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The Origin and Context of Herbert Spencer's Thought (Turner, Beeghley, & Powers, 2002, pp. 43-53)
The Sociology of Herbert Spencer (Turner, Beeghley, & Powers, 2002, pp. 54-89)
George Eliot once remarked of Herbert Spencer, whom she knew well, that "the life of this philosopher, like that of the great Kant, offers little material for the narrator." She was right. There is nothing in his life that compares to the rich texture of experience, of tragedy, of trials and tribulations that one encounters in Comte's career or in Marx's.
Spencer was born on April 27, 1820, in Derby, in the bleak and dismal English Midlands, the heart of British industry. He was the oldest of nine children and the only one to survive. His father, George Spencer, and his whole family were staunch nonconformist Dissenters, highly individualistic in their outlook. George Spencer, a rather eccentric man who combined Quaker sympathies with Benthamite radicalism and rabid anti-clericalism, taught school in Derby. Aggressively independent, he would not take his hat off to anyone and would never address his correspondents as "Esquire" or "Reverend" but always as "Mr." Keenly interested in science and politics, he was for a time honorary secretary of the local Philosophical Society and one of the mainstays of local Dissent. Spencer's mother Harriet is described as a patient and gentle woman whose marriage to his irascible and irritable father seems not to have been happy.
Being sickly and weak as a child, Herbert Spencer did not attend a regular school. His father educated him at home. At the age of thirteen, he moved to the home of a clerical uncle near Bath, from whom he received his further education. This clergyman, who was also an advanced social reformer, a Chartist sympathizer, and an advocate of temperance, taught young Herbert the principles of Philosophical Radicalism as well as the rigid code of dissenting Protestantism. When the Reverend Spencer was asked one day at a gathering why the young Spencer wasn't dancing, he replied, "No Spencer ever dances."
The education Spencer received from his father and uncle leaned heavily on the scientific side. His grounding in Latin and Greek was weak, and he never became even a tolerable linguist. He received no formal instruction in English, and his knowledge of history was superficial. At the age of sixteen he had a good background in mathematics and the natural sciences, but he was not, nor was he ever to become, a generally cultivated man.
Feeling himself unfit for a university career and unwilling to attend Cambridge as his father had done, Herbert Spencer decided to follow his scientific interests, and in 1837 joined the staff of the London and Birmingham Railway as an engineer. A year later he took up a better position as a draftsman with the Birmingham and Gloucester Railway. In addition to his regular duties, Spencer here busied himself with a variety of minor inventions, which he thought much of but which came to little. When the construction of the railroad was finished in 1841, he was discharged and returned home to Derby.
In the next few years Spencer published several articles in the radical press, first on engineering but soon after on social and political questions as well. A series of letters to a dissenting paper, The Nonconformist, already indicate the direction of his later course; these letters, entitled "The Proper Sphere of Government," argued for an extreme restriction of the scope of government. He contended that the whole field of human activity, except for policing, should be left to private enterprise. There were to be no poor laws, no national education, no established church, no restrictions on commerce, and no factory legislation.
For a number of years, Spencer struggled on the fringes of radical journalism and of radical politics. Finally, having despaired of making a livelihood as a writer, he returned for a while to the employment of the Birmingham and Gloucester Railway. For two years thereafter he was without settled employment, dabbling in mechanical inventions and radical journalism and even dreaming for a time of emigrating to New Zealand. At last, in 1848, he found a stable position and assured income as a subeditor with the London Economist.
From Coser, 1977:102-104.
(Special acknowledgement to Larry R. Ridener and The Dead Sociologists' Society) http://raven.jmu.edu/~ridenelr/personal/VITA.HTML
During the five years with the Economist, Spencer built up his relations in the world of advanced journalism in London. He met John Chapman, the publisher, G. H. Lewes, the radical writer, and Lewes' future consort George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans). Soon afterwards he also met the distinguished scientists Thomas Huxley and John Tyndall, who were to remain his close friends through most of his life.
While working on the Economist, Spencer finished his first book, Social Statics, which was published in 1851. Expounding ideas first adumbrated in "The Proper Sphere of Government," the book was well received by the radical public, which welcomed him as a new recruit to the creed of laissez faire. Spencer now started to write with some regularity for a variety of journals, from the Benthamite Westminster Review to the Whig Edinburgh Review. A paper on "The Developmental Hypothesis" dating from 1852, seven years before Darwin's Origin of Species, expounded and advocated a theory of evolution based on Lamarckian principles--that is, a pre-Darwinian theory of evolution stressing the notion of the inheritance of acquired characteristics--and initiated a concern with evolution that was to last through Spencer's long life.
When his uncle died in 1853, he left Spencer a sizable sum of money. In view of this, as well as the connections he now had at a number of reviews, Spencer felt encouraged to give up his job with the Economist. From then on he lived the life of a private scholar without regular employment or institutional attachment. A lifelong bachelor, having been brought up in the strict abstemious discipline of Derby Dissent, he lived frugally and parsimoniously in successive lodgings and rooming houses about London. For a while it had seemed that his friendship with George Eliot would lead to marriage. Spencer had even gone so far out of his habitual ways as to take her to the opera and to restaurants. But although she seems to have been willing, he finally recoiled. One knows of no later amatory experience; there is every likelihood that Spencer died not only a bachelor but a virgin.
In 1854, Spencer began writing his second book, The Principles of Psychology. It was published the next year but, unlike Social Statics, was not well received. Soon after he suffered from a nervous illness, the nature of which in unclear. (Modern psychiatrists would probably diagnose the illness as a severe neurotic disorder.) All day long he wandered aimlessly about town, unable to concentrate, unable to write, unable even to read. The doctors could find no clear organic cause and talked of overstrain or some obscure lesion of the brain. After a year and a half of enforced idleness Spencer slowly returned to work. But he was to remain a semi-invalid and psychic cripple throughout the rest of his life. Suffering from acute insomnia, which he at times attempted to overcome with a fairly heavy does of opium, Spencer was henceforth never able to work more than a few hours a day. To work longer would lead to undue nervous excitement and hence insomnia.
The retreat into illness was also for Spencer a retreat from social intercourse. Treating himself with a variety of nostrums, watching his every symptom with the assiduity of the hypochondriac, he increasingly led the life of a semi-hermit. Among his many eccentricities was the wearing of a special set of ear stoppers, which allowed him, when necessary, to escape from listening. At his clubs he could be seen browsing through the papers or playing a game of billiards, but otherwise he shunned the company of all but a few trusted friends, admirers, and disciples. In his worst periods he found company almost unbearable, and in his later years even the idea of a public lecture became intolerable.
From Coser, 1977:104-105.
All the while, books poured from his pen in a steady stream; his intellectual processes seem not to have suffered from his nervous ailments. First Principles (of his overall Synthetic Philosophy) was published in 1862. The several volumes of Principles of Biology were issued between 1864 and 1867. The Study of Sociology appeared in 1873, and the many volumes of Principles of Ethics and Principles of Sociology were published between the seventies and the nineties. The Man Versus the State appeared in 1884 and the Autobiography in 1904. He published, in addition, several volumes of essays and Fragments as well as the many volumes of Descriptive Sociology, mainly written by several secretaries and collaborators. Many of these books were issued to a select group of subscribers before being released for general publication.
The first few volumes of Spencer's Synthetic Philosophy attracted scant interest in the British press. Most comments dealt with peripheral issues such as his agnosticism. But Spencer enjoyed the esteem of a number of radical thinkers and advanced scientists such as John Stuart Mill, Huxley, and Tyndall, men who helped spread his message. Many of them belonged to the famous dining club that Spencer had joined contrary to his usual custom of withdrawal. This company exercised considerable scientific and public influence, for in included among its member three who became presidents of the Royal Society, five who became presidents of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, as well as a president of the College of Surgeons and a president of the Chemical Society.
When Principles of Biology was completed, Spencer calculated that he had spent altogether nearly œ1,100 in writing and publishing books that had met with indifferent success. Obliged every year to dip into his inherited capital, he issued a notice of cancellation to the few hundred persons who had subscribed to the Synthetic Philosophy. A circular was then drawn up by Mill, Huxley, Tyndall, and others, inviting a wider public to subscribe to the series. At the same time, the death of his father brought Spencer another legacy, and his devoted American follower Edward L. Youmans collected a considerable sum of money from Spencer's American admirers. Soon afterwards his books began to sell well, and he suffered no further material difficulties.
From the seventies on, Spencer became a very successful author. The Study of Sociology, for example, was published serially both in England and America, as well as in book form, netting Spencer more than œ1,500 profit. Many later works also appeared serially in the Fortnight Review in England and the Popular Science Monthly in America, and in book form as well. Apart from his major works, Spencer also continued to contribute to the leading reviews, such as the Contemporary Review and the Nineteenth Century. From the seventies onward, he was a renowned scientist, one of the most eminent Victorians.
