Herbert Spencer: The Person
George Eliot once remarked of Herbert Spencer, whom she knew well, that "the life of this philosopher, like that of the great Kant, offers little material for the narrator." She was right. There is nothing in his life that compares to the rich texture of experience, of tragedy, of trials and tribulations that one encounters in Comte's career or in Marx's.
Spencer was born on April 27, 1820, in Derby, in the bleak and dismal English Midlands, the heart of British industry. He was the oldest of nine children and the only one to survive. His father, George Spencer, and his whole family were staunch nonconformist Dissenters, highly individualistic in their outlook. George Spencer, a rather eccentric man who combined Quaker sympathies with Benthamite radicalism and rabid anti-clericalism, taught school in Derby. Aggressively independent, he would not take his hat off to anyone and would never address his correspondents as "Esquire" or "Reverend" but always as "Mr." Keenly interested in science and politics, he was for a time honorary secretary of the local Philosophical Society and one of the mainstays of local Dissent. Spencer's mother Harriet is described as a patient and gentle woman whose marriage to his irascible and irritable father seems not to have been happy.
Being sickly and weak as a child, Herbert Spencer did not attend a regular school. His father educated him at home. At the age of thirteen, he moved to the home of a clerical uncle near Bath, from whom he received his further education. This clergyman, who was also an advanced social reformer, a Chartist sympathizer, and an advocate of temperance, taught young Herbert the principles of Philosophical Radicalism as well as the rigid code of dissenting Protestantism. When the Reverend Spencer was asked one day at a gathering why the young Spencer wasn't dancing, he replied, "No Spencer ever dances."
The education Spencer received from his father and uncle leaned heavily on the scientific side. His grounding in Latin and Greek was weak, and he never became even a tolerable linguist. He received no formal instruction in English, and his knowledge of history was superficial. At the age of sixteen he had a good background in mathematics and the natural sciences, but he was not, nor was he ever to become, a generally cultivated man.
Feeling himself unfit for a university career and unwilling to attend Cambridge as his father had done, Herbert Spencer decided to follow his scientific interests, and in 1837 joined the staff of the London and Birmingham Railway as an engineer. A year later he took up a better position as a draftsman with the Birmingham and Gloucester Railway. In addition to his regular duties, Spencer here busied himself with a variety of minor inventions, which he thought much of but which came to little. When the construction of the railroad was finished in 1841, he was discharged and returned home to Derby.
In the next few years Spencer published several articles in the radical press, first on engineering but soon after on social and political questions as well. A series of letters to a dissenting paper, The Nonconformist, already indicate the direction of his later course; these letters, entitled "The Proper Sphere of Government," argued for an extreme restriction of the scope of government. He contended that the whole field of human activity, except for policing, should be left to private enterprise. There were to be no poor laws, no national education, no established church, no restrictions on commerce, and no factory legislation.
For a number of years, Spencer struggled on the fringes of radical journalism and of radical politics. Finally, having despaired of making a livelihood as a writer, he returned for a while to the employment of the Birmingham and Gloucester Railway. For two years thereafter he was without settled employment, dabbling in mechanical inventions and radical journalism and even dreaming for a time of emigrating to New Zealand. At last, in 1848, he found a stable position and assured income as a subeditor with the London Economist.
From Coser, 1977:102-104.
(Special acknowledgement to Larry R. Ridener and The Dead Sociologists' Society) http://raven.jmu.edu/~ridenelr/personal/VITA.HTML