THE POLITICAL CLOCK: THE DETERMINISTIC POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY OF HERBERT SPENCER (BRITAIN)

ANDREW JOSEPH DONOVAN, Fordham University

Abstract

Herbert Spencer was a pre-eminent social and political writer of the Victorian Age. His works had a wide appeal in Great Britain and the United States. He offered his audience a prescriptive interpretation of society and government consistent with the physical sciences. He provides his reader a picture of his idea of a just political society. Though Spencer is no longer known to the general public ideas consistent with his are still discussed and fought over in contemporary newspaper headlines and in legislative bodies. His works stand as a protest against the classical and medieval philosophical traditions and the widely held idea today that government must take steps to lessen the suffering brought on by physical disabilities and economic distress.^ Most treatments of Spencer's political philosophy focus on his idea that political liberty in a society must be maximized. This dissertation focuses instead on Spencer's thorough determinism. All development and change which occurs in individual and social life are as fully determined by antecedent conditions and natural laws as the hands of a clock are determined by movement of its mechanism. Focusing on Spencer's call for political liberty without understanding his deterministic philosophy which underlies his appeal gives an incomplete and hollow understanding of his political thought. Spencer's determinism is at the root of his protest against positive governmental efforts to diminish human suffering.^ This dissertation concludes that Herbert Spencer's political philosophy and social science were based on a now antiquarian philosophy of science. Also, though Spencer says that his ethics was derived from scientific analysis his thought is hurt by his failure to understand that ethical statements are not derivable from factual statements. In practice Spencer accepted the statement "Thous Shalt Adapt" as his central value and then he developed his philosophy around it. Further, Spencer initially sought to develop a political ethics to guide people but in adopting his contentless value as the only trans-historical value he left as a legacy only a hollow ethics as comfortable with libertarian societies as with authoritarian ones. Spencer is at his best in cautioning overexhuberent government. He is at his worst in trying to be scientific. ^

Subject Area

Political Science, General

Recommended Citation

ANDREW JOSEPH DONOVAN, "THE POLITICAL CLOCK: THE DETERMINISTIC POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY OF HERBERT SPENCER (BRITAIN)" (January 1, 1983). ETD Collection for Fordham University. Paper AAI8323521.
http://fordham.bepress.com/dissertations/AAI8323521

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