Toward the end of his life, Spencer commented bitterly that his Social Statics, which he considered a weak work, had received more critical acclaim than any of his mature writings. But in fact he enjoyed considerable recognition. Principles of Biology was used as a textbook at Oxford. William James assigned both First Principles and Principles of Psychology as textbooks to his Harvard students. William Graham Sumner taught Spencerism in American dress at Yale, and the large printings of Spencer's more popular works indicate his wide appeal among the educated lay public in England and especially in America. By the turn of the century, most of his work had appeared in French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Russian translations.
Throughout his life Spencer refused nearly all honors offered him by universities, the government, or scientific bodies. He had no official position and no university degree. Yet during the last quarter of the century he enjoyed an international reputation and influence almost comparable to that of Charles Darwin.
In the last years of his long life, what little time he had for writing he devoted to a wider variety of controversial issues of the day, from opposition to the Boer War to a proposal for the adoption of the metric system in England. An unhappy old man, almost wholly at variance with the political trends of the time, he lived these last few years in almost complete withdrawal from human intercourse. He died on December 8, 1903, at the age of eighty-three. His body, following the provisions of his will, was cremated.
From Coser, 1977:105-107.
Herbert Spencer was a theorist whose valuable insights have often been drowned in a sea of irrelevance and specious reasoning. What is relevant in his work will therefore have to be selected in a manner recommended by Richard Hofstadter when he wrote about Frederick Jackson Turner, "The most valid procedure with a historical thinker of his kind is not to try to have sport with his marginal failings but to rescue whatever is viable by cutting out what has proved wrong, tempering what is overstated, tightening what is loosely put, and setting the whole in its proper place among usable perspectives." This account of Spencer's work will be severely selective. Here, as elsewhere in this book, only the writer's sociological contributions, and among these only the central ones, will be considered. Spencer's general metaphysics, or antimetaphysics, will be touched upon only tangentially. This is all the easier since critics now seem to be of the opinion that deep down Spencer was a rather shallow philosopher.
Some historians of sociology tend to see Spencer as a continuator of Comte's organicist and evolutionary approach. Although Spencer seems to have protested too much in disclaiming any profound influence of Comte's thought on his own, it is true that his general orientation differs significantly from Comte's. Spencer described their different approaches in this way:
What is Comte's professed aim? To give a coherent account of the progress of human conceptions. What is my aim? To give a coherent account of the progress of the external world.Comte proposes to describe the necessary, and the actual, filiation of ideas. I propose to describe the necessary, and the actual, filiation of things. Comte professes to interpret the genesis of our knowledge of nature. My aim is to interpret . . . the genesis of the phenomena which constitute nature, The one is subjective. The other is objective..
Comte was, of course, not only interested in the development of ideas but also in the correlative changes in social organization, and he dealt with social order as well as with progress. Nevertheless, Spencer correctly perceived the essential differences between them. Spencer's first and foremost concern was with evolutionary changes in social structures and social institutions rather than with the attendant mental states. To Spencer, like to Marx, ideas were epiphenomenal. "The average opinion in every age and country," he writes, "is a function of the social structure in that age and country."
Evolution, that is, "a change from a state of relatively indefinite, incoherent, homogeneity to a state of relatively definite, coherent, heterogeneity," was to Spencer that universal process, which explains alike both the "earliest changes which the universe at large is supposed to have undergone . . . and those latest changes which we trace in society and the products of social life." Once this master key to the riddles of the universe is used, it becomes apparent, Spencer argued, that the evolution of human societies, far from being different from other evolutionary phenomena, is but a special case of a universally applicable natural law. Sociology can become a science only when it is based on the idea of natural, evolutionary law. "There can be no complete acceptance of sociology as a science, so long as the belief in a social order not conforming to natural law, survives."
It is axiomatic to Spencer that ultimately all aspects of the universe, whether organic or inorganic, social or nonsocial, are subject to the laws os evolution. His sociological reflections concentrate, however, on the parallels between organic and social evolution, between similarities in the structure and evolution of organic and social units. Biological analogies occupy a privileged position in all of Spencer's sociological reasoning, although he was moved to draw attention to the limitations of such analogies. Because Spencer was a radical individualist, organic analogies caused him some sociological and philosophical difficulties, which Comte, with his collective philosophy, was spared.
Spencer's most fruitful use of organic analogies was his notion that with evolutionary growth come changes in any unit's structure and functions, that increases in size bring in their wake increases in differentiation. What he had in mind here, to use a homely example, is the idea that if men were suddenly to grow to the size of elephants, only major modifications in their bodily structures would allow them to continue being viable organisms.
From Coser, 1977:89-90.
Both organic and social aggregates are characterized by Spencer according to progressive increases in size. "Societies, like living bodies, begin as germs--originate from masses which are extremely minute in comparison with the masses some of them eventually reach." Societal growth may come about through two processes, "which go on sometimes separately, and sometimes together." It results either from an increase in population, "by simple multiplication of units," or from the joining of previously unrelated units by "union of groups, and again by union of groups of groups."
Increases in the size of units is invariably accompanied by an increase in the complexity of their structure. The process of growth, by definition, is to Spencer a process of integration. And integration in its turn must be accompanied by a progressive differentiation of structures and functions if the organism or the societal unit is to remain viable--that is, if it is to survive in the struggle for existence. Animals that are low on the evolutionary scale, just like embryos of those higher on that scale, have but few distinguishable parts; they are relatively homogeneous. So it is with society. "At first the unlikeness among its groups of units is inconspicuous in number and degree, but as population augments, divisions and subdivisions become more numerous and more decided."
Social aggregates, like organic ones, grow from relatively undifferentiated states in which the parts resemble one another into differentiated states in which these parts have become dissimilar. Moreover, once parts have become unlike, they are mutually dependent on each other; thus, with growing differentiation comes growing interdependence and hence integration. "While rudimentary, a society is all warrior, all hunter, all hut-builder, all tool-maker: every part fulfills for itself all needs."
As [society] grows, its parts become unlike: it exhibits increase of structure. The unlike parts simultaneously assume activities of unlike kinds. These activities are not simply different, but the differences are so related as to make one another possible. The reciprocal aid thus given causes mutual dependence of the parts. And the mutually dependent parts, living by and for another, form an aggregate constituted on the same general principle as is an individual organism.
"This division of labor, first dwelt on by political economists as a social phenomenon, and thereupon recognized by biologists as a phenomenon of living bodies, which they called the 'physiological division of labor,' is that which in the society, as in the animal, makes it a living whole."
In simple hunting tribes, specialization of functions is still only crudely developed. The same men are typically both hunters and warriors. But as settled agricultural societies arise, the roles of cultivator and warrior become more distinct. Similarly, small tribal groupings have but rudimentary political institutions, but as larger political units arise, increasing political complexity and differentiation appear with the emergence of chiefs, rulers, and kings. With further increases in size, "a differentiation analogous to that which originally produced a chief now produces a chief of chiefs."
As the parts of a social whole become more unlike and the roles individuals play become in consequence more differentiated, their mutual dependence increases. "The consensus of functions becomes closer as evolution advances. In low aggregates, both individual and social, the actions of the parts are but little dependent on one another, whereas in developed aggregates of both kinds that combination of actions which constitutes the life of the whole makes possible the component actions which constitute the lives of the parts." It follows as a corollary that, "where parts are little differentiated they can readily perform one another's functions very imperfectly, or not at all." In simple societies, where the parts are basically alike, they can be easily substituted for one another. But in complex societies, "the actions of one part which fails in its function cannot be assumed by other parts." Complex societies are therefore more vulnerable and more fragile in structure than their earlier and ruder predecessors. Contemporary examples come to mind when one thinks, for example, of the contrast between American society and a simple agrarian society such as that of Vietnam.
The increasing mutual dependence of unlike parts in complex societies, and the vulnerability it brings in its wake necessitate the emergence of a "regulating system" that controls the actions of the parts and insures their coordination. "It inevitably happens that in the body politic, as in the living body, there arises a regulating system. . . . As compound aggregates are formed . . . there arise supreme regulating centers and subordinate ones and the supreme centers begin to enlarge and complicate." Early in the process of social evolution, regulating centers are mainly required for dealing with the outside environment, with the "enemies and prey;" but later such regulating centers assume the burden of internal regulation and social control when complexity of functions no longer allows the entirely spontaneous adjustment of parts to one another.
The stringency and scope of internal regulation was to Spencer a major distinguishing mark between types of societies, and he attempted to classify them in terms of the scope of internal controls. At the same time he also used another criterion of classification--degrees of evolutionary complexity. These two ways of establishing social types were related, yet largely independent of each other and led to certain difficulties for Spencer's overall scheme.
