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Francis, Mark. Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life.

FRANCIS, Mark. Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life. xiv + 443 pp. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007. Cloth, $45.00--If the prolific nineteenth-century English intellectual Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) is remembered at all nowadays, it is as a prototypical "social Darwinist" who coined the phrase "survival of the fittest," and as the subject of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes's remark, apropos of the Supreme Court's ruling certain state regulations of the economy unconstitutional, that the American Constitution "does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer's Social Statics."

Mark Francis, in his extensively researched but often repetitive "intellectual biography" of Spencer, seeks to challenge the conventional interpretation of Spencer's thought, denying that he was ever a libertarian or "individualist," and deprecating his late, anti-socialistic work The Man "versus" the State as a deviation from his typical thought, which was opposed to individualism no less than to collectivism. Curiously, however, Francis never endeavors to demonstrate that Spencer was in any way an inventor of "modern life," as his title suggests. (His only observations along these lines describe Spencer as "a precursor of the modern taste for self-doubt and alienation" and as having "had the altruism to bare his soul [in his Autobiography] for the good of succeeding generations," hardly a distinctive contribution, and that, obscurely, he "argu[ed] with Plato, Hobbes, and Rousseau as if they offered coherent, although misleading" political theories.) Indeed, in his conclusion Francis finds it difficult to identify any of Spencer's ideas that "could possibly be a useful legacy for the twenty-first century," or any aspect of his personality (characterized by "hypochondria" and "aesthetic absolutism") that remains worthy of emulation. Francis's account of Spencer's variegated, changing, and often idiosyncratic reflections as well as his personal eccentricities leaves the reader wondering, in the end, why Spencer is worth reconsidering--or why, therefore, Francis should have put so much work into this study.

The four parts of Francis's book address, in sequence, Spencer's personality (including his "longing for passion," his "problem with women," and other "eccentricities"); the "lost world" of his "metaphysics"; his biological writings and "philosophy of science"; and his writings on "politics and ethical sociology."

Spencer, as Francis describes him, was certainly a queer fish: "unable to experience love" out of fear that such a passion would "cause the reemergence" of his father's "aggression towards women", able to sympathize only with the sufferings of far-off people, a hypochondriac who believed sex to be "debilitating" and unpleasant and was appalled by the modern "work ethic" and disdainful of social proprieties as "among the greatest" evils, and who wrote his Autobiography as "an act of expiation" to warn others against suffering his own unhappy fate.

According to Francis, the aim of Spencer's "philosophical system" as conceived in the 1850's was to develop "a new morality and metaphysics with which to replace both orthodox Christianity and materialistic positivism." Spencer espoused what was called "The New Reformation," whose central tenets were the rejection of rationalistic ethics and the worship of an "Unknown." At the same time he advanced a doctrine of the "moral sense" whose ultimate triumph would "make society harmonious and government unnecessary." Spencer first achieved fame with the publication of his First Principles in 1862, embodying the foundations of his metaphysical system, which made him "the purveyor of modern science" to "intellectual masses" abroad. He particularly prided himself on "protecting philosophy from the taint of German idealism"--even as he tried "to avoid discussing the absolute validity" of any system as distinguished from its "relative" truth. In the end, he hoped that "a science of psychology" could solve the metaphysical problem by "invent[ing] a living universe with personal meaning." Still, Spencer's philosophy, Francis judges, "always contained basic contradictions": three times he calls it "anodyne."

Although Spencer discussed evolution seven years before Darwin's Origin of Species, his biological writings, Francis emphasizes, were really "a theoretical enquiry about the meaning of life," not an empirically grounded science. Spencer lamented the existing "state of nature" as "morally intolerable," since "it included micro-organisms and parasites that lived at the expense of more highly developed organisms." Nature's "cruelty" eroded "his early faith" in its kindness, though he looked forward to a future in which no species would experience pleasure at others' expense. The nervous breakdown Spencer suffered at age 35, however, "soured his utopian dreams" of a world where "the greatest possible numbers of individuals existed without suffering the pangs of reproduction or death."

Francis's account of Spencer's political thought emphasizes his pacifism and anti-imperialism. His denial that Spencer was a social Darwinist seems unpersuasive, however, since all he means is that Spencer opposed military aggrandizement and acknowledged the need for laws to punish such crimes as fraud--and that he corrected the "racist message" of his writings on psychology from the 1860's in his later writings on sociology. While depicting Spencer as a "liberal," Francis observes that in his later writings he avoided viewing rights "as necessary for the well-being of either individual citizens or the people as a whole," and avoided advocating the expansion of liberty, since (in Spencer's words) "the degree of liberty a people is capable of in any given age, is a fixed quantity." Francis stresses as well Spencer's "constant" "contempt" for people's "average intellect," his strong criticism (following his "democratic youth") of "popular control of politics," and his opposition to public education, which could only lead to the election of unqualified "working-class parliamentarians." Modern governance should be left to "skilled professional administrators," subject only to the supervision of politicians who were bound by "tradition." Nonetheless, Francis oddly maintains that Spencer's lack of "individualist and democratic qualities" made his version of "liberalism ... all the more valuable."

The only sort of democracy that Spencer favored, according to Francis, was a "psychological" one such that future individuals would be "internally governed by a collective decision of their feelings," rather than subordinate them to the tyranny of reason--thereby enabling them to enjoy more pleasure. Because Spencer encouraged the popular tendency to pursue pleasure and resist the call of duty, Francis concludes that Spencer, despite his disparagement of political democracy, "spoke for the common man's hope for the future." To this reader, that conclusion, like much of Spencer's thought as Francis recounts it, seems unintelligible.--David Schaefer, Holy Cross College.
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Author:Schaefer, David
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2008
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