Sunday, April 29, 2012

Herbert Spencer: A Review

I wrote this a couple of years ago in reviewing the book by Francis. It is worth restating.

The biography of Spencer entitled "Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life" by Mark Francis is a recent addition to the body of works of an interesting 19th century polymath. Spencer was both a philosopher and advocate of Darwin's evolutionary ideas as well as one who opined frequently on matters of political import. In many ways Spencer was a true polymath, one who wrote seminal works on psychology and sociology and wrote extensively on biology and integrated that with the new ideas promulgated by Darwin. Spencer was praised by many of his contemporaries and was also in many ways the typical Victorian, hardened in that period but also having his views shaped by it also.

Overall the book addresses Spencer, his life and his views. However, the author, in my opinion, is more interested in detailing how Spencer fits his personal view of Spencer than Spencer truly was as a person and as an influence on his world. Spencer, in his most lasting work, The Man Versus The State, clearly is an individualist and as such in many ways has become a major cornerstone for many libertarians. Yet Francis seems to reject this view and, for the most part, this book is a tirade against that position of individualism which Spencer clearly took.

Spencer was well known for his views on psychology, sociology, biology, and especially the views on Darwinism and individualism. For Spencer all of life, all of existence was a continually evolving process. The author continually returns to that fact in all of its aspects.

Spencer was well read from the time he started to write through the 1930s. Then he was attacked unjustly by the left wing in American academia, centered at the time at Columbia University, a hotbed of Communists and Marxists. For it was in the mid 1940s that Spencer was vilified by the one-time Communist history professor at Columbia University, one Richard Hofstadter.

Hofstadter in his book Social Darwinism uses Spencer's ideas on Darwin in a somewhat self serving and twisted manner to attack both Spencer and the free market capitalism as it evolved over the century from 1850 to 1950. Hofstadter was well known in leftist circles as one who could readily take a few apparently disconnected points and with what could be at best described as shabby research methods produce polemics against the conservatives and right wing advocates in the body politic.

Hofstadter was also well know to write "soft" history, what we would expect in a New Republic piece, rather than hard academic history. Hofstadter was polemical in his style and greatly deficient in primary sources. He was all too often just a recorder of old press clippings using these as the window to the world he wanted the reader to see rather than addressing the reality via primary sources.

In a recent work by Prof. T. Leonard at Princeton University (See Origins of the Myth of Social Darwinism: The Ambiguous Legacy of Richard Hofstadter's Social Darwinism in American Thought ) Prof. Leonard states about Hofstadter and Spencer the following, while reviewing the issues in "Social Darwinism in American Thought", also called "SDAT":

"Richard Hofstadter, like many New York intellectuals in the 1930s, embraced radical reform. He joined Columbia University's Communist Party unit for a brief period in 1938. The more mature Hofstadter grew disenchanted with radical politics, indeed came to see it as hostile to scholarship. But SDAT, which revised his doctoral dissertation published in 1939, preserves Hofstadter's earlier world view, that of a precocious scholar, still much influenced by his mentors, Merle Curti and Charles Beard, who could say to close friends, "I hate capitalism and everything that goes with it" ... SDAT also bears the historiographic imprint of Beard's "rule" that historical interpretation must assume that "changes in the structure of social ideas wait on general changes in economic and social life" ... SDAT is thus sprinkled with unadorned Beardian claims, such as "Herbert Spencer and his philosophy were products of English Industrialism"..."

But let me return to Francis and his book. He sets his tone for the entire biography on p. 2 when he writes:

"...the greatest source of popular confusion about Spencer does not arise from national prejudice, but from writers who have explained his theories by reference to those of Charles Darwin as if the former were a simple version of the latter. This misidentification has been so common that its correction would be an obligatory as well as unpleasant task for any Spencerian scholar. There are two reasons why it is painful. First it forces me to write about Darwin....also, it is slightly obtuse to explain an intellectual phenomenon such as Spencer' reference to something it is not."

This statement clearly lays forth the attitude of the author going forward, cumbersome as the use of the language is. First, there is the almost arrogant exposition of Spencerian evolution not being akin to Darwin and then the outcry of having to endure the unpleasant task of education of the reader, specifically what appears to be the less well educated readers who, frankly as per the author, should know better. Francis seems to bemoan the fact that he must tell the readers things that they should have know ab initio about Spencer. As such one wonders what audience Francis had in mind for his book. Perhaps it is meant for the small cadre of fellow Spencerian academics.

