analyses.


Mill, James. [1829] 1869. Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind (edited by John Stuart Mill). London: Longmans, Green, Reader and Dyer.

Peart, Sandra J. and David M. Levy. 2005. The ?Vanity of the Philosopher?: From Equality to Hierarchy in Post-Classical Economics. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Sandra J. Peart is dean of the Jepson School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond. Previously, she was on the economics faculty at the College of William and Mary, and Baldwin-Wallace College. She is the past President of the History of Economics Society and, with David Levy, co-directs the Summer Institute for the History of Economic Thought. With David Levy, Peart has written on classical political economy and the rise of eugenics in the nineteenth century. Her most recent book, edited with David Levy, is The Street Porter and the Philosopher: Conversations on Analytical Egalitarianism.

Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII