Spencer’s Social Progress

Author: Herbert Spencer, English philosopher

Context: 1857, prior to Darwin’s “The Origin of Species”, on the tail-end of the first Industrial Revolution

Language: inquisitive and scholarly; here he asked what social progress really meant and whether it should be redefined

Audience: the intelligent but uninformed, more specifically those interested in philosophy and anthropology

Intent: to direct scholars’ attention to another way of thinking about society and social progress; until this time most were under the impression that social progress meant that societies were improving the standard of living. Spencer argued instead that social progress meant that people were living on more equal terms rather than on better terms in general.

Message: The point that Spencer tried to make in this essay was that people needed to rethink what they knew about social progress. Until this time people thought that social progress was the improvement of the quality of life through the advancement of technology. Instead, social progress meant that different factions of society were becoming more equal rather than just finding their lives easier. He analogized social progress to that of organic progress; that all organisms grow in the same way, from homogeneous to heterogeneous. He said that all forms of progress take this course, including social progress. He said that social progress had been doing so due to the division of labor, specialization, and the intervention of government. Society had been dividing itself based on what individuals within a community practiced, and how the need for trade arose as a result of this specialization, which in turn leads to an even greater level of subdivision, that of playing a single part in the creation of a final product.

5 thoughts on “Spencer’s Social Progress

  1. Generally a nice ACLAIM, although you did overlap quite a bit on the Intent and Message aspects. You might have also provided a bit more context for the piece.

  2. This ACLAIM method is very helpful in further understanding the reading. Writing after enlightenment, Spencer called for critical thinking in analyzing society and social progress.

  3. It is important to understand that Spencer applied Darwin’s biological theories to human society. Spencer was an avid Darwinist himself, and generated the phrase “survival of the fittest.” Spencer’s comparisons of the biological progression of nature and industrial society was a primary cause for social Darwinism.

  4. I would say that Spencer argued that people were becoming more differentiated rather than more equal. Variation through natural selection resulted in both individuals and groups of people becoming increasingly different. For example, the strong men would perform manual labor requiring his strength, but the highly intelligent man would attempt to develop new technology. Before such differentiation, both the strong man and the intellectual would work in the field to subsist.

  5. I think you should add a little more content within the Author and Context pieces. Other than that, I think it was well done. I found it interesting that Spencer’s findings on the progression of humanity sound somewhat similar to Darwin’s evolution, but was written before The Origin of Species.

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