Chapter3: Herbert Spencer Main points a biographical Sketch

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Chapter3: Herbert Spencer

  • Main points

  • A Biographical Sketch

  • The organic of the society

  • Evolutionary Theory


  • Simple and Compounded Societies

  • Militant and Industrial Societies

  • Summary

  • (1820-1903)

Learning Objectives

  • After reading this chapter, students should be able to:

  • and contrast Spencer and Comte;

  • 2.describe the evolution of society according to Spencer, utilizing his ideas of integration, heterogeneity, definiteness, and coherence;

  • 3.discuss Spencer's notion of society as an organism and the roles of cooperation and structures in the evolution of society;

  • 4.distinguish between regulative and sustaining structures and apply these concepts to discuss the differences between militant and industrial societies;


  • I. Spencer:Biographical Sketch

  • II. General Theoretical Principles

  • Evolutionary Theory

  • 1. Integration

  • 2. Differentiation

  • 3. Definiteness

  • III. The Evolution of Society

  • A. Integration

  • B. Heterogeneity

  • C. Definiteness

  • D. Increasing Coherence

  • E. Nominalism versus Realism

  • F. Organicism

  • G. Cooperation

  • 1. Division of Labor

  • 2. Political Organization

  • H. Structure

  • 1. Regulative

  • 2. Sustaining

  • 3. Distributing

  • I. Simple and Compounded Societies

  • J. Militant and Industrial Societies

A Biographical Sketch

  • In 1820,Spencer was born in Derby, England on 27 April 1820 .

  • In 1837 he began work as a Civil engineer for a railway, an occupation he held until 1846.

  • From 1848 to 1853, Spencer worked as a writer and subeditor for The Economist .

  • In 1851 Spencer's first book, Social Statics, or the Conditions Essential to Human Happiness appeared.

  • Upon the death of his uncle Thomas, in 1853, Spencer received a small inheritance which allowed him to devote himself to writing without depending on regular employment.

  • In 1855, Spencer published his second book, The Principles of Psychology. As in Social Statics

  • Spencer's health significantly deteriorated in the last two decades of his life, and he died in relative seclusion, following a long illness, on December 8, 1903.

Primary Sources:

  • Social Statics. London: Chapman, 1851.

  • The Principles of Psychology. London: Longmans, 1855; 2nd edn., 2 vols. London: Williams and Norgate, 1870-2; 3rd edn., 2 vols. (1890). [A System of Synthetic Philosophy ; v. 4-5]

  • First Principles. London: Williams and Norgate, 1862; 6th edn., revised, 1904. [A system of Synthetic Philosophy ; v. 1]

  • Principles of Biology, 2 vols. London: Williams and Norgate, 1864, 1867; 2nd edn., 1898-99).[A System of Synthetic Philosophy ; v. 2-3]

  • The Study of Sociology. New York: D. Appleton, 1874, [c1873]

  • The Principles of Sociology. 3 vols.  London : Williams and Norgate, 1882-1898. [A System of Synthetic Philosophy, v. 6-8] CONTENTS: Vol. 1: pt. 1. The data of sociology. pt. 2. The inductions of sociology. pt. 3. The domestic relations; Vol. 2: pt. 4. Ceremonial institutions. pt. 5. Political institutions; v. 3: pt. 6. Ecclesiastical institutions. pt. 7. Professional institutions. pt. 8. Industrial institutions.]

  • The Man versus the State: containing "The new Toryism," "The coming slavery," "The sins of legislators," and "The great political superstition," London : Williams & Norgate, 1884; with additional essays and an introduction by Albert Jay Nock. [adds "From freedom to bondage," and "Over- legislation"] Intro. A.J. Nock.  Caldwell, ID: Caxton, 1940.

  • Spencer, Herbert. The Factors of Organic Evolution. London: Williams and Norgate, 1887.

  • Spencer, Herbert. The Principles of Ethics. 2 vols. London: Williams and Northgate, 1892. [A system of synthetic philosophy ; v. 9-10]

  • An Autobiography. 2 v. London: Williams and Norgate, 1904.

Spencer's Methodology

  • Spencer realized that studying social phenomena was inherently different from studying natural phenomena; therefore, sociology could not simply imitate the methods used by biologists. In order to studying objective social facts and processes. Sociologists are also faced with the methodological problem of how to keep their own bias in check and gather and report trustworthy data. Spencer advocated a "value free" methodological approach for sociology and cautioned sociologists to be aware of emotional biases that might influence their work, including educational, patriotic, class, political, and theological biases. Spencer was committed to empirical research and employed a comparative-historical methodology in much of his work.

The organic of the society(61-63)

  • 1.the societies are like organic bodies (but unlike inorganic bodies)

  • 2.the similarities between society and organic entities.

  • 3.the differences between society and organic entities.

Spencer's Evolutionary Theory

  • Spencer defined sociology as the study of societal evolution and believed that the ultimate goal of societal evolution is complete harmony and happiness. Spencer's theory of evolutionary change is built upon three basic principles: integration, differentiation, and definiteness. Spencer argued that homogenous phenomena are inherently unstable, which makes them subject to constant fluctuations. These fluctuations force homogeneous systems to differentiate, which results in greater multiformity. In other words, homogeneous systems grow to become heterogeneous.

The Evolution of Society

  • As stated above, Spencer's general theory of social evolution involves the progress of society towards integration, heterogeneity, and definiteness. It also includes a fourth dimension, the increasing coherence of social groups. Social groups, according to Spencer, strive towards greater harmony and cooperation through the division of labor and the state. It is important to note the Spencer does not develop a linear theory of social evolution; he acknowledges that dissolution or no change at all may occur at any given moment. Spencer was a social realist in that he viewed society as an entity in and of itself—thus, the whole of society can live on even if its component parts die. As society grows, it becomes more complex and differentiated. Structures accompany this growth, which function to regulate external concerns like military activities and sustain internal issues like economic activities. Distributing systems eventually emerge that function to help link together regulative and sustaining structures.

  • Spencer uses his evolutionary theory to trace the movement from simple to compounded societies and from militant to industrial societies. Society evolves from the compounding and recompounding of social groups. It also evolves from military societies dominated by conflict and a coercive regulative system to industrial societies characterized by harmony and a sustaining system of decentralized rule. Spencer thought the society that he was living in was a “hybrid (杂交.混合)society," exhibiting traits of both military and industrial societies. Although he ultimately hoped society in general would progress towards a state of industry, he recognized that the regression to a militant state was possible.


  • The evolutionary theory(52-54)

  • Simlpe and Compounded Societies(63)

  • Militant and Industrial Societies(64)

Spencer and Comte

  • Although the sociological theory of Herbert Spencer (1820-1902) has but a small following today, his work was quite popular during his lifetime, particularly in America. Spencer's theory of society does represent an advance over Comtian theory, even though Spencer, like Comte, characterized himself as a positivist and derived his concepts of structure and function from the field of biology. Spencer used the Comtian terms of social statics and social dynamics, but not in a descriptive way as Comte did to refer to all types of societies, but rather in a normative way to describe his version of the future ideal society. Furthermore, Spencer was more interested in studying the progress of the external world or objectivity, while Comte focused more on the subjective nature of the progress of human conceptions. Finally, there are important political differences between Spencer and Comte. Spencer had little regard for centralized political control and believed that the government should allow individuals the maximum freedom to pursue their private interests. Comte, on the other hand, desired society to be led by the high priests of positivistic religion.

A critical assessment

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