The Reason for this Examination
ALTHOUGH he stands
for much that is yet in dispute, there can be no question that at
the present time 1892 - Herbert Spencer, of all his contemporaries,
holds the foremost place in the intellectual world, and through a wider
circle than any man now living, and perhaps than any man of our century,
is regarded as a profound, original and authoritative thinker-by many
indeed as the greatest thinker the world has ever yet seen.
So large is the field over which
Mr. Spencer's writings have ranged, so many are the special branches
of knowledge he has laid under contribution, so difficult to the ordinary
mind are the abstractions in which he has dealt and the terminology in
which they are couched, that this great reputation is with the large
majority of the intelligent men who accept it more a matter of faith than
of reason. But this rather adds to than detracts from the popular estimate;
for what to us is vague often seems on that account the greater, and what
we have no means of measuring, all the more profound. Nor does Mr.
Spencer's standing as one of the greatest, to many the very greatest,
of philosophers, lack substantial basis in the opinions of those deemed
competent to gauge intellectual power.
John Stuart Mill styled him "one
of the acutest metaphysicians of recent times, one of the most vigorous
as well as the boldest thinker that English speculation has yet produced."
Professor Ray Lankester spoke of him as "an acute observer and experimentalist
versed in physics and chemistry, but above all, thoroughly instructed
in scientific methods." Richard A. Proctor characterized him as the
"clearest of thinkers." G. H. Lewes said "it is questionable whether
any thinker of finer caliber has appeared in our century," and that
"he alone of all British thinkers has organized a philosophy." Professor
David Masson deemed him "the one of all our thinkers who has founded
for himself the largest new scheme of a systematic philosophy." Dr. McCosh,
who fundamentally differed from him, said "his bold generalizations are
always instructive, and some of them may in the end be established as
the profoundest laws of the knowable universe." St. George Mivart, who
as a Catholic is also at variance in important matters, says "we cannot
deny the title of philosopher to such a thinker as Mr. Spencer, who does
genuinely bind together different and hitherto alien subjects, and that
by a clear and wide though neither an all-comprehensive nor a spiritual
hypothesis, the principle of evolution." Professor Tyndall calls him
"the apostle of the understanding." His "profound and vigorous writings"
have been likened by Professor Huxley to "the embodiment of the spirit
of Descartes in the knowledge of our own day." Darwin spoke of him as
"our great philosopher," greeted him as "the great expounder of the principle
of evolution," and wrote to him that "every one with eyes to see and ears
to hear ought to bow their knee to you." Professor Stanley Jevons ranked
his work with the "Principia" of Newton. John Fiske, representing unquestionably
the opinion of large numbers of intelligent and influential men, declares
it to be of the calibre of that of Aristotle and Newton, but "as far surpassing
their work in its vastness of performance as the railway surpasses the
sedan-chair or as the telegraph surpasses the carrier pigeon." President
Barnard in the same strain said, "his philosophy is the only philosophy
that satisfies an earnestly inquiring mind," adding that "we have in
Herbert Spencer not only the profoundest thinker of our time, but the most
capacious and powerful intellect of all time. Aristotle and his master
were not more beyond the pygmies who preceded them than he is beyond Aristole.
Kant, Hegel, Fichte and Schelling are gropers in the dark by the side of
Such estimates are not unquestioned,
and opinions of a different kind might be cited from men of high standing.
But the current of general thought, swelled by the wonderful scientific
achievements of our time, has run powerfully, almost irresistibly,
in favor of ideas with which Mr. Spencer is identified, absorbing, intimidating
and driving back opposition even where it seemed most firmly intrenched,
until to question them has come largely to be looked upon as evidence
not merely of unscientific beliefs, but of ignorance and superstition.
Whatever may be the verdict of the future, the man who is regarded as
the great philosopher of evolution has within his own time won an acceptance
and renown such as no preceding philosopher ever personally enjoyed. Thus,
these estimates represent the view that has had the largest currency and
produced the greatest effect, and that gives the weight of high authority
to any declaration of Mr. Spencer's on a subject that has engaged his
attention. Such a declaration, made with the utmost deliberation, in his
latest, and as he and his admirers deem, his ripest and most important
work, I propose in what follows to examine.
I do not propose to discuss Mr.
Spencer's philosophy or review his writings, except as embraced
in or related to his teachings on one subject. That, while a subject
of the first practical importance, is one where no special knowledge,
no familiarity with metaphysical terminology, no wrestling with abstractions,
is needed, and one where the validity of the reasoning may be judged
for himself by anyone of ordinary powers and acquirements.
My primary object is to defend
and advance a principle in which I see the only possible relief from
much that enthralls and degrades and distorts, turning light to darkness
and good to evil, rather than to gauge a philosopher or weigh a philosophy.
Yet the examination I propose must lead to a decisive judgment upon both.
As Mr. Spencer's treatment of this principle began with his first book
and ends with his last, we have in it a cross section of his teachings,
traversing the open plain of obvious facts and common perceptions, in
which we who have no more than ordinary knowledge and powers may test for
ourselves his intellectual ability, and, what is even more important,
his intellectual honesty. For to whatever extent we may elsewhere separate
ability and honesty, respecting the talent while distrusting the man,
such separation cannot be made in the field of philosophy. Since philosophy
is the search for truth, the philosopher who in his teachings is swerved
by favor or by fear forfeits all esteem as a philosopher.