From Coser, 1977:91-93.
When attempting to classify types of societies in terms of their evolutionary stage, Spencer arranged them in a series as simple, compound, doubly compound, and trebly compound. The terminology is rather obscure, but what he seems to have in mind is a classification according to degrees of structural complexity. More specifically, he distinguished between simple societies, which were headless, those with occasional headship, those with unstable headship, and those with stable headship. Compound and doubly compound societies were likewise classified in terms of the complexity of their political organization. Similarly, various types of societies were ranked according to the evolution of their modes of settlement, whether nomadic, semisettled, or settled. Societies generally were said to evolve from simple to compound and double compound structures through necessary stages. "The stages of compounding and re-compounding have to be passed through in succession."
In addition to this classification of societies by their degree of complexity, Spencer proposed another basis for distinguishing between types of societies. In this other scheme the focus is on the type of internal regulation within societies. To distinguish between what he called militant and industrial societies, Spencer used as the basis a difference in social organization brought about through forms of social regulation. This classification, it needs to be emphasized, is at variance with that based on stages of evolution. It is rooted in a theory of society that states that types of social structure depend on the relation of a society to other societies in its significant environment. Whether this relation is peaceful or militant affects the internal structures of a society and its system of regulations. With peaceful relations come relatively weak and diffuse systems of internal regulations; with militant relations come coercive and centralized controls. Internal structure is no longer dependent, as in the first scheme, on the level of evolution, but rather on the presence or absence of conflict with neighboring societies.
The characteristic trait of militant societies is compulsion.
The trait characterizing the militant structure throughout is that its units are coerced into their various combined actions. As the soldier's will is so suspended that he becomes in everything the agent of his officer's will, so is the will of the citizen in all transactions, private and public, overruled by that of the government. The cooperation by which the life of the militant society is maintained is compulsory cooperation . . . just as in the individual organism the outer organs are completely subject to the chief nervous center.
The industrial type of society, in contrast, is based on voluntary cooperation and individual self-restrain. It is
characterized throughout by the same individual freedom which every commercial transaction implies. The cooperation by which the multiform activities of the society are carried on becomes a voluntary cooperation. And while the developed sustaining system which give to a social organism the industrial type acquires for itself, like the developed sustaining system of an animal, a regulating apparatus of a diffused and uncentralized kind, it tends also to decentralize the primary regulating apparatus by making it derive from numerous classes its disputed powers.
Spencer stressed that the degree of societal complexity is independent of the militant-industrial dichotomy. Relatively undifferentiated societies may be "industrial" in Spencer's sense (not in today's usage of "industrial society"), and modern complex societies may be militant. What determines whether a society is militant or industrial is not the level of complexity but rather the presence or absence of conflict with the outside.
|Characteristic||Militant Society||Industrial Society|
|Dominant function or activity||Corporate defensive and offensive activity for preservation and aggrandizement||Peaceful, mutual rendering of individual services|
|Principle of social coordination||Compulsory cooperation; regimentation by enforcement of orders; both positive and negative regulation of activity||Voluntary cooperation; regulation by contract and principles of justice; only negative regulation of activity|
|Relations between state and individual||Individuals exist for benefit of state; restraints on liberty, property, and mobility||State exists for benefit of individuals; freedom; few restraints on property and mobility|
|Relations between state and other organizations||All organizations public; private organizations excluded||Private organizations encourage|
|Structure of state||Centralized||Decentralized|
|Structure of social stratification||Fixity of rank, occupation, and locality; inheritance of positions||Plasticity and openness of rank, occupation, and locality; movement between positions|
|Type of economic activity||Economic autonomy and self-sufficiency; little external trade; protectionism||Loss of economic autonomy; interdependence via peaceful trade; free trade|
|Valued social and personal characteristics||Patriotism; courage; reverence; loyalty; obedience; faith in authority; discipline||Independence; respect for others; resistance to coercion; individual initiative; truthfulness; kindness|
While the classification of societies in terms of increasing evolutionary complexity gave Spencer's system an optimistic cast--where he later used the term evolution, he earlier spoke of progress--the militant-industrial classification led him to less sanguine views of the future of mankind. Writing toward the turn of the century, he stated:
If we contrast the period from 1815 to 1850 with the period from 1850 to the present time, we cannot fail to see that all along with increased armaments, more frequent conflicts, and revived military sentiment, there has been a spread of compulsory regulations. . . . The freedom of individuals has been in many ways actually diminished . . . . And undeniably this is a return towards the coercive discipline which pervades the whole social life where the militant type is pre-eminent.
Spencer was by no means, as he is often depicted, the unalloyed believer in continued unilinear progress. This becomes even more evident in his general scheme of evolution.
From Coser, 1977:93-94.
In many passages Spencer expresses what seems to be a belief in the unilinear evolution of mankind, in which it appears that mankind's progress through stages of development is as rigidly determined as the evolution of individuals from childhood to maturity. "As between infancy and maturity there is no shortcut by which there may be avoided the tedious process of growth and development through insensible increments; so there is no way from the lower forms of social life to the higher, but one passing through small successive modifications . . . The process cannot be abridged and must be gone through with due patience." At times, especially in his earlier writings, Spencer pictures the process of evolution as unremitting, unrelenting, and ever present. "The change from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous is displayed in the progress of civilization as a whole, as well as in the progress of every nation; and it is still going on with increasing rapidity."
Yet the mature Spencer, perhaps under the impact of his disappointment over the "collectivist" course English society was taking toward the end of the nineteenth century, recognized that, though the evolution of mankind as a whole was certain, particular societies may retrogress as well as progress. "Though taking the entire assemblage of societies, evolution may be held inevitable . . . yet it cannot be held inevitable in each particular society, or even probable." "While the current degradation theory is untenable, the theory of progression, in its ordinary form, seems to me untenable also . . . . It is possible and, I believe, probable, that retrogression has been as frequent as progression." "A social organism," Spencer argued, "like an individual organism, undergoes modifications until it comes into equilibrium with environing conditions; and thereupon continues without further change of structure." Once such equilibrium has been reached, evolution continues "to show itself only in the progressing integration that ends in rigidity [and] practically ceases."
Although passages to the contrary could be quoted, Spencer by and large believed that societies do not develop irreversibly through predetermined stages. Rather, it was his general view that they developed in response to their social and natural environment.
Like other kinds of progress, social progress is not linear but divergent and re-divergent . . . . While spreading over the earth mankind have found environments of various characters, and in each case the social life fallen into, partly determined by the social life previously led, has been partly determined by the influences of the new environment; so that the multiplying groups have tended ever to acquire differences, now major and now minor: there have arisen genera and species of societies.
Spencer specifically distinguished his own thought from that of rigid upholders of theories of unilinear stages, such as Comte, when he wrote, "Hence arose, among other erroneous preconceptions, this serious one, that the different forms of society presented by savage and civilized races all over the globe are but different stages in the evolution of one form: the truth being rather that social types, like the types of individual organisms, do not form a series, but are classifiable only in divergent and re-divergent groups."
By introducing the factors of stagnation and retrogression, Spencer no doubt made his theory more flexible, but it thereby lost some of its appeal as a universal key to the riddles of the universe. Beatrice Webb reports in her autobiography, My Apprenticeship, that her father, a successful businessman, once told her in dispraise of Spencer, "Some businesses grow divers and complicated, others get simpler and more uniform, others go into the Bankruptcy Court. In the long run and over the whole field there is no more reason for expecting one process rather than the other."
From Coser, 1977:96-97.
We have considered Spencer's emphasis that changes in structure cannot occur without changes in functions and that increases in size of social units necessarily bring in their wake progressive differentiations in social activities. Indeed, much of Spencer's discussion of social institutions and their changes is expressed in functional terms. In these analyses Spencer's point of departure is always the search for the functions subserved by a particular item under analysis. "To understand how an organization originated and developed, it is requisite to understand the need subserved at the outset and afterwards." Spencer analyzed social institutions in relation to the general matrix in which they were variously embedded. He expressed the conviction "that what, relative to our thoughts and sentiments, were arrangements impracticable." He warned against the common error of regarding customs that appeared strange and repugnant by contemporary standards as being of no value to particular societies. "Instead of passing over as of no account or else regarding as purely mischievous, the superstitions of primitive man, we must inquire what part they play in social evolution."
In his discussions of social institutions, Spencer makes great efforts to show that they are not the result of deliberate intentions and motivations of actors--he had a very acute sense for the unanticipated consequences of human actions--but that they arise from functional and structural exigencies. "Conditions and not intentions determine . . . . Types of political organization are not matters of deliberate choice." Spencer enjoins us to study institutions under the double aspect of their evolutionary stage and of the functions they subserve at that stage.
From Coser, 1977:97-98.
