Herbert Spencer

Herbert Spencer

Herbert Spencer was an English philosopher, biologist, anthropologist, sociologist, and prominent classical liberal political theorist of the Victorian era.

Spencer developed an all-embracing conception of evolution as the progressive development of the physical world, biological organisms, the human mind, and human culture and societies. As a polymath, he contributed to a wide range of subjects, including ethics, religion, anthropology, economics, political theory, philosophy, literature, astronomy, biology, sociology, and psychology. During his lifetime he achieved tremendous authority, mainly in English-speaking academia. "The only other English philosopher to have achieved anything like such widespread popularity was Bertrand Russell, and that was in the 20th century." Spencer was "the single most famous European intellectual in the closing decades of the nineteenth century"  but his influence declined sharply after 1900: "Who now reads Spencer?" asked Talcott Parsons in 1937.

Spencer is best known for the expression "survival of the fittest", which he coined in Principles of Biology (1864), after reading Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species. This term strongly suggests natural selection, yet as Spencer extended evolution into realms of sociology and ethics, he also made use of Lamarckism.

Influence on literature:

Spencer greatly influenced literature and rhetoric. His 1852 essay, "The Philosophy of Style", explored a growing trend of formalist approaches to writing. Highly focused on the proper placement and ordering of the parts of an English sentence, he created a guide for effective composition. Spencer aimed to free prose writing from as much "friction and inertia" as possible, so that the reader would not be slowed by strenuous deliberations concerning the proper context and meaning of a sentence. Spencer argued that writers should aim "To so present ideas that they may be apprehended with the least possible mental effort" by the reader.

He argued that by making the meaning as readily accessible as possible, the writer would achieve the greatest possible communicative efficiency. This was accomplished, according to Spencer, by placing all the subordinate clauses, objects and phrases before the subject of a sentence so that, when readers reached the subject, they had all the information they needed to completely perceive its significance. While the overall influence that "The Philosophy of Style" had on the field of rhetoric was not as far-reaching as his contribution to other fields, Spencer's voice lent authoritative support to formalist views of rhetoric.

Spencer influenced literature inasmuch as many novelists and short story authors came to address his ideas in their work. George Eliot, Leo Tolstoy, Thomas Hardy, George Bernard Shaw, Bolesław Prus, Abraham Cahan, D. H. Lawrence, Machado de Assis, Richard Austin Freeman, and Jorge Luis Borges all referenced Spencer. Arnold Bennett greatly praised First Principles, and the influence it had on Bennett may be seen in his many novels. Jack London went so far as to create a character, Martin Eden, a staunch Spencerian. It has also been suggested[by whom?] that the character of Vershinin in Anton Chekhov's play The Three Sisters is a dedicated Spencerian. H.G. Wells used Spencer's ideas as a theme in his novella, The Time Machine, employing them to explain the evolution of man into two species. It is perhaps the best testimony to the influence of Spencer's beliefs and writings that his reach was so diverse. He influenced not only the administrators who shaped their societies' inner workings, but also the artists who helped shape those societies' ideals and beliefs. In Rudyard Kipling's novel Kim, the Anglophile Bengali spy Hurree Babu admires of Herbert Spencer and quotes him to comic effect: "They are, of course, dematerialised phenomena. Spencer says." "I am good enough Herbert Spencerian, I trust, to meet little thing like death, which is all in my fate, you know." "He thanked all the Gods of Hindustan, and Herbert Spencer, that there remained some valuables to steal."

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