Spencer, Herbert (b. 1820)

Spencer, Herbert, systematiser and unifier of scientific knowledge up to date, born at Derby, son of a teacher, who early inoculated him with an interest in natural objects, though he adopted at first the profession of a railway engineer, which in about eight years he abandoned for the work of his life by way of literature, his first effort being a series of “Letters on the Proper Sphere of Government” in the Nonconformist in 1842, and his first work “Social Statics,” published in 1851, followed by “Principles of Psychology” four years after; in 1861 he published a work on “Education,” and his “First Principles” the following year, after which he began to construct his system of “Synthetic Philosophy,” which fills a dozen large volumes, and has established his fame as the foremost scientific philosopher of the time. Following in the lines of Auguste Comte and John Stuart Mill, he takes a wider sweep than either of them, fills the field he occupies with fuller and riper detail, resolves the whole of science into still more ultimate principles, and works the whole up into a more compact and comprehensive system. He is valiant before all for science, and relegates everything and every interest to Agnosticism that cannot give proof of its scientific rights. “What a thing is in itself,” he says, “cannot be known, because to know it we must strip it of all that it becomes, of all that has come to adhere to it.” The ultimate thus arrived at he finds to be, and calls, Energy, and that therefore, he says, we don't and can't know. That a thing is what it becomes seems never to occur to him, and yet only the knowledge of that is the knowledge of the ultimate of being, which is the thing he says we cannot know. To trace life to its roots he goes back to the cell, whereas common-sense would seem to require us, in order to know what the cell is, to inquire at the fruit. This is the doctrine of St. John, “The Word was God.” In addition to agnosticism another doctrine of Spencer's is Evolution, but in maintaining this he fails to see he is arguing for an empty conception barren of all thought, which thought is the alpha and omega of the whole process, and is as much an ultimate as and still more so than the energy in which he absorbs God. Indeed, his philosophy is what is called the Aufklärung (q.v.) in full bloom, and in which he strips us of all our spiritual content or Inhalt, and under which he would lead us out of “Houndsditch” (q.v.), not with, but without, all that properly belongs to us; (b. 1820).

Definition taken from The Nuttall Encyclopædia, edited by the Reverend James Wood (1907)

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