1902 Encyclopedia > Evolution > Evolution in Philosophy: English Writers of 19th Century (cont.): Herbert Spencer.

(Part 23)


Herbert Spencer.—The thinker who has done more than any one else to elaborate a consistent philosophy of evolution on a scientific basis is Mr Herbert Spencer. First of all he seeks to give greater precision to the conception of this universal process. Evolution is a change from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous, from the indefinite or undetermined to the definite or determined, from the incoherent to the coherent. Again, Mr Spencer seeks to show that the causes of evolution are involved in the ultimate laws of matter, force, motion, among which he gives great prominence to the modern doctrine of the conservation of energy. Thus the rational of the process shapes itself to Mr Spenser as a distinctly mechanical problem. He sets out with the assumption of a limited mass of homogeneous matter acted upon by incident forces, and seeks to show how, by help of two laws,—namely, the instability of the homogeneous, and the multiplication of the effects of any such incident force,—the process known as evolution is brought about. This process is illustrated in the genesis of the solar system, for the explanation of which Mr Spencer makes use of the nebular hypothesis, in the formation of our planet, as well as the development of organic and mental life. Mr Spencer does not, however, conceive of this process of evolution as unlimited in time. As in the development of the individual organism, so in that of organic beings as a whole, of the earth, and of the solar system, there is a conflict between the forces of which the action is integrating of consolidating and those of which the action is disintegrating. The process of evolution always tends to an equilibration between these conflicting forces and ultimately to a dissolution of the products of evolution. Thus the system is a moving equilibrium which is destined to be finally dissipated into the attenuated matter out of which it arose. Mr Spencer thus approaches the earliest theories of cosmic evolution when he tells us (First Principles, p. 482) that vast periods in which the forces of attraction prevail over those of repulsion, alternate with other vast periods in which the reverse relation holds. The mechanical theory of evolution thus laid down in the First Principles is applied in Mr Spencer’s later works to the explanation of organic, mental, and social evolution. The full explanation of the process of inorganic evolution finds no place in the writer’s system. Mr Spencer seeks, in the Principles of Biology, to conceive of organic bodies and their actions in mechanical terms. Life is regarded as essentially a correspondence of internal actions in the organism to external actions proceeding from the environment, and the object of Mr Spencer’s volumes is to explain on mechanical principles the growth of this correspond

FOOTNOTE. (p.764)

1 The writer suggests that the whole sidereal system may be the result of a similar process.

ence from the lowest to the highest. He excludes all consideration of the question how life first arose, though it is clear that he regards the lowest forms of life as continuous in their essential nature with sub-vital processes. It is in the later volumes, dealing with mental and social evolution, that Mr Spencer’s exposition becomes most interesting to the student of philosophy. In the Principles of Psychology, he seeks deal with mind as an aspect or correlate of life which begins to manifest itself when the process of adjustment to environment, in which all life consists, reaches a certain degree of complexity. Mr Spencer indulges in no hypothesis respecting the universal co-existence of sentience with matter and force. He thinks we much accept the distinctions which common-sense has established, and so limit feeling or consciousness to organic beings endowed with a nervous system. Thus, just as he does not seek to explain the first appearance of life as a whole, so he does not seek to explain the first down of mental life. Mr Spencer’s unit of consciousness is the blurred undetermined feeling which answers to a single nervous pulsation or shock. Assuming this he seeks to trace the gradual evolution of consciousness. Sensations arise by a number of rapid successions of such elementary feelings variously combined, and all more composite states of mind arise by a similar process of combination of these feelings. Thus mental evolution is a progressive composition of units of feeling in more and more complex forms and united by more complex relations. Mr Spencer’s conception of mind thus excludes all fundamental distinctions of faculty. Instinct, memory, reason, the emotions and volitions, alike develop themselves in divergent directions out of a common elementary process. They are, moreover, all related to one and the same biological process, being incidental accompaniments of the actions by which the organism responds and adjusts itself to the forces of its environment. According as these actions are more complex, and consequently less immediate, the mental actions which accompany them vary in character from reflex action up to deliberate volition, from the most simple presentative feeling or sensation up to the most complex representative and re-representing feeling or emotion. It would be impossible to point to all the applications which Mr Spencer has made of his principle of evolution to the questions of psychology. We may just mention among other points of interest his attempt to explain the innate intuitions of space, moral right, &c. as mental dispositions handed down from progenitors and embodying the uniform experience of many generations, his ingenious endeavour to account for the coincidence between pleasure and pains and actions beneficial and injurious to the organism, and his conception of the aesthetic interest as a growth out of the play-impulse, which is the tendency of activities that have become developed beyond the immediate needs of existence to vent themselves.

Mr Spencer’s elaboration of the subject of social evolution has not been carried far enough for us to understand the full bearing of his ideas. Yet the fundamental conceptions are given us. The writer regards society, after the analogy of an individual organism, as possessing a number of various structures or organs and functions, and as tending to evolve itself by a series of adjustments to its environment, physical and social. All ideas and institutions display this process of evolution no less than social evolution. It is to be observed that Mr Spencer attributes to society a certain spontaneous tendency to evolution apart from natural selection. He looks an progress as a gradual process of self adaptation of man to the conditions of his environment, and anticipates an age when this adjustment will be complete and human happiness perfect. In this respect Mr Spencer’s conception of man’s history destiny wears an optimistic tinge when compared with that very vaguely shadowed forth by Mr Darwin.

To Mr Spencer, as to Mr Darwin, the doctrine of evolution seems to supply the end of conduct. He conceives of morality as essentially an observance of the laws of life, the individual and the collective. At the same time, since Mr Spencer regards the moral sense as a growth out of feelings of pleasure and pain (racial experiences), closely identifies the ends of life and happiness, and distinctly teaches that social evolution or progress makes for an increase of happiness, his ethical doctrine does not materially differ from that of utilitarianism.

So far we have said nothing respecting the metaphysical basis which Mr Spencer seeks to give to his doctrine of evolution. It is generally agreed that this does not really belong to his doctrine of evolution itself. Mr Spencer is a thoroughly realist. From his general scheme of evolution one would be prepared to find him avowing himself a materialist. Yet he seeks to avoid this conclusion by saying that it is one unknowable reality which manifest itself alike in the material and in the mental domain. At the same time, this unknowable is commonly spoken of as force, and in many places seems to be identified with material force. Mr Spencer makes little use of his metaphysical conception in accounting for the evolution of things. He tells us neither why the unknowable should manifest itself in time at all, nor why it should appear as a material world before it appears under the form of mind or consciousness. Indeed Mr Spencer’s doctrine of evolution cannot be said to have received from its author an adequate metaphysical interpretation. The idea of the unknowable hardly suffices to give to his system an intelligible monistic basis. In truth, this system seems in its essence to be dualistic rather than monistic.

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