The last phrase in the above quote is at best condescending and at worst insulting to the readers since it implies that each reader should be approaching the biography already well educated in Spencer as well as in Darwin. This shrill tone of the author's style continues to resonate throughout the book.

The next interesting comment is on p 3 which frankly refutes the entire basis of the Hofstadter diatribe on Social Darwinists. In Hofstadter SDAT, he accuses Spencer of being a pure Darwinian and as such lacking in any human emotions. However Francis states:

"...First there was Graham him Spencer was merely an early and hasty generalize on the subject of evolution....secondly, there was Richard Leakey...he possessed the same information as Wallas except ...he was praising not condemning Spencer....After Darwin had explained his theory...Spencer quipped that it might as well be called "survival of the fittest"....if either Wallas or Leakey had read Spencer...(he) was unsympathetic to Darwin's theory..."

Thus Spencer was not a pure Darwinian. As Leonard states:

"Darwinian defenses of laissez-faire among scholars, who were more likely to have read Darwin, are not much easier to find. Bannister and other revisionists point out that even Hofstadter's social Darwinist exemplars, Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner, were not especially Darwinist. Spencer certainly invoked the evolutionary advantages of competition among men. And, Spencer's extraordinary intellectual prominence in the last third of the 19th century also made him a large target for reform scholars. But Spencer would have rejected the label of "Darwinist," in part because his own theory of evolution differed from and was published before Darwin's On the Origin of Species. The catch-phrase "survival of the fittest" was Spencer's and Darwin did not adopt it as a synonym for "natural selection" until Alfred Russell Wallace convinced him to do so in the fifth edition of the Origin (1869).

Importantly, Spencer was a Lamarckian with respect to human inheritance. He imagined that competition induced human beings to actively adapt themselves to their environments, improving their mental and physical skills - improved traits that would then be inherited by their descendants. Spencer's view was that, in the struggle for existence, self-improvement came from conscious, planned exertion, not from the chance variation and natural selection that are the heart of Darwinism. As a result, evolution is progressive in Spencer, whereas, for Darwin, at least the early Darwin, evolution means only non-teleological change. Spencer's fundamental belief in human progress via Lamarckian bootstrapping was at odds with Darwinian natural selection's randomness and its openness to non-progressive change.

Spencer, in fact, was not just a Lamarckian, he was a leading Lamarckian, taking up cudgels against the neo-Darwinians such as biologist August Weismann, whose watershed finding in 1889--that mice with their tails cut off do not bear short-tailed progeny--was seen by many as a crucial-experiment refutation of Lamarckism. Spencer's status as a defender of Lamarckism in the 1890s was such that that progressive Lamarckians, such as Lester Frank Ward, often found themselves in the awkward position defending Spencer, a man whose individualism and laissez-faire economics they loathed, and dedicated their lives to opposing."

Thus the fundamental basis of the Hofstadter argument against Spencer has no merit. Francis begins by throwing the cudgel down early on in the biography as to his apparent dislike of free markets and then continues to pound the cause home.

On p. 13 the author begins to position Spencer as a non-individualist, by redefining what he believed Spencer meant by his individualism. The author commences what appears to be his personal repositioning of Spencer as not the one lauded by many 21st century libertarians but as a mainstream 21st century liberal. Although he defines "individualist" as the "natural antonym" of the term "state" the author commences the rehabilitation of Spencer from his point of view.

The most published work of Spencer, his small but compelling book, "The Man Versus the State", is a well read treatise which clearly and unambiguously states the position of the individual against the state. Unfortunately the positioning by the author at this stage to marginalize this work of Spencer presages his attempt to reconstruct Spencer as a man who may not even have written that book.

Chapter 3 depicts Spencer and the problems he allegedly had with women. One of his alleged lovers was the writer George Eliot with whom he had an affair which lasted a brief while. The chapter is less a discussion of Spencer's problems with women than it is a presentation of conflicted Victorians in England.

Chapter 6 discuses Spencer's rather common eccentricities starting with his hypochondria. The author states:

"Spencer combined hypochondria with radical political opinions."

It appears that this was a common British trait not unique to Spencer. For if one looks at Lord Russell one see that he suffered from exactly the same set of problems. One may conjecture that such a set of common characteristics were both common to the Victorian British as well as those holding extreme views.

The concept of the pervasiveness of evolution for Spencer is detailed by the author on p. 193 where he states:

"A constant refrain in Spencer's early scientific writings was that all phenomenon of the universe...were subject to evolution."

Further Francis states:

"Spencer's initial conception of life was not a cold and objective; he saw life as the general impulse towards goodness and perfection, evidenced everywhere one looked."