Spencer had to find a way of reconciling his thoroughgoing individualism with his organicist approach. In this he differed sharply from Comte, who, it will be remembered, was basically anti-individualistic in his general philosophy and developed an organicist theory in which the individual was conceived as firmly subordinated to society. Spencer, in contrast, not only conceived of the origins of society in individualistic and utilitarian terms, but saw society as a vehicle for the enhancement of the purposes of individuals.
According to Spencer, men had originally banded together because it was advantageous for them to do so. "Living together arose because, on the average, it proved more advantageous to each than living apart." And once society had come into being, it was perpetuated because, "maintenance of combination [of individuals] is maintenance of conditions . . . more satisfactory [to] living than the combined persons would otherwise have." In line with his individualistic perspective, he saw the quality of a society as depending to a large extent on the quality of the individuals who formed it. "There is no way of coming at a true theory of society, but by inquiry into the nature of its component individuals. . . . Every phenomenon exhibited by an aggregation of men originates in some quality of man himself." Spencer held as a general principle that "the properties of the units determine the properties of the aggregate."
In spite of these individualistic underpinnings of his philosophy, Spencer developed an overall system in which the organicist analogy is pursued with even more rigor than in Comte's work. The ingenious way Spencer attempted to overcome the basic incompatibility between individualism and organicism is best described in his own words. After having shown the similarity between social and biological organisms, he turned to show how they were unlike each other. A biological organism is encased in a skin, but a society is bound together by the medium of language.
The parts of an animal form a concrete whole, but the parts of society form a whole which is discrete. While the living units composing the one are bound together in close contact, the living unit composing the other are free, are not in contact, and are more or less widely dispersed. . . . Though coherence among its parts is a prerequisite to that cooperation by which the life of an individual organism is carried on, and though the members of a social organism, not forming a concrete whole, cannot maintain cooperation by means of physical influences directly propagated from part to part, yet they can and do maintain cooperation by another agency. Not in contact, they nevertheless affect one another through intervening spaces, both by emotional language and by the language, oral and written of the intellect . . . .That is to say, the internuncial function, not achievable by stimuli physically transferred, is nevertheless achieved by language.
The medium of language enables societies, though formed of discrete units, to exhibit a permanence of relations between component parts. But there is a more important difference still.
In the [biological organism] consciousness is concentrated in a small part of the aggregate. In the [social organism] it is diffused throughout the aggregate: all the units possess the capacity for happiness and misery, if not in equal degree, still in degrees that approximate. As, then, there is no social sensorium, the welfare of the aggregate, considered apart from that of the units, is not an end to be sought. The society exists for the benefit of its members; not its members for the benefit of society.
This is not the place to judge whether Spencer really managed to reconcile his individualism and his organicism--I rather think that he did not--but only to note that Spencer thought he had done so by stressing that no social body possessed a collective sensorium. Thus, despite functional differentiations between men, they all still aspired to a measure of "happiness" and satisfaction.
From Coser, 1977:98-99.
Spencer was at one with Comte in firmly believing in the operation of social laws, which are as deterministic as those governing nature. "There is no alternative. Either society has laws, or it has not. If it has not, there can be no order, no certainty, no system in its phenomena. If it has, then they are like the other laws of the universe--sure, inflexible, ever active, and having no exception." But while Comte stressed that men should aim at discovering the laws of society in order to act collectively in the social world, Spencer argued with equal conviction that we should study them in order not to act collectively. In contrast to Comte, who wanted to direct society through the spiritual power of his sociologist-priests, Spencer argued passionately that sociologists should convince the public that society must be free from the meddling of governments and reformers. "As I heard remarked by a distinguished professor," Spencer wrote, " 'When once you begin to interfere with the order of Nature there is no knowing where the result will end.' And if this is true of that sub-human order of Nature to which he referred, still more is it true of that order of Nature existing in the social arrangements of human beings." Given the complexity of causes operating in society and the fact that human actions are likely to result in consequences that can not be anticipated, Spencer urges us to let things well enough alone.
The only power Spencer was willing to grant the state was protection of the rights of the individual and collective protection against outside enemies. The state had "the duty not only of shielding each citizen from the trespasses of his neighbors, but of defending him, in common with the community at large, against foreign aggression." Everything else was to be left to the free initiative of individuals making contracts and agreements with one another.
For the healthful activity and due proportioning of those industries, occupations, and professions, which maintain and aid the life of a society, there must, in the first place, be few restrictions on men's liberties to make agreements with one another, and there must, in the second place, be an enforcement of the agreements which they do make . . . . The checks naturally arising to each man's actions when men become associated are those only which result from mutual limitations; and there consequently can be no resulting check to the contracts they voluntarily make.
A good society, in Spencer's view, is based on contracts between individuals pursuing their respective interests. Whenever the state intervenes in these contractual arrangements, whether for reasons of social welfare or any other, it either distorts the social order or leads to a retrogression from the benefits of industrial society to early forms of tyrannical and militant social order.
Although Spencer's extremely anticollectivist views can be traced to a number of extrascientific influences, it is also grounded in the doctrine of the survival of the fittest, which he, like Darwin, derived from Malthus. His own theory of population was somewhat more optimistic than that of the dismal parson. He argued that an excess of fertility stimulates greater activity because the more people there are, the more ingenuity is required to stay alive. The least intelligent groups and individuals die off; hence, the general level of intelligence is bound to rise gradually. "Those whom this increasing difficulty of getting a living, which excess of fertility entails, does not stimulate to improvements in production--that is, to greater mental activity--are on the high road to extinction; and must ultimately be supplanted by those whom the pressure does so stimulate."
Spencer argued that the general level of intelligence will rise to the extent that only those with superior intelligence survive in the battle for existence. But this beneficial evolutionary mechanism will be fatally upset, he contended, once governmental intervention in the form of poor laws or other measures of social welfare is allowed to distort the beneficial processes of natural selection.
That rigorous necessity which, when allowed to operate, becomes so sharp a spur to the lazy and so strong a bridle to the random, these paupers' friends would repeal . . . . Blind to the fact that under the natural order of things society is constantly excreting its unhealthy, imbecile, slow, vacillating, faithless members, these unthinking, though well-meaning, men advocate an interference which not only stops the purifying process, but even increases the vitiation-- absolutely encourages the multiplication of the reckless and incompetent by offering them an unfailing provision, and discourages the multiplication of the competent and provident by heightening the difficulty of maintaining a family.
The intervention of government in social affairs, Spencer argued, must distort the necessary adaptation of society to its environment. Once government intervenes, the beneficent processes that would naturally lead to man's more efficient and more intelligent control over nature will be distorted and give rise to a reverse maleficent process that can only lead to the progressive deterioration of the human race.
From Coser, 1977:99-101.
In sharp contrast to Comte and Marx, Spencer gave much thought to the question of objectivity in the social sciences. Although Comte preached a good deal about the need for scientific standards in the study of society, he was never unduly perturbed by the thought that he himself might be found wanting in scientific objectivity, nor did he reflect on sources of possible bias in his own work. Marx, of course, denied altogether that there could be a detached and objective social science. Theory to him was intimately linked to socialist practice.
Spencer, on the other hand, was aware of the special problems of objectivity that arise in the investigation of a social world in which the investigators themselves take part, and he saw in this a complication that does not arise in the study of natural phenomena. The social scientist, he claimed, must make a deliberate effort to free himself from biases and sentiments that are entirely appropriate and necessary for the citizen but that would vitiate the enterprise of the scientist were he tempted to carry them over into his scientific role. "In no other case," he writes,
has the inquirer the properties of an aggregate in which he is himself included. . . . Here, then, is a difficulty to which no other science presents anything analogous. To cut himself short from all his relationships of race, and country, and citizenship--to get rid of all those interests, prejudices, likings, superstitions generated in him by the life of his own society and his own time--to look at all the changes societies have undergone and are undergoing, without reference to nationality, or creed, or personal welfare, is what the average man cannot do at all, and what the exceptional man can do very imperfectly.
No less than half of Spencer's The Study of Sociology is devoted to a close analysis of sources of bias and of the "intellectual and emotional difficulties" that face the sociologist in his task. Chapter headings include, "The Bias of Patriotism," "The Class-Bias," "The Political Bias," "The Theological Bias." Spencer here develops a rudimentary sociology of knowledge in which he attempts to show how the defense of ideal or material interests tends to shape and distort perceptions of social reality. Spencer clearly deserves a place, if only a minor one, among those who, beginning with his great compatriot Francis Bacon, have developed the sociology of knowledge.
This account of the major doctrines of Herbert Spencer has emphasized some of their difficulties and contradictions. It would have been intellectually irresponsible to try to explain them away. An examination of Spencer's life and of the social and intellectual contexts in which he worked will help explain them.
From Coser, 1977:101-102.
