Short Biography of Herbert Spencer

At the age of 13, he went to the home of his uncle from whom he received his further education. The education which he received from his father and the uncle was more scientific than anything else.

Hence, Spencer decided to pursue his scientific interest. In 1837, he joined the staff of the London and Birmingham Railway as an engineer. But he gave up the work within a short time and returned home to Derby.

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Spencer shifted his attention to journalism and became an editor of the Economist, one of the greatest English publications. During the five years of his stay within ‘Economist’, he developed relations with a number of people in the world of advanced journalism. Even while working as a journalist, he found time to finish his first book, ‘Social Statics’ -1851. The book was well received by the radical public.

In 1853, he resigned from his post and decided to earn his living as an independent writer. A sizeable sum of money which he got from his uncle soon after his death also provided him the courage to take risk of resigning from his job. He remained all through his life a private scholar without regular job or institutional attachment. He also remained a lifelong bachelor with strict discipline.

Spencer slowly resorted to writing career. By 1850, he had completed his first major work “Social Statics “. During the writing of this book, Spencer began to suffer from insomnia. His physical and mental problems mounted over the years. He continued to suffer from a series of nervous breakdowns throughout the rest of his life.

Spencer never earned a university degree or held an academic position. Surprisingly, Spencer’s productivity as a scholar increased in spite of his isolation and physical and mental illness.

In 1855, Spencer published his second book “The Principles of Psychology “. This, however, did not become popular. In the meantime, Spencer suffered from a nervous illness. He could hardly overcome it completely. He had to remain as a psychic cripple throughout his life. He used to take often a heavy dose of opium to overcome his insomnia. Since then he could read and write only for a few hours a day.

In spite of his unfavourable mental conditions he produced scholarly books such as – First Principles, Principles of Biology, Principles of Ethics, Principles of Sociology, The Study of Sociology, etc.

Spencer earned international reputation for his scholarly writings. Leading thinkers of the day such as J.S. Mill, Thomas Huxley, Tyndall, Charles Darwin and others had great appreciation for his writings and thoughts. Like his predecessor Comte, he too was unwilling to read the works of other people in order to preserve the purity of his thought. He even ignored those ideas that did not agree with his.

His contemporary, Charles Darwin said of Spencer: “If he had trained himself to observe more, even at the expense of… some loss of thinking power, he would have been a wonderful man “.

Spencer also wrote on the most controversial issues of the day such as – opposition to Boer War, proposal for the introduction of the metric system in England etc. He used to write on political issues also. Due to his deteriorating mental conditions Spencer had to live the last few years in almost complete isolation from human society. He died on December 8, 1903, at the age of 83.

Main Works of Spencer

i. On Philosophy and Religion

1. The Nature and Reality of Religion, 1885 [withdrawn from publication],

ii. Series of Books on Synthetic Philosophy

2. First Principles, 1862.

3. The Principles of Biology, 2 volumes, 1864-67.

4. The Principles of Psychology, 1855.

5. The Principles of Sociology, 3 volumes, 1876-96.

6. The Principles of Ethics, 2 volumes, 1892-93.

7. Descriptive Sociology, 2 volumes, 1873-94.

iii. On Political and Social Matters:

9. Social Statics, 1851.

10. Education: Intellectual, Moral, Physical, 1861.

11. The Study of Sociology, 1872.

12. The Man versus the State, 1884.

13. Data of Ethics, 1893.

14. Facts and Comments, 1902.

iv. Other Works:

(a) Essay: Scientific, Political and Speculative, 3 volumes, 1891.

(b) Autobiography, 1904, an intellectual rather than a personal autobiography.