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