It has been said that Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) exerted an influence upon the intellectual history of his time far in excess of the intrinsic merit of his work. However this may be, he was born in Derby, England, of nonconformist parents and was encouraged by his father, who was a teacher of mathematics and science at a private school and a strong believer in self-education, to cultivate an interest in both science and history. In actuality the young Spencer received hardly any formal education except for three years in a school of which his uncle was the master. In his young manhood he had a job in the engineering department of the London and Birmingham Railroad and afterwards served as editor of various political journals. During the remainder of his life he supported himself on the somewhat meager returns from his books and from such subscriptions as his friends were able to encourage in his behalf.
About 1860 Spencer embarked upon an enterprise that seems to us, now that the day of the system builder is past, almost fantastic--namely, a series of books that would comprehend and unify the entire sum of human knowledge in terms of a single principle, the principle of evolution. Omitting the evolution of the inorganic universe, he managed to produce First Principles, 1862; Principles of Biology, 1864-67; Principles of Psychology, 1870-72; Principles of Sociology, 1876-96; and Principles of Ethics, 1879-93. He also wrote, in 1873, The Study of Sociology. If it was Darwin who discovered the principle of evolution, it was Spencer who invented Darwinism and who gave it such a charge that it lasted for at least a half a century and colored the whole of social drought.
The following selection is from Volume I of The Principles of Sociology.
Through the minds of some who are critical respecting logical order, there has doubtless passed the thought that, along with the Data of Sociology, the foregoing chapters have included much which forms a part of Sociology itself. Admitting an apparent justification for this objection, the reply is that in no case can the data of a science be stated before some knowledge of the science has been reached; and that the analysis which disclose the data cannot be made without reference to the aggregate of phenomena analyzed. For example, in Biology the interpretation of functions implies knowledge of the various physical and chemical actions going on throughout the organism. Yet these physical and chemical actions become comprehensible only as fast as the relations of structures and reciprocities of functions become known; and, further, these physical and chemical actions cannot be described without reference to the vital actions interpreted by them. Similarly in Sociology, it is impossible to explain the origin and development of those ideas and sentiments which are leading factors in social evolution, without referring directly or by implication to the phases of that evolution.
The need for this preliminary statement of data, and the especial need for the latter part of it, will be seen when the results are gathered up, generalized, and formulated.
After recognizing the truth that the phenomena of social evolution are determined partly by the external actions to which the social aggregate is exposed, and partly by the natures of its unit and after observing that these two sets of factors are themselves progressively changed as the society evolves; we glanced at these two sets of factors in their original forms.
A sketch was given of the conditions, inorganic and organic, on various parts of the earth's surface; showing the effects of cold and heat, of humidity and dryness, of surface, contour, soil, minerals, of floras and faunas. After seeing how social evolution in its earlier stages depends entirely on a favorable combination of circumstances; and after seeing that though, along with advancing development, there goes increasing independence of circumstances, these ever remain important factors; it was pointed out that while dealing with principles of evolution which are common to all societies, we might neglect those special external factors which determine some of their special characters.
Our attention was then directed to the internal factors as primitive societies display them. An account was given of "The Primitive Man--Physical" showing that by stature, structure, strength, as well as by callousness and lack of energy, he was ill fitted for overcoming the difficulties in the way of advance. Examination of "The Primitive Man--Emotional" led us to see that his improvidence and his explosiveness, restrained but little by sociality and by the altruistic sentiments, rendered him unfit for cooperation. And then, in the chapter on "The Primitive Man--Intellectual," we saw that while adapted by its active and acute perceptions to primitive needs, his type of mind is deficient in the faculties required for progress in knowledge.
After recognizing these as the general traits of the primitive social unit, we found that there remained to be noted certain more special traits, implied by his ideas and their accompanying sentiments. This led us to trace the genesis of those beliefs concerning his own nature and the nature of surrounding things, which were summed up in the last chapter. And now observe the general conclusion reached. It is that while the conduct of the primitive man is in part determined by the feelings with which he regards men around him, it is in part determined by the feelings with which he regards men who have passed away. From these two sets of feelings, result two all-important sets of social factors. While the fear of the living becomes the root of the political control, the fear of the dead becomes the root of the religious control. On remembering how large a share the resulting ancestor-worship had in regulating life among the people who, in be Nile valley, first reached a high civilization--on remembering that the ancient Peruvians were subject to a rigid social system rooted in an ancestor worship so elaborate that the living might truly be called slaves of the dead--on remembering that in China too, there has been, and still continues, a kindred worship generating kindred restraints; we shall perceive, in the fear of the dead a social factor which is, at first, not less important, if indeed is not more important, than the fear of the living.
And thus is made manifest the need for the foregoing account of the origin and development of this trait in the social units by which coordination of their actions is rendered possible.
Setting out with social units as thus conditioned, as thus constituted physically, emotionally, and intellectually, and as thus possessed of certain early-acquired ideas and correlative feelings, the Science of Sociology has to give an account of all the phenomena that result from their combined actions.
The simplest of such combined actions are those by which the successive generations of units are produced, reared, and brought into fitness for cooperation. The development of the family thus stands first in order. The respective ways in which the fostering offspring is influenced by promiscuity, by polyandry, by polgyny, and by monogamy, have to be traced; as have also the results of exogamous marriage and endogamous marriage. These considered first as affecting the maintenance of the race in number and quality, have also to be considered as affecting the domestic lives of adults. Moreover, beyond observing how the several forms of the sexual relations modify family life, they have to be treated in connexion with public life; on which they act and which reacts on them. And then, after the sexual relations, have to be similarly dealt with the parental and filial relations.
Sociology has next to describe and explain the rise and development of that political organization which in several ways regulates affairs--which combines the actions of individuals for purposes of tribal or national offense and defence; which restrain them in certain of their dealings with one another; and which also restrains them in certain of their dealings with themselves. It has to trace the relations of this coordinating and controlling apparatus to the area occupied, to the amount and distribution of population, to the means of communication. It has to show to differences of form which this agency presents in the different social types, nomadic and settled, military and industrial. It has to describe the changing relations between this regulative structure which is unproductive, and those structures which carry on production and make national life possible. It has also to set forth the connexions between, and reciprocal influences of, the institutions carrying on civil government, and the other governmental institutions simultaneously developing--the ecclesiastical and the ceremonial. And then it has to take account of those modifications which persistent political restraints are ever working in the characters of the social units, as well as the modifications worked by the reactions of the changed characters of the units on the political organization.
There has to be similarly described the evolution of the ecclesiastical structures and functions. Commencing with these as united to, and often scarcely distinguishable from, the political structures and functions, their divergent developments must be traced. How the share of ecclesiastical agencies in political actions becomes gradually less; how, reciprocally, political agencies play a decreasing part in ecclesiastical actions; are phenomena to be set forth. How the internal organization of the priesthood, differentiating and integrating as the society grows, stands related in type to the coexisting organizations, political and other; and how changes of structure in it are connected with changes of structure in them; are also subjects to be dealt with. Further, there has to be shown the progressive divergence between the set of rules gradually framed into civil law, and the set of rules which the ecclesiastical organization enforces; and in this second set of rules there has to be traced the divergence between those which become a code of religious ceremonial and those which become a code of ethical precepts. Once more, the science has to note how the ecclesiastical agency in its structure, functions, laws, creed, and morals, stands related to the mental nature of the citizens; and how the actions and reactions of the two mutually modify them.
The simultaneously evolving system of restraints whereby the minor actions of citizens are regulated in daily life, has next to be dealt with. Ancillary to the political and ecclesiastical controls, and at first inseparable from them, is the control embodied in ceremonial observances; which, beginning with rules of class subordination, grow into rules of intercourse between man and man. The mutilations which mark conquest and become badges of servitude; the obeisances which are originally signs of submission made by the conquered; the titles which are words directly or metaphorically attributing mastery over those who utter them; the salutations which are also the flattering professions of subjection and implied inferiority--these, and some others, have to be traced in their genesis and development as a supplementary regulative agency. The growth of the structure which maintains observances; the accumulation, complication, and increasing definition of observances; and the resulting code of bylaws of conduct which comes to be added to the civil and religious codes; have to be severally delineated. These regulative arrangements, too, must be considered in their relations to coexisting regulative arrangements; with which they all along maintain a certain congruity in respect of coerciveness. And the reciprocal influences exercised by these restraints on men's natures, and by men's natures on them, need setting forth.