Nor is the connection between
the practical problems that are forcing themselves on our civilization
and the deepest questions with which speculative philosophy deals,
merely personal or accidental. It belongs to the nature of the human
mind, to our relations to the universe in which we awake to consciousness.
And just as in Progress and Poverty the connection that developed
as I went along carried me from an inquiry into economic phenomena
to considerations that traversed Mr. Spencer's theory of social evolution
and raised such supreme questions as the existence of God and the immortality
of man, so now I find a similar connection asserting itself between
Mr. Spencer's utterances on the most important of social questions
and the views on wider and subjects that have given him such a great reputation.
It is this—that a question of
the utmost practical importance thus leads to questions beside which
in our deeper moments the practical sinks into insignificance; that
the philosopher whose authority is now invoked to deny to the any
right to the physical basis of life in this world is also the philosopher
whose authority darkens to many all hope of life hereafter—that has
made it seem to me worth while to enter into an examination which in
its form must be personal, and that will lead me to treat at greater
length than I would otherwise be inclined to those utterances of Mr.
Spencer which I propose to discuss.
I shall not ask the reader to
accept anything from me. All I ask of him is to judge for himself
Mr. Spencer's own public declarations. The respect for authority,
the presumption in favor of those who have won intellectual reputation,
is within reasonable limits, both prudent and becoming. But it should
not bc carried too far, and there are some things especially as to which
it behooves us all to use our own judgment and maintain free minds. For
not only does the history of the world show that undue deference to authority
has been the potent agency through which errors have been enthroned and
superstitions perpetuated, but there are regions of thought in which
the largest powers and the greatest acquirements cannot guard against
aberrations or assure deeper insight.
One may stand on a box and look
over the head of his fellows, but he no better sees the stars. The
telescope and the microscope reveal depths which to the unassisted
vision are closed. Yet not merely do they bring us no nearer to the cause
of suns and animalcula, but in looking through them the observer must
shut his eyes to what lies about him. That intension is at the expense
of extension is seen in the mental as in the physical sphere. A man of
special learning may be a fool as to common relations. And that he who
passes for an intellectual prince may be a moral pauper there are
examples enough to show.
As we must go to the shoemaker
if we would be well shod and to the tailor if we would be well clad,
so as to special branches of knowledge must we rely on those who
have studied them. But while yielding to reputation the presumption
in its favor, and to authority the respect that is its due, let us not
too much underrate our own powers in what is concerned with common facts
and general relations. While we may not be scientists or philosophers,
we too are men. Let us remember that there is no religious superstition
that has not been taught by professed teachers of religious truth; that
there is no vulgar economic fallacy that may not be found in the writings
of professors; no social vagary current among "the ignorant" whose roots
may not be discovered among "the educated and cultured." The power to
reason correctly on general subjects is not to be learned in schools,
nor does it come with special knowledge. It results from care in separating,
from caution in combining, from the habit of asking ourselves the meaning
of the words we use and making sure of one step before building another
on it—and above all, from loyalty to truth.
Giving to Mr. Spencer, therefore,
the presumption that is due to his great reputation, but at the
same time using his own reason, let the reader consider the matter
I shall lay before him.
Herbert Spencer's last volume,
"Justice," contains his latest word on the land question—the question
in which, as I believe, lies the only solution of all the vexed and
threatening social and political problems of our time. Accompanied,
as it has been, by the withdrawal of earlier utterances, it places him
definitely on the side of those who contend that the treatment of land
as private property cannot equitably be interfered with, a position
the reverse of that he once ably asserted.
While the opinions of a man of
such wide reputation and large influence, on a question already passing
into the domain of practical politics and soon to become the burning
question of the time, are most worthy of attention, they derive additional
importance from the fact of this change. For a change from a clearly
reasoned opinion to its opposite carries the implication of fair and
full consideration. And if the reasons the reason for such a change
be sufficient and there be no suspicion of ulterior motive, the fact
that a man now condemns opinions he once held adds to the admiration
that previously we may have entertained for him the additional admiration
we must feel for one who has shown that he would rather be right than
What gives additional interest
to the matter is that Mr. Spencer makes no change in his premises,
but only in his premises but only in his conclusion, and now, in sustaining
private property in land, asserts the same principle of equal liberty
from which he originally deduced its condemnation. How he has been led
to this change becomes, therefore, a most interesting inquiry, not merely
from the great importance of the subject itself, but the light it must
throw on the logical processes of so a philosopher.
Since no one else has attempted
it, it seems incumbent on me to examine this change and its grounds.
For not only do I hold the opinions which Mr. Spencer now controverts,
but I have been directly and indirectly instrumental in giving to
his earlier conclusions a much greater circulation than his own books
would have given them. It is due, therefore, that I should make his
rejection of these conclusions as widely known as I can, and thus correct
the mistake of those who couple us together as holding views he now opposes.
To fairly weigh Mr. Spencer's
present opinion on the land question, and to comprehend his reasons
for the change, it is necessary to understand his previous position.
Beginning, therefore, with his first declaration, I propose to trace
his public expressions on this subject to the present time, and, that
no injustice may be done him, to print them in full. In what follows
the reader will find what Mr. Spencer has published on the land question
from 1850 to 1892, and, by the difference in type, may readily distinguish
his utterances from my comments.