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Summary Article: Spencer, Herbert (1820-1903)
from Encyclopedia of Time: Science, Philosophy, Theology, & Culture

Herbert Spencer was an English philosopher, evolutionist, and political theorist, whose theories treated the universe and time in general with scientific minuteness and a synthesis of speculation and positivism. He is often cited with coining the popular expression “survival of the fittest,” which later would be used frequently by social Darwinists.

Spencer was born in Derby, England, on April 27, 1820. His early influences were chiefly his father and uncle, both of whom were teachers well acquainted with the natural sciences. Initially gaining a job as a civil engineer, to cultivate the skills learned from his father and uncle, Spencer went on to become a subeditor for the Economist, a newspaper noted for its liberal tone. During this time, Spencer was able to pen Social Statics (1851), which supported the popular notion of laissez-faire economics. In 1858, however, Spencer set out to create a synthetic philosophy, which aimed to unite the disciplines of biology, sociology, psychology, and ethics under the physical notions of time, space, matter, motion, and force. This was first presented in the 1862 work First Principles.

Spencer's philosophy rests upon the insolubility of the nature of reality and something he called “the unknowable.” One such question that would fall into the unknowable is the idea of who created the universe. Because this is something that cannot be comprehended, as it is not within one's own intellectual power to ascertain, Spencer instead concentrated on the knowable, which he believed was governed by the unified physical notions, which in turn preclude knowledge of the unknowable. These powers, too, are not completely known without a complete grasp of the unknowable.

Figure: In 1862 Spencer began his 10-volume System of Synthetic Philosophy, which expanded Darwin's theory of evolution to include the entire field of human knowledge. Spencer coined the expression “survival of the fittest.”

From this, Spencer applied the idea of force as the key to understanding all other knowledge. Force is responsible for evolution to take place, of which he defined as “a change from a state of relatively indefinite, incoherent homogeneity to a state of relatively definite, coherent homogeneity.” Evolution was not only a biological or cultural force to Spencer, but a cosmic force, which pervaded the time-space continuum. As life and the individual on Earth were evolving, so was the cosmos.

After Spencer laid the groundwork for his conception of evolution, he succeeded First Principles with the Principles of Biology (2 vols., 1864-1867), Principles of Sociology (3 vols., 1876-1896), and finally Principles of Ethics (2 vols., 1892-1893). Before First Principles, Spencer wrote the Principles of Psychology (1855), which was marked by Spencer's position that individual characteristics develop as a result of evolution. In Principles of Biology, Spencer used the expression “survival of the fittest,” referring to organisms that were able to reproduce due to their self-sufficiency and ability to adapt and survive in a changing environment.

Principles of Sociology was one of Spencer's celebrated works in which he likened the progression of society to the progression of a biological organism. His use of the term superorganic differentiated a society as something that exists above the nature of reality, yet like an organism, it is mutually dependent and follows the process of evolution. The society evolves from being relatively insufficient and undifferentiated (homogeneous) to being self-sufficient and differentiated (heterogeneous).

Spencer also weaved his thread of evolution into the Principles of Ethics. Though there are stronger individuals in societies, it should be the goal of humankind to promote the longevity of our species. Instinctively, the human race has garnered certain “good” behaviors through the evolutionary process that have contributed to the survival of the species. Thus, the good behavior is one that contributes to the healthy maintenance of the species, whereas the bad behavior is conducive to the destruction of the species. This same idea would be applied to Spencer's ideas of economics; that is, the laissez-faire approach to the economy is best because there are no regulations from outside influences that would dissolve the economy.

On December 8, 1903, Spencer died, leaving behind a body of work that was to influence many later scholars and writers. He had been honored a year earlier with a nomination for the Nobel Prize in Literature (1902). His synthetic philosophy allowed writers such as H. G. Wells in The Time Machine to develop his themes of evolution. Charles Darwin would also use Spencer's phrase “survival of the fittest,” in the fifth edition of his On the Origin of Species (1869). Spencer's philosophy of the universe will be remembered as both groundbreaking and diverse.

See also

Cosmology, Cyclic, Darwin, Charles, Evolution, Organic, Haeckel, Ernst, Huxley, Thomas Henry, Kropotkin, Peter A., Wells, H. G.


  • Francis, M. ( (2007).). Herbert Spencer and the invention of modern life. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  • Spencer, H. ( (2002).). First principles (6th ed.). Honolulu, HI: University Press of the Pacific. (Original work published 1862).
  • Whitney, S. ( (2006).). Herbert Spencer. In Birx, H. J. (Ed.), Encyclopedia of anthropology (pp. 2123-2124). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Hummel, Dustin B.
    Copyright © 2009 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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