Herbert Spencer: The Work
Herbert Spencer was a theorist whose valuable insights have often been drowned in a sea of irrelevance and specious reasoning. What is relevant in his work will therefore have to be selected in a manner recommended by Richard Hofstadter when he wrote about Frederick Jackson Turner, "The most valid procedure with a historical thinker of his kind is not to try to have sport with his marginal failings but to rescue whatever is viable by cutting out what has proved wrong, tempering what is overstated, tightening what is loosely put, and setting the whole in its proper place among usable perspectives." This account of Spencer's work will be severely selective. Here, as elsewhere in this book, only the writer's sociological contributions, and among these only the central ones, will be considered. Spencer's general metaphysics, or antimetaphysics, will be touched upon only tangentially. This is all the easier since critics now seem to be of the opinion that deep down Spencer was a rather shallow philosopher.
Some historians of sociology tend to see Spencer as a continuator of Comte's organicist and evolutionary approach. Although Spencer seems to have protested too much in disclaiming any profound influence of Comte's thought on his own, it is true that his general orientation differs significantly from Comte's. Spencer described their different approaches in this way:
What is Comte's professed aim? To give a coherent account of the progress of human conceptions. What is my aim? To give a coherent account of the progress of the external world.Comte proposes to describe the necessary, and the actual, filiation of ideas. I propose to describe the necessary, and the actual, filiation of things. Comte professes to interpret the genesis of our knowledge of nature. My aim is to interpret . . . the genesis of the phenomena which constitute nature, The one is subjective. The other is objective..
Comte was, of course, not only interested in the development of ideas but also in the correlative changes in social organization, and he dealt with social order as well as with progress. Nevertheless, Spencer correctly perceived the essential differences between them. Spencer's first and foremost concern was with evolutionary changes in social structures and social institutions rather than with the attendant mental states. To Spencer, like to Marx, ideas were epiphenomenal. "The average opinion in every age and country," he writes, "is a function of the social structure in that age and country."
Evolution, that is, "a change from a state of relatively indefinite, incoherent, homogeneity to a state of relatively definite, coherent, heterogeneity," was to Spencer that universal process, which explains alike both the "earliest changes which the universe at large is supposed to have undergone . . . and those latest changes which we trace in society and the products of social life." Once this master key to the riddles of the universe is used, it becomes apparent, Spencer argued, that the evolution of human societies, far from being different from other evolutionary phenomena, is but a special case of a universally applicable natural law. Sociology can become a science only when it is based on the idea of natural, evolutionary law. "There can be no complete acceptance of sociology as a science, so long as the belief in a social order not conforming to natural law, survives."
It is axiomatic to Spencer that ultimately all aspects of the universe, whether organic or inorganic, social or nonsocial, are subject to the laws os evolution. His sociological reflections concentrate, however, on the parallels between organic and social evolution, between similarities in the structure and evolution of organic and social units. Biological analogies occupy a privileged position in all of Spencer's sociological reasoning, although he was moved to draw attention to the limitations of such analogies. Because Spencer was a radical individualist, organic analogies caused him some sociological and philosophical difficulties, which Comte, with his collective philosophy, was spared.
Spencer's most fruitful use of organic analogies was his notion that with evolutionary growth come changes in any unit's structure and functions, that increases in size bring in their wake increases in differentiation. What he had in mind here, to use a homely example, is the idea that if men were suddenly to grow to the size of elephants, only major modifications in their bodily structures would allow them to continue being viable organisms.
From Coser, 1977:89-90.