Herbert Spencer, "Agnostic, Libertarian Hypochondriac"


The popular sci-fi blog io9 has published a long and mostly positive profile of the libertarian political philosopher and social theorist Herbert Spencer. Given that most mainstream accounts of Spencer smear him as heartless villain who wanted to let the rich feast on the poor, this is a surprising and welcome story from an unexpected source. Here's a snippet:

In general, Spencer's positive reputation is as the coiner of "survival of fittest" and as the popularizer of Darwin. His negative reputation comes from his attempts to wed these ideas to society at large. Social Darwinism—the term generally applied to Spencer's sociological efforts—is often thought of as apologism for the wealthy, as it says those who are successful in society are those best-adapted to it, meaning the poor are less fit to survive in society.

It's an understandable misconception, and other philosophers have advanced ideas more along those lines, but that wasn't really what Spencer was driving at. The main focus of his social evolution was focused on the state itself, which he basically believed evolved first to give society structure, and then withered away as the members of that society were sufficiently evolved to do without it. (This is, like most paragraph-long summaries of a lifetime's work, something of an oversimplification. But it will do for our purposes.)

As we previously mentioned, his writings proved staggeringly popular, and he became the most famous philosopher of the Victorian Age. He became an international inspiration for revolutionary groups looking for an innovative system that could replace their failed states, and his ideas were influential in various movements as far away as Poland, China, and Japan. No less than Charles Darwin called him "twenty times my superior."

You can read the whole profile here. Previous Reason writings on Spencer are available here.

Thanks to Roderick Long for the link.