Herbert Spencer and sociology

IN 1860 Herbert Spencer issued the prospectus of his Synthetic Philosophy, and in 1896 he completed, with the third volume of the Principles of Sociology, this heroic attempt at a synthesis of all scientific knowledge. First Principles, the initial volume of the series, appeared in 1862. Its thesis is that, while metaphysical questions are ultimately insoluble, they compel the recognition of an inscrutable power beyond all phenomena; secondly, it formulates and illustrates the law and philosophy of evolution.


IN all commonly accepted beliefs there is an underlying verity. Even beliefs that seem contradictory are in fundamental harmony, and though science and religion may seem in opposition, they really only express opposite sides of the same fact, and their views may be reconciled.

When we analyze different religious views of the origin and nature of the universe, we find that all religions, howsoever opposed in their overt doctrines, are perfectly at one in the conviction that the universe is a mystery; and we find, too, that all religions fail to solve the mystery.

When, again, we examine such ultimate scientific ideas as space and time, we find that they all are representative of realities that cannot be comprehended. The explanation of that which is explicable merely shows the unknowable and the inexplicable behind.

On the basis of this deepest, widest and most certain of all facts--that the power which the universe manifests to us is utterly inscrutable--a reconciliation between science and religion is possible. To understand fully how real is the reconciliation thus reached it will be needful to look at the respective attitudes which religion and science have all along maintained towards this belief in the Unknowable and Absolute.

Religion has always, amid its many errors and corruptions, maintained the supreme verity that all things are manifestations of a power that transcends our knowledge. This has been the most vital and most truly religious element of religion, and its errors and defects in doctrine and practice have been due to disloyalty to this fundamental verity.

And this disloyalty science has always opposed; for the progress of science is of necessity a progress to causes that are more and more abstract and less and less conceivable; and, indeed, the most abstract conception to which science is ever slowly approaching is one that merges into the inconceivable and unthinkable And so the beliefs which science has forced upon religion have been essentially more religious than those which they supplanted. Only when science has rested content with superficial solutions has it been in conflict with true religion.

Some maintain that though the ultimate cause of things is unknowable, yet we must endow it with definite attributes, and this is a legitimate enough course, provided that we understand that the idea we thus create is merely a symbol utterly without resemblance to that for which it stands. For certainly most men will refuse an indefinite and shadowy belief, and will demand definite formal conceptions. Having always embodied the ultimate cause so far as was needful to its mental realization, they must necessarily resent the substitution of an ultimate cause which cannot be mentally realized at all.

To cultivate the widest spirit of tolerance, let three cardinal principles be borne in mind.

1. That there is a fundamental verity under all forms of religion, however degraded.

2. That the concrete elements in which each creed embodies this truth are relatively good.

3. That varying beliefs are necessary parts of the constituted order of things, and are severally fitted to the societies in which they are indigenous.

These principles do not imply that the current theology should be passively accepted. Though existing religious ideas and institutions have an average adaptation to the characters of the people who live under them, yet as the characters change, the ideas and institutions require remodelling. It is requisite that free play should be given to conservative thought and action; it is equally requisite that progressive thought and action should also have free play, for without the agency of both there cannot be the continual readaptations necessary to orderly progress.


AS with religious beliefs so with the varied beliefs respecting the nature of philosophy. After the elimination of their discordant elements there remains, as a common element, the conception of philosophy as 'knowledge of the highest degree of generality.' As each widest generalisation of science comprehends and consolidates those narrower ones of its own division, so the generalisations of philosophy comprehend and consolidate the widest generalisations of science. Knowledge of the lowest kind is un-unified knowledge; science is partially unified knowledge; and philosophy is completely unified knowledge. The purpose of philosophy is the integration of knowledge.

What is the datum, or rather, the data, which philosophy requires? It is that congruities and incongruities exist and are cognizable by us. The permanence of a consciousness of likeness or difference is our ultimate warrant for asserting the existence of likeness or difference. Knowledge is the grouping of the like and the unlike, and its unification must specify the antithesis between two ultimate classes of experiences. What are these?

Setting out from the conclusion that all things known to us are the manifestations of the Unknowable, we find these manifestations are divisible into two classes--the vivid and the faint. The former, occurring under the conditions of perception, are originals. The latter, occurring under those of reflection, memory, imagination, or ideation, are copies.

This division is equivalent to that between object and subject, between self and not-self. The power which manifests itself in the faint series we call the ego, while that in the vivid we call the non-ego. This ultimate primordial division of self from not-self is a cumulative result of persistent consciousness of likenesses and unlikenesses among manifestations.

The data of philosophy accordingly are: (a) an unknowable power; (b) the existence of knowable likenesses and unlikenesses among the manifestations of that power; (c) a resulting segregation of the manifestations into those of subject and object.

All the ultimate scientific ideas--space, time, matter, motion, force--are derivatives from experience of force, and force is the ultimate of ultimates, the unknowable. By the indestructibility of matter we really mean the indestructibility of the force with which matter affects us. As we become conscious of matter only through the resistance it opposes to our muscular energy, so do we become conscious of the permanence of matter only through the permanence of this resistance--of this force either as immediately or as mediately proved to us.

Persistence of force cannot be proved, for it must be assumed in every experiment or observation by which it is proposed to prove it. And what is the force of which we predicate persistence? It is that absolute force of which we are indefinitely conscious as the necessary correlate of the force we know. Thus we come once more to that ultimate truth in which religion and science are reconciled--to the continued existence of an unknowable as the necessary correlative of the knowable.

From the ultimate universal truth that force persists can be deduced the truth that the relations among forces persist.

Given charges of powder, alike in quantity and quality, fired from barrels of the same structure, and propelling bullets of equal weights, sizes and forms, similarly rammed down, no difference can be imagined among the results And that which here holds good between antecedents and consequents that are comparatively simple, must hold, however involved the antecedents and the consequents may be.

Those modes of the unknowable which we call motion, light, heat, chemical affinity, etc., are alike transformable into each other, and into those modes of the unknowable, which we distinguish as sensation, emotion, thought, these in their turns being directly or indirectly retransformable into the original shapes. How this metamorphosis takes place remains an unfathomable mystery.

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