This is a teleological outlook towards evolution, the goal being the goodness and perfection as stated by Spencer. But was that indeed his view, and if so what drove this end point, since Spencer was not a truly religious man. Francis states that the intelligence was science in and of itself.

Spencer was a prolific writer and there are a continuing set of streams of an evolving set of views. Yet Francis states that the paper "A theory of Population" written in 1852 was the singular key to his early views. Francis argues on p 194 for Spencer's views, views which aligned with the expanding presence of Great Britain. Francis states:

"...Spencer perceived his own experience and that of nature generally as "the inherent tendency of things going towards good..." He called this vis medicatrix naturae...the progressive quality of nature even justified...suffering...necessary for benign progress...each conquered race or nation could acquire a liking for new modes of the future Spencer saw new modes of evolution...(and) maintain a perfect and long lived existence for each individual."

In Chapter 15 Francis appears to get annoyed by the seminal work of Spencer, "The Man versus the State". He speaks of Spencer's anti-utilitarianism and his hostility towards Bentham like hedonism (see pp 248-249). Francis states:

"In "The Proper Sphere of Government" he (Spencer) wrote as a Christian utilitarian opposed to individualism and thus was hostile to those who construed happiness as if the collective did not matter."

On p. 249 he attacks "The Man versus the State" as being inconsistent with the true meaning of Spencer's views. This is a wandering and almost incoherent presentation in the text and Francis continually tries to say that "The Man versus The State" was an aberration of an old man rather than a culminating view developed by Spencer. In fact this was one of Spencer's clearest texts and the one which has had lasting influence. Moreover it is a text devoid of the Darwin and reflects an evolving and mature view of the individual versus the expanding nature of the State.

Francis on pp 250-251 then goes into the current position we find in Rawls with direct reference to him. Francis speaks of the confusion Rawls has between liberalism and communitarianism, but no matter, both are counter individualism which is where Spencer had allegedly evolved to. Francis gets quiet complex and confusing as he attempts to draw together what he sees a conflicting views of Spencer while at the same time attempting to keep Spencer in what we would see today as a truly "liberal" player and not one dedicated to true individualism. He ends the discussion with the statement:

"For Spencer it was not that the individual and society operated in different spheres as they had for ...Mill. That distinction would have allowed for a principled discussion of when interference with the former was justified. Spencer's conceptualization of the individual and society places them on separate planes making it illegitimate to permit some restrictions on freedom while forbidding others."

This sentence makes little sense to me. On the one hand they are not in different spheres but on the other hand they are on different planes. Now the metaphor is not just weak it makes no sense. This chapter is rant with such non sequiturs!

Now Francis continues his attack against "The Man Versus the State" on pp 258-259. Here is states:

"Spencer's liberalism in particular is not usefully glossed over as a "bourgeois" individualistic ideology that was forged in opposition to the collective."

Indeed it was not. It was carefully thought out and predicated on the events that allowed him to detail fact by fact with the resulting impacts on individual freedom equally detailed. Also individualism had and continues to have evolving and complex expressions, from the one extreme of current day libertarian views to those which are socially more open.

In Chapter 18 Francis discusses Spencer's work on Sociology in political systems. On pp 304-305 he detailed the nexus between these topics and evolution. It is seen that Spencer continually winds the evolutionary elements into his work. To Spencer everything was continually in an ever changing evolutionary milieu. It was for him Lamarckian where the Darwinian step changes were Lamarck's slow changes which were absorbed.

In the Conclusion on p 334 he again returns to what seems to be the major conflict that Francis sees, that is that Spencer was at heart in his maturity a true individualist yet Francis does not seem to want to accept that. He states:

"When it is realized that Spencer was a corporate thinker rather than an individualist, then his argument for the need to give a paramount place for the emotions becomes more easily explicable."

This is apparently a total rejection by Francis of the facts that are evident in "The Man Versus the State". Francis fails to discuss the contents of this book in the slightest degree, he discusses in detail the early works but merely shouts against the latter. This book does provide valuable insight into Spencer and especially in view of the later invective by Hofstadter it would seem most appropriate to have devoted some care an attention to it.

Thus this book is a good contribution to Spencer since it forces the reader to go back and read in detail what he said and see how all too often is counters Francis. Yet Francis knows Spencer and Spencer had and potentially continues to have made contributions to our thinking. Thus I recommend this book strongly for those interested in Spencer and just as importantly those interested in individualism as say a view in contrast to neo-progressivism.