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Monday, March 09, 2009

Herbert Spencer: Misunderstood and Forgotten

The problem with Spencer's philosophy is not that it lacks brilliant ideas, but rather it is the story of a man who "bit on more than he could chew," according to Durant. Following on the footsteps of Kant, Spencer gave life to the pragmatic idea of rational and metaphysical philosophies. Unfortunately, Spencer was not able to speak or theorize with the clarity and mastery of Immanuel Kant. As a result, most of the premises (which incidentally Durant recognizes as brilliant) were either misunderstood or declared hogwash by his contemporaries. The vastly misunderstood ones, according to Durant, eventually came to be recognized later as insightful and valid; only after many years, when Europe turned back to its spiritual roots, was Spencer recognized. With Comte and Darwin as his main influences, it is little wonder why Herbert Spencer's legacy turned out to be what it is today. I don't say this in a derogatory way, but Durant seems to think that because Spencer began with the ideas of "the Unknowable," and was only able to explain it metaphysically, the result was more confusion than clarity of ideas. Where Spencer gains clarity is, ironically enough, in his early studies of "The Evolution of Psychology, or the study of the mind," and "The Evolution of Society," which eventually lead to scientific procedures in the study of the changes in society. With religion, Spencer was less kind: "Religion is at first the worship of a multitude of gods and spirits, more or less alike in every nation; and the development of religion comes through the notion of a central and omnipotent deity subordinating the others, and coordinating them into the hierarchy of special roles. The first gods were probably suggested by dreams and ghosts." The insubstantial matter of Spencer's metaphysical theories were as constant as his changes of mind. Will Durant's account of this great philosopher is absolutely on target even back in the 1920s (when "The Story of Philosophy" was published). Morality and ethics were fields that Durant explained well according to Spencer's philosophy, but that too has continued to change, and poor Spencer has been left in the shadows of philosophy.

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