Coordinating structures and functions having been dealt with, there have to be dealt with the structures and functions coordinated. The regulative and the operative are the two most generally contrasted divisions of every society; and the inquiries of highest importance in social science concern the relations between them. The stages through which the industrial part passes, from its original union with the governmental part to its ultimate separateness, have to be studied. An allied subject of study is the growth of those regulative structures which the industrial part develops within itself. For purposes of production the actions of its units have to be directed; and the various forms of the directive apparatus have to be dealt with--the kinds of government under which separate groups of workers act; the kinds of government under which workers in the same business and of the same class are combined (eventually differentiating into guilds and into unions); and the kind of government which keeps in balance the activities of the various industrial structures. The relations between the forms of these industrial governments and the forms of the coexisting political and ecclesiastical governments, have to be considered at each successive stage; as have also the relations between each of these successive forms and the natures of the citizens: there being here, too, a reciprocity of influences. After the regulative part of the industrial organization comes the operative part; also presenting its successive stages of differentiation and integration. The separation of the distributive system from the productive system having been first traced, there has to be traced the growing division of labor within each--the rise of grades and kinds of distributors as well as grades and kinds of producers. And then there have to be added the effects which the developing and differentiating industries produce on one another--the advances of the industrial arts themselves; caused by the help received from one another's improvements.
After these structures and functions which make up the organization and life of each society, have to be treated certain associated developments which aid, and are aided by, social evolution--the developments of language, knowledge, morals, aesthetics. Linguistic progress has to be considered first as displayed in language itself, while passing from a relatively incoherent, indefinite, homogeneous state, to states that are successively more coherent, definite, and heterogeneous. We have to note how increasing social complexity conduces to increasing complexity of language; and how, as a society becomes settled, it becomes possible for its language to acquire permanence. The connexion between the developments of words and sentences and the correlative developments of thought which they aid, and which are aided by them, has to be observed: the reciprocity being traced in the increasing multiplicity, variety, exactness, which each helps the other to gain. Progress in intelligence, thus associated with progress in language, has also to be treated as an accompaniment of social progress; which, while furthering it, is furthered by it. From experiences which accumulate and are recorded, come comparisons leading to generalizations of simple kinds. Gradually the ideas of uniformity, order, cause, becoming nascent, gain clearness with each fresh truth established. And while there have to be noted the connexion between each phase of science and the concomitant phase of social life, there have also to be noted the stages through which, within the body of science itself, there is an advance from a few, simple, incoherent truths, to a number of specialized sciences forming a body of truths that are multitudinous, varied, exact, coherent. The emotional modifications which, as indicated above, accompany social modifications, both as causes and as consequences, also demand separate attention. Besides observing the interactions of the social state and the moral state, we have to observe the associated modifications of those moral codes in which moral feelings get their intellectual expression. The kind of behavior which each kind of regime necessitates, finds for itself a justification which acquires an ethical character; and hence ethics must be dealt with in their social dependences. Then come the groups of phenomena we call aesthetic; which, as exhibited in art products and in the correlative sentiments, have to be studied in their respective evolutions internally considered, and in the relations of those evolutions to accompanying social phenomena. Diverging as they do from a common root, architecture, sculpture, painting, together with dancing, music, and poetry, have to be severally treated as connected with the political and ecclesiastical stages, with the coexisting phases of moral sentiment, and with the degrees of intellectual advance.
Finally we have to consider the inter-dependence of structures, and functions, and products, taken in their totality. Not only do all the above enumerated organizations, domestic, political, ecclesiastical, ceremonial, industrial, influence one another through their respective activities; and not only are they all daily influenced by the states of language, knowledge, morals, arts; but the last are severally influenced by them, and are severally influenced by one another. Among these many groups of phenomena there is a consensus; and the highest achievement in Sociology is so to grasp the vast heterogeneous aggregate, as to see how each group is at each stage determined partly by its own antecedents and partly by the past and present actions of the rest upon it.
But now before trying to explain these most involved phenomena, we must learn by inspecting them the actual relations of coexistence and sequence in which they stand to one another. By comparing societies of different kinds, and societies in different stages, we must ascertain what traits of size, structure, function, etc., are habitually associated. In other words, before deductive interpretation of the general truths, there must come inductive establishment of them.
Here, then, ending preliminaries, let us examine the facts of Sociology, for the purpose of seeing into what empirical generalizations they may be arranged.
This question has to be asked and answered at the outset. Until we have decided whether or not to regard a society as an entity; and until we have decided whether, if regarded as an entity, a society is to be classed as absolutely unlike all other entities or as like some others; our conception of the subject matter before us remains vague.
It may be said that a society is but a collective name for a number of individuals. Carrying the controversy between nominalism and realism into another sphere, a nominalist might affirm that just as there exist only the members of a species, while the species considered apart from them has no existence; so the units of a society alone exist, while the existence of the society is but verbal. Instancing a lecturer's audience as an aggregate which by disappearing at the close of the lecture, proves itself to be not a thing but only a certain arrangement of persons, he night argue that the like holds of the citizens forming a nation.
But without disputing the other steps of his argument, the last step may be denied. The arrangement, temporary in the one case, is lasting in the other; and it is the permanence of the relations among component parts which constitutes the individuality of a whole as distinguished from the individualities of its parts. A coherent mass broken into fragments ceases to be a thing; while, conversely, the stones, bricks, and wood, previously separate, become the thing called a house if connected in fixed ways. Thus we consistently regard a society as an entity, because, though formed of discrete units, a certain concreteness in the aggregate of them is implied by the maintenance, for generations and centuries, of a general likeness of arrangement throughout the area occupied. And it is this trait which yields our idea of a society. For, withholding the name from an ever-changing cluster such as primitive men form, we apply it only where some constancy in the distribution of parts has resulted from settled life.
But now, regarding a society as a thing, what kind of thing must we call it? It seems totally unlike every object with which our senses acquaint us. Any likeness it may possibly have to other objects, cannot be manifest to perception, but can be discerned only by reason. If the constant relations among its parts make it an entity; the question arises whether these constant relations among its parts are akin to the constant relations among the parts of other entities. Between a society and anything else, the only conceivable resemblance must be one due to parallelism of principle in the arrangement of components.
There are two great classes of aggregates with which the social aggregate may be compared--the inorganic and the organic. Are the attributes of a society, considered apart from its living units, in any way like those of a not-living body? or are they in any way like those of a living body? or are they entirely unlike those of both?
The first of these questions needs only to be asked to be answered in the negative. A whole of which the parts are alive, cannot, in its general characters, be like lifeless wholes. The second question, not to be thus promptly answered, is to be answered in the affirmative. The reasons for asserting that the permanent relations among the parts of a society, are analogous to the permanent relations among the parts of a living body, we have now to consider.
When we say that growth is common to social aggregates ad organic aggregates, we do not thus entirely exclude community with inorganic aggregates: some of these, as crystals, grow in a visible manner; and all of them, on the hypothesis of evolution are concluded to have arisen by integration at some time or other. Nevertheless, compared with things we call inanimate, living bodies and societies so conspicuously exhibit augmentation of mass, that we may fairly regard this as characteristic of tem both. Many organisms grow throughout their lives; and the rest grow throughout considerable parts of their lives. Social growth usually continues either up to times when the societies divide, or up to times when they are overwhelmed.
Here, then, is the first trait by which societies ally themselves with the organic world and substantially distinguish themselves from the inorganic world.
It is also a character of social bodies, as of living bodies, that while they increase in size they increase in structure. A low animal, or the embryo of a high one, has few distinguishable parts; but along with its acquirement of greater mass, its parts multiply and simultaneously differentiate. It is thus with a society. At first the unlikenesses among its groups of units are inconspicuous in number and degree; but as it becomes more populous, divisions and subdivisions become more numerous and more decided. Further, in the social organism as in the individual organism, differentiations cease only with that completion of the type which marks maturity and precedes decay.
Though in inorganic aggregates also, as in the entire solar system and in each of its members, structural differentiations accompany the integrations; yet these are so relatively slow, and so relatively simple, that they may be disregarded. The multiplication of contrasted parts in bodies politics and in living bodies, is so great that it substantially constitutes another common character which marks them off from inorganic bodies.
This community will be more fully appreciated on observing that progressive differentiation of structures is accompanied by progressive differentiation of functions.
The multiplying divisions, primary, secondary, and tertiary, which arise in a developing animal, do not assume their major and minor unlikenesses to no purpose. Along with diversities in their shapes and compositions there go diversities in the actions they perform: they grow into unlike organs having unlike duties. Assuming the entire function of absorbing nutriment at the same time that it takes on its structural characters, the alimentary system becomes gradually marked off into contrasted portions; each of which has a special function forming part of the general function. A limb, instrumental to locomotion or prehension, acquires divisions and subdivisions which perform their leading and their subsidiary shares in this office. So is it with the parts into which a society divides. A dominant class arising does not simply become unlike the rest, but assumes control over the rest; and when this class separates into the more and the less dominant,
these, again, begin to discharge distinct parts of the entire control. With the classes whose actions are controlled it is the same. The various groups into which they fall have various occupations each of such groups also, within itself, acquiring minor contrasts of parts along with minor contrasts of duties.
