Durant 1926: Criticism: First Principles (Herbert Spencer)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter VIII Section 8.1 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The  contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.


VIII.1. Criticism: First Principles

The intelligent reader, in the course of this brief analysis,* will have perceived certain difficulties in the argument, and will need no more than some scattered reminders as to where the imperfections lie. Negative criticism is always unpleasant, and most so in the face of a great achievement; but it is part of our task to see what time has done to Spencer’s synthesis.

*The analysis, of course, is incomplete. “Space forbids” a discussion of the Education, the Essays, and large sections of the Sociology. The lesson of the Education has been too well learned; and we require today some corrective of Spencer’s victorious assertion of the claims of science as against letters and the arts. Of the essays, the best are those on style, laughter, and music. Hugh Elliott’s Herbert Spencer is an admirable exposition.

How have Spencer’s ideas fared over time?

The first obstacle, of course, is the Unknowable. We may cordially recognize the probable limitations of human knowledge; we cannot quite fathom that great sea of existence of which we are merely a transient wave. But we must not dogmatize on the subject, since in strict logic the assertion that anything is unknowable already implies some knowledge of the thing. Indeed, as Spencer proceeds through his ten volumes, he shows “a prodigious knowledge of the unknowable.” As Hegel put it: to limit reason by reasoning is like trying to swim without entering the water. And all this logic-chopping about “inconceivability”—how far away that seems to us now, how like those sophomoric days when to be alive was to debate! And for that matter, an unguided machine is not much more conceivable than a First Cause, particularly if, by this latter phrase, we mean the sum total of all causes and forces in the world. Spencer, living in a world of machines, took mechanism for granted; just as Darwin, living in an age of ruthless individual competition, saw only the struggle for existence.

To me, Spencer’s Unknowable simply means that nothing in this universe can be known with absolute certainty.

What shall we say of that tremendous definition of evolution? Does it explain anything? “To say, ‘first there was the simple, and then the complex was evolved out of it,’ and so on, is not to explain nature.” Spencer, says Bergson, re-pieces, he does not. explain; he misses, as he at last perceives, the vital element in the world. The critics, evidently, have been irritated by the definition: its Latinized English is especially arresting in a man who denounced the study of Latin, and defined a good style as that which requires the least effort of understanding. Something must be conceded to Spencer, however; no doubt he chose to sacrifice immedIate clarity to the need of concentrating in a brief statement the flow of all existence. But in truth he is a little too fond of his definition; he rolls it over his tongue like a choice morsel, and takes it apart and puts it together again interminably. The weak point of the definition lies in the supposed “instability of the homogeneous.” Is a whole composed of like parts more unstable, more subject to change, than a whole composed of unlike parts? The heterogeneous, as more complex, would presumably be more unstable than the homogeneously simple. In ethnology and politics it is taken for granted that heterogeneity makes for instability, and that the fusion of immigrant stocks into one national type would strengthen a society. Tarde thinks that civilization results from an increase of similarity among the members of a group through generations of mutual imitation; here the movement of evolution is conceived as a progress towards homogeneity. Gothic architecture is surely more complex than that of the Greeks; but not necessarily a higher stage of artistic evolution. Spencer was too quick to assume that what was earlier in time was simpler in structure; he underrated the complexity of protoplasm, and the intelligence of primitive man. Finally, the definition fails to mention the very item which in most minds today is inalienably associated with the idea of evolution—namely, natural selection. Perhaps (imperfect though this too would be) a description of history as a struggle for existence and a survival of the fittest—of the fittest organisms, the fittest societies, the fittest moralities, the fittest languages, ideas, philosophies—would be more illuminating than the formula of incoherence and coherence, of homo- and heterogeneity, of dissipation and integration?

I see evolution in terms of increasing order among chaotic elements. Evolution would involve both integration and dissipation.

“I am a bad observer of humanity in the concrete,” says Spencer, “being too much given to wandering into the abstract.” This is dangerous honesty. Spencer’s method, of course, was too deductive and a priori, very different from Bacon’s ideal or the actual procedure of scientific thought. He had, says his secretary, “an inexhaustible faculty of developing a priori and a posteriori, inductive and deductive, arguments in support of any imaginable proposition;” and the a priori arguments were probably prior to the others. Spencer began, like a scientist, with observation; he proceeded, like a scientist, to make hypotheses; but then, unlike a scientist, he resorted not to experiment, nor to impartial observation, but to the selective accumulation of favorable data. He had no nose at all for “negative instances.” Contrast the procedure of Darwin, who, when he came upon data unfavorable to his theory, hastily made note of them, knowing that they had a way of slipping out of the memory a little more readily than the welcome facts!

Spencer began, like a scientist, with observation; he proceeded, like a scientist, to make hypotheses; but then, unlike a scientist, he resorted not to experiment, nor to impartial observation, but to the selective accumulation of favorable data. 


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