Herbert Spencer, born in 1820 in Derby, England, emerged as a prominent figure in the 19th-century intellectual landscape. As the eldest of nine children in an industrial area, his early life was marked by illness, preventing him from attending school. Instead, he received private tutoring from his father and uncle.
In 1837, Spencer began working as an engineer for the railways, a position he held until 1841. In 1848, he joined The Economist as an editor, where he displayed radical liberal views. However, his life took a significant turn in 1853 when he inherited a substantial fortune from his late uncle, providing him with financial security.
Spencer embarked on his intellectual journey, culminating in his monumental work, the Synthetic Philosophy. This ten-volume opus included The Principles of Sociology, published between 1876 and 1896, and solidified his reputation as a world-renowned philosopher.
Spencer's ideas centered around the concept of evolution, which he applied not only to biology but also to sociology. He argued that societies, like biological species, evolved from simplicity to complexity, becoming more structured and specialized over time.
One of Spencer's key contributions was his concept of sociological organicism, comparing the development of human societies to the growth of biological species. He emphasized growth, differentiation, functional specialization, and interdependence as critical aspects of societal development.
Sociology, according to Spencer, studied the level above organisms, focusing on superorganic entities—complex, differentiated structures that form societies.
Spencer's analogies between societies and organisms included comparing contract relations to the tissue, aristocracy to fat, art academies to the eye, and so forth. These comparisons were used as scaffolding to build a coherent body of sociological insights.
He was an early social evolutionist, predating Charles Darwin's work on the theory of natural selection. Spencer's idea of "survival of the fittest" appeared in his writings as early as 1850, seven years before Darwin's "The Origin of Species."
Spencer's thought was not strictly linear, acknowledging the possibility of different societies following distinct evolutionary paths. He did not insist on a unilinear or rectilinear evolution; he recognized that regression and decline were possible.
However, there was a paradox in Spencer's work. While he leaned toward methodological individualism and nominalism, emphasizing the role of individuals in shaping societies, his organicist perspective also suggested that societies as wholes had autonomous properties, displaying continuity and persistence.
In the 20th century, Spencer's ambitious philosophical theories fell out of favor, as societies moved away from such comprehensive approaches. His strong advocacy of liberalism and conservatism became less fashionable, especially in welfare states. His biological and organicistic views on society were also criticized.
Nevertheless, in recent times, Herbert Spencer's contributions to sociology have garnered renewed interest. He is considered a foundational figure in modern functionalism, and his nuanced evolutionism is being reevaluated. His ability to connect biology and sociology has found new relevance, and his theories on the expansion and differentiation of interdependent networks continue to inspire contemporary sociological thought. Spencer's insights into the obstacles to objectivity, including educational, patriotic, class, political, and theological biases, also remain a subject of study.