And here we see more clearly how the two classes of things we are comparing distinguish themselves from things of other classes; for such differences of structure as slowly arise in inorganic aggregates, are not accompanied by what we can fairly call differences of function.
Why in a body politic and in a living body, these unlike actions of unlike parts are properly regarded by us as functions, while we cannot so regard the unlike actions of unlike parts in an inorganic body, we shall perceive on turning to the next and more distinctive common trait.
Evolution establishes in them both, not differences simply, but definitely connected differences--differences such that each makes the others possible. The parts of an inorganic aggregate are so related that one may change greatly without appreciably affecting the rest. It is otherwise with the parts of an organic aggregate or of a social aggregate. In either of these the changes in the parts are mutually determined, and the changed actions of the parts are mutually dependent. In both, too, this mutuality increases as the evolution advances. The lowest type animal is all stomach, all respiratory surface, all limb. Development of a type having appendages by which to move about or lay hold of food, can take place only if these appendages, losing power to absorb nutriment directly from surrounding bodies are supplied with nutriment by parts which retain the power absorption. A respiratory surface to which the circulating fluids are brought to be aerated, can be formed only on condition that the concomitant loss of ability to supply itself with material for repair and growth, is made good by the development of structure bringing these materials. So is it in a society. What we call with perfect propriety its organization, has a necessary implication of the same kind. While rudimentary, it is all warrior, all hunter, all hut builder, all tool maker: every part fufils for itself all needs. Progress to a stage characterized by a permanent army, can go on only as there arise arrangements for supplying that army with food, clothes, and munitions of war by the rest. If here the population occupies itself solely with agriculture and there with mining--if these manufacture goods while those distribute them; it must be on condition that in exchange for a special kind of service rendered by each part to other parts, these other parts severally give due proportions of their services.
This division of labor, first dwelt on by political economists as a social phenomenon, and thereupon recognized by biologists as a phenomenon of living bodies, which they called the "physiological division of labor," is that which in the society, as in the animal, makes it a living whole. Scarcely can I emphasize sufficiently the truth that in respect of this fundamental trait, a social organism and an individual organism are entirely alike. When we see that in a mammal, arresting the lungs quickly brings the heart to a stand; that if the stomach fails absolutely in its office all other parts by-and-by cease to act; that paralysis of its limbs entails on the body at large death from want of food or inability to escape; that loss of even such small organs as the eyes, deprives the rest of a service essential to their preservation; we cannot but admit that mutual dependence of parts is an essential characteristic. And when, in a society, we see that the workers in iron stop if the miners do not supply materials; that makers of clothes cannot carry on their business in the absence of those who spin and weave textile fabrics; that the manufacturing community will cease to act unless the food-producing and food-distributing agencies are acting; that the controlling powers, governments, bureaus, judicial officers, police, must fail to keep order when the necessaries of life are not supplied to them by the parts kept in order; we are obliged to say that this mutual dependence of parts is similarly rigorous. Unlike as the two kinds of aggregates are in sundry respects, they are alike in respect of this fundamental character, and the characters implied by it.
How the combined actions of mutually dependent parts constitute life of the whole, and how there hence results a parallelism between national life and individual life, we see still more clearly on learning that the life of every visible organism is constituted by the lives of units too minute to be seen by the unaided eye.
An undeniable illustration is furnished us by the strange order Myxomycetes. The spores or germs produced by one of these forms, become ciliated monads which, after a time of active locomotion, change into shapes like those of amoebae, move about, take in nutriment, grow, multiply by fission. Then these amoeba-form individuals swarm together, begin to coalesce into groups, and these groups to coalesce with one another: making a mass sometimes barely visible, sometimes as big as the hand. This plasmodium, irregular, mostly reticulated, and in substance gelatinous, itself exhibits movements of its parts like those of a gigantic rhizopod; creeping slowly over surfaces of decaying matters and even up the stems of plants. Here, then, union of many minute living individuals to form a relatively vast aggregate in which their individualities are apparently lost, but the life of which results from combination of their lives, is demonstrable.
In other cases, instead of units which, originally discrete, lose their individualities by aggregation, we have units which, arising by multiplication from the same germ, do not part company, but nevertheless display their separate lives very clearly. A growing sponge has its horny fibers clothed with a gelatinous substance; and the microscope shows this to consist of moving monads. We cannot deny life to the sponge as a whole; for it shows us some corporate actions. The outer amoeba-form units partially lose their individualities by fusion into a protective layer of skin; the supporting framework of fibers is produced by the joint agency of the monads; and from their joint agency also result those currents of water which are drawn in through the small orifices and expelled through the larger. But while there is thus shown a feeble aggregate life, the lives of the myriads of component units are very little subordinated: these units form, as it were, a nation having scarcely any subdivision of functions. Or, in the words of Professor Huxley, "the sponge represents a kind of subaqueous city, where the people are arranged about the streets and roads, in such a manner, that each can easily appropriate his food from the water as it passes along."
Even in the highest animals there remains traceable this relation between the aggregate life and the lives of components. Blood is a liquid in which, alone with nutritive matters, circulate innumerable living units--the blood corpuscles. These have severally their life-histories. During its first stage each of them, then known as a white corpuscle, makes independent movements like those of an amoeba; and though in its adult stage as a red, fattened disc, it is not visibly active, its individual life continues. Nor is this individual life of the units provable only where free flotation in a liquid allows its signs to be readily seen. Sundry mucous surfaces, as those of the air passages, are covered with what is called ciliated epithelium--a layer of minute cells packed side by side, and each bearing on its exposed end several cilia continually in motion. The wavings of these cilia are essentially like those of the monads which live in the passages running through a sponge; and just as the joint action of these ciliated sponge monads propels the current of water, so does the joint action of the ciliated epithelium cells move forward the mucous secretion covering them. If there needs further proof of the individual lives of these epithelium cells, we have it in the fact that when detached and placed in fluid, they "move about with considerable rapidity for some time, by the continued vibrations of the cilia with which they are furnished."
On thus seeing that an ordinary living organism may be regarded as a nation of units that live individually, and have many of them considerable degrees of independence, we shall perceive how truly a nation of human beings may be regarded as an organism.
The relation between the lives of the units and the life of the aggregate, has a further character common to the two cases. By a catastrophe the life of the aggregate may be destroyed without immediately destroying the lives of all its units; while, on the other hand, if no catastrophe abridges it, the life of the aggregate immensely exceeds in length the lives of its units.
In a cold-blooded animal, ciliated cells perform their motions with perfect regularity long after the creature they are part of has become motionless; muscular fibers retain their power of contracting under stimulation; the cells of secreting organs go on pouring out their product if blood is artificially supplied to them; and the components of an entire organ, as the heart, continue their cooperation for many hours after its detachment. Similarly, arrest of those commercial activities and governmental coordinations, etc., which constitute the corporate life of a nation, may be caused, say by an inroad of barbarians, without immediately stopping the actions of all the units. Certain classes of these, especially the widely diffused ones engaged in food production may, in the remoter districts, long survive and carry on their individual occupations.
Conversely, in both cases, if not brought to a close by violence, the life of the aggregate greatly exceeds in duration the lives of its units. The minute living elements composing a developed animal, severally evolve, play their parts, decay, and are replaced, while the animal as a whole continues. In the deep lava of the skin, cells are formed by fission which, as they enlarge are thrust outwards, and becoming flattened to form the epidermis, eventually exfoliate, while the younger ones beneath take their places. Liver cells, growing by imbibition of matters from which they separate the bile, presently die, and their vacant seats are occupied by another generation. Even bone, though so dense and seemingly inert, is permeated by blood vessels carrying materials to replace old components by new ones. And the replacement, rapid in some tissues and in others slow, goes on at such rate that during the continued existence of the entire body each portion of it has been many times over produced and destroyed. Thus it is also with a society and its units. Integrity of the whole and of each large division is perennially maintained notwithstanding the deaths of component citizens. The fabric of living persons which, in a manufacturing town, produces some commodity for national use, remains after a century as large a fabric, though all the masters and workers who a century ago composed it have long since disappeared. Even with the minor parts of this industrial structure the like holds. A firm that data from past generations, still carrying on business in the name of its founder, has had all its members and employees changed one by one, perhaps several times over; while the firm has continued to occupy the same place and to maintain like relations to buyers and sellers. Throughout we find this. Governing bodies, general and local, ecclesiastical corporations, armies, institutions of all orders down to guilds, clubs, philanthropic associations, etc., show us a continuity of life exceeding that of the persons constituting them. Nay, more. As part of the same law, we see that the existence of the society at large exceeds in duration that of some of these compound parts. Private unions, local public bodies, secondary national institutions, towns carrying on special industries, may decay, while the nation, maintaining its integrity, evolves in mass and structure.
