October 21, 2007November 18, 2007Meeting Report

November 2, 2007

Wayne Luney

Herbert Spencer

Wayne Luney

Wayne Luney presented an interesting talk on this often reviled 19th century British philosopher.

Although he never used the term, Spencer is known today as the quintessential exponent of the idea of Social Darwinism. He did use the phrase “survival of the fittest” in his writings and was a staunch supporter of the idea of evolution. Indeed, he went much further than Darwin with that idea, applying it to the evolution of human society, whereas Darwin tried to restrict his own application of the theory to biology.

While still fairly young, Spencer started his writing career writing articles for The Economist—a magazine that is still published today, and one that Wayne recommends. His first book, Social Statics, appeared in 1850 when he was 30. Quite radical for its time, it was a collection of essays in strong support of individual rights. Indeed, some essays, especially “The Right to Ignore the State,” would be considered radical today.

He supported equal rights for women. He also supported laissez-faire capitalism and a very minimal state—much like a present-day libertarian. In later years, he would drop some of his more radical ideas and become acceptable to captains of industry, such as Andrew Carnegie, a personal friend. He became a self-employed public intellectual, supporting himself by his writing rather than serving on the faculty of a university. He also wrote extensively on many fields of knowledge by organizing the work others had done in those fields and writing about them in a coherent manner. From the 1860s through the 1880s, he was probably the most famous and admired philosopher in the English speaking part of the world. Although he claimed to be in frail health, he lived to be 83, long enough to experience going out of fashion. Although he changed his opinions he was always principled by his own lights and was not afraid of espousing unpopular opinions. For example, late in life he publicly opposed the Boer War. 

The meeting concluded with some discussion and an interesting question and answer session.

—Wayne Luney and Bill Potts

Return to top of pageClick below to return to the list of 2007 Meetings or to go to the previous or next meeting report.