In both cases, too, the mutually dependent functions of the various divisions, being severally made up of the actions of many units, it results that these units dying one by one, are replaced without the function in which they share being sensibly affected. In a muscle each sarcous element wearing out in its turn, is removed and a substitution made while the rest carry on their combined contractions as usual; and the retirement of a public official or death of a shopman, perturbs inappreciably the business of the department, or activity of the industry, in which he had a share.
Hence arises in the social organism, as in the individual organism, a life of the whole quite unlike the lives of the units; though it is a life produced by them.
From these likenesses between the social organism and the individual organism, we must now turn to an extreme unlikeness. The parts of an animal form a concrete whole; but the parts of a society form a whole that is discrete. While the living units composing the one are bound together in close contact, the living units composing the other are free, not in contact, and more or less widely dispersed. How, then, can there be any parallelism?
Though this difference is fundamental and apparently puts comparison out of the question, yet examination proves it to be less than it seems. Presently I shall have to point out that complete admission of it consists with maintenance of the alleged analogy; but we will first observe how one who thought it needful, might argue that even in this respect there is more kinship than a cursory glance shows.
He might urge that the physically coherent body of an animal is not composed all through of living units; but that it consists in large measure of differentiated parts which the vitally active parts have formed, and which thereafter become semivital and in some uses almost unvital. Taking as an example the protoplasmic layer underlying the skin, he might say that while this consists of truly living units, the cells produced in it, changing into epithelium scales, become inert protective structures; and pointing to the insensitive nails, hair, horns, and teeth, arising from this layer he might show that such parts, though components of the organism, are hardly living components. Carrying out the argument, he would contend that elsewhere in the body there exist such protoplasmic layers, from which grow the tissues composing to various organs--layers which alone remain fully alive, while the structures evolved from them lose their vitality in properties as they are specialized: instancing cartilage, tendon, and connective tissue, as showing in conspicuous ways this low vitality. From all which he would draw the inference that though the body forms a coherent whole, its essential units, taken by themselves form a whole which is coherent only throughout the protoplasmic layers.
And then would follow the argument that the social organism rightly conceived, is much less discontinuous than it seems. He would contend that as, in the individual organism, we include with the fully living parts, the less living and not living part which cooperate in the total activities; so, in the social orgasm we must include not only those most highly vitalized units, the human beings, who chiefly determine its phenomena, but the various kinds of domestic animals, lower in the scale of life, which under the control of man cooperate with him, and even those far inferior structures the plants, which, propagated by human agency, supply materials for animal and human activities. In defense of this view he would point out how largely these lower classes of organisms, coexisting with men in societies, affect the structures and activities of the societies --how the training of the pastoral type depend on the natures of the creatures reared; and how in settled societies the plants producing food materials for textile fabrics, etc., determine certain kinds of social arrangements and actions. After which he might insist that since the physical characters, mental natures, and daily activities of the human units, are, in part, molded by relations to the animals and vegetals, which, living by their aid, and aiding these to live, enter so much into social life as even to be cared for by legislation, these lower living things cannot rightly be excluded from the conception of the social organism. Hence would come his conclusion that when, with human beings, are incorporated the less vitalized beings, animal and vegetal, covering the surface occupied by the society, an aggregate results having a continuity of parts, more nearly approaching to that of an individual organism; and which is also like it in being composed of local aggregations of highly vitalized units, imbedded in a vast aggregation of units of various lower degrees of vitality, which are, in a sense, produced by, modified by, and arranged by, the higher units.
But without accepting this view, and admitting that the discreteness of the social organism stands in marked contrast with the concreteness of the individual organism, the objection may still be adequately met.
Though coherence among its parts is a prerequisite to that cooperation by which the life of an individual organism is carried on; and though the members of a social organism, not forming a concrete whole, cannot maintain cooperation by means of physical influences directly propagated from part to part; yet they can and do maintain cooperation by another agency. Not in contact, they nevertheless affect one another through intervening spaces, both by emotional language, and by the language, oral and written, of the intellect. For carrying on mutually-dependent actions, it is requisite that impulses, adjusted in their kinds, amounts, and times, shall be conveyed from part to part. This requisite is fulfilled in living bodies by molecular waves, that are indefinitely diffused in low types, and in high types are carried along definite channels (the function of which has been significantly called internuncial). It is fulfilled in societies by the signs of feelings and thoughts, conveyed from person to person; at first in vague ways and only at short distances but afterwards more definitely and at greater distances. That is to say, the internuncial function, not achievable by stimuli physically transferred, is nevertheless achieved by language.
The mutual dependence of parts which constitutes organization is thus effectually established. Though discrete instead of concrete, the social aggregate is rendered a living whole.
But now, on pursuing the course of thought opened by this objection and the answer to it, we arrive at an implied contrast of great significance--a contrast fundamentally affecting our idea of the ends to be achieved by social life.
Though the discreteness of a social organism does not prevent subdivision of functions and mutual dependence of parts, yet it does prevent that differentiation by which one part becomes an organ of feeling and thought, while other parts become insensitive. High animals of whatever class are distinguished from low ones by complex and well integrated nervous systems. While in inferior types the minute scattered ganglia may be said to exit for the benefit of other structures, the concentrated ganglia in superior types are the structures for the benefit of which the rest may be said to exist. Though a developed nervous system so directs the actions of the whole body as to preserve its integrity, yet the welfare of the nervous system is the ultimate object of all these actions: damage to any other organ being serious only because it immediately or remotely entails that pain or loss of pleasure which the nervous system suffers. But the discreteness of a society negatives differentiations carried to this extreme. In an individual organism the minute living units, most of them permanently localized, growing up, working, reproducing, and dying away in their respective places, are in successive generation molded to their respective functions; so that some become specially sentient and others entirely insentient. But it is otherwise in a social organism. The units of this, out of contact and much less rigidly held in their relative positions, cannot be so much differentiated as to become feelingless units and units which monopolize feeling. There are, indeed, slight traces of such a differentiation. Human beings are unlike in the amounts of sensation and emotion producible in them by like causes: here great callousness, here great susceptibility, is characteristic. In the same society, even where its members are of the same race, and still more where its members are of dominant and subject races, these exists a contrast of this kind. The mechanically working and hard living units are less sensitive than the mentally working and more protected units. But while the regulative structures of the social organism tend, like those of the individual organism, to become seats of feeling, the tendency is checked by this want of physical cohesion which brings fixity of function; and it is also checked by the continued need for feeling in the mechanically working units for the due discharge of their functions.
Hence, then, a cardinal difference in the two kinds of organisms. In the one, consciousness is concentrated in a small part of the aggregate. In the other, it is diffused throughout the aggregate: all the units possess the capacities for happiness and misery, if not in equal degrees, still in degrees that approximate. As, then, there is no social sensorium, it results that the welfare of the aggregate, considered apart from that of the units, is not an end to be sought. The society exists for the benefit of its members; not its members for the benefit of the society. It has ever to be remembered that great as may be the efforts made for the prosperity of the body politic, yet the claims of the body politic are nothing in themselves, and become something only in so far as they embody the claims of its component individuals.
From this last consideration, which is a digression rather than a part of the argument, let us now return and sum up the various reasons for regarding a society as an organism.
It undergoes continuous growth; as it grows, its parts, becoming unlike, exhibit increase of structure; the unlike parts simultaneously assume activities of unlike kinds; these activities are not simply different, but their differences are so related as to make one another possible; the reciprocal aid thus given causes mutual dependence of the parts; and the mutually dependent parts, living by and for one another, form an aggregate constituted on the same general principle as an individual organism. The analogy of a society to an organism becomes still clearer on learning that every organism of appreciable size is a society; and on further learning that in both, the lives of the units continue for some time if the life of the aggregate is suddenly arrested, while if the aggregate is not destroyed by violence its life greatly exceeds in duration the lives of its units. Though the two are contrasted as respectively discrete and concrete, and though there results a difference in the ends subserved by the organization, there does not result a difference in the laws of the organization: the required mutual influences of the parts, not transmissible in a direct way, being transmitted in an indirect way.
Having thus considered in their most general forms the reasons for regarding a society as an organism, we are prepared for following out the comparison in detail. We shall find that the further we pursue it the closer does the analogy appear.
Printable Handout Related to Slide Presentation of Herbert Spencer: Spencer's Model of Evolution, Phases of Institutionalization, Spencer's Typology of Militant and Industrial Societies, and The Contrast Between Militant and Industrial Societies----this file may require a Microsoft Word program in order to print this handout.)
Slide Presentation of Herbert Spencer (PowerPoint format)
The following items are optional readings.
The Original Work: The Proper Sphere of Government (1843)
The Original Work: The Social Organism (1860)
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