Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life

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The English philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) was a colossus of the Victorian age. His works ranked alongside those of Darwin and Marx in the development of disciplines as wide ranging as sociology, anthropology, political theory, philosophy and psychology. His unique system of knowledge, which bridged the gap between empiricism and metaphysics, offered modern and scientific answers to questions about the meaning of life and made him a world philosopher of the late nineteenth century. In this major study of...
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The English philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) was a colossus of the Victorian age. His works ranked alongside those of Darwin and Marx in the development of disciplines as wide ranging as sociology, anthropology, political theory, philosophy and psychology. His unique system of knowledge, which bridged the gap between empiricism and metaphysics, offered modern and scientific answers to questions about the meaning of life and made him a world philosopher of the late nineteenth century. In this major study of Spencer, the first for over thirty years, Mark Francis provides an authoritative and meticulously researched intellectual biography of this remarkable man. Using archival material and contemporary printed sources, Francis creates a fascinating portrait of a human being whose philosophical and scientific system was a unique attempt to explain modern life in all its biological, psychological and sociological forms. Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life fills what is perhaps the last big biographical gap in Victorian history. An exceptional work of scholarship it not only dispels the plethora of misinformation surrounding Spencer but shines new light on the broader cultural history of the nineteenth century. Elegantly written, provocative and rich in insight it will be required reading for all students of the period.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A tour de force, rendered in some of the most delightful scholarly prose I have read in many a year. . . What makes this journey through Spencer's multi-faceted thought such pleasure is, in fact, the intrepid Francis. With the hard-won wisdom of the long-time companion Francis is fully aware of the faults and stratagems of his elusive subject, and thus is well qualified to disambiguate unreliable narratives. Francis never reaches for a simplistic or facile summation when a nuanced, context-sensitive explication is required - which, in the case of a slippery, contradictory, obfuscatory personality such as Spencer's, is pretty much all the time. Most refreshing, Francis maintains a profound compassion, even affection, for a man whose personal life was an abject failure." -- Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews "This is a monumental, painstakingly scrupulous, and innovative study, based on a complete grasp of Spencer's corpus and a thorough use of archives relating to his circle and period. . . A work of intellectual biography which is powerful, illuminating and original." -- Melissa Lane, Princeton University "The publication of Mark Francis's volume marks a significant moment not just for Spencer scholarship but for all historians of late nineteenth-century science. . . A great achievement . . . the book that Spencer studies has needed for quite some time." -- British Journal for the History of Science "With his thorough and well-researched intellectual biography of Spencer, Mark Francis relocates Spencer as an outstanding philosopher in his time, and rightly shows that Spencer has been enigmatically misinterpreted. . . Francis has produced an important and intelligent book not only on Spencer, but also on his political, scientific, social, and religious context in mid-Victorian Britain. In relocating the assumptions about Victorian politics, social science, and evolutionary biology, this work deserves a wide audience, within and well beyond historical scholarship." -- The Historical Journal "A book of careful and incisive scholarship . . .a full and accomplished piece of intellectual history." -- Political Studies "Francis has performed an enormous service to historians of science and Victorianists, and Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life deserves our close attention." -- Isis "Thanks to Francis' dazzling scholarship we now know far more about this major figure in the foundation of evolutionary theory, sociology and psychology. Francis must be praised for his industry and scholarly endeavour that have brought this long neglected figure back to life." -- Australian Journal of Political Science "Mark Francis has done both Spencer himself, and Spencer scholars, a great service in producing a magisterial study which is likely to remain a standard reference on its subject for many years to come." -- History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences "A detailed examination that is particularly useful for understanding the formative context of Spencer's early writings." -- Journal of Modern History "An impressive critical survey of Spencer's work and its reception. Francis argues convincingly that Spencer is seriously misremembered as an apologist for individualism and raw capitalism." -- Canadian Journal of History "A stunning revelation of a personality and thinker about whom even most well informed Victorianists evaluate largely from misinformation. This book presents an entirely new understanding of Spencer. Scholars from a number of fields -- philosophy, literature, history, and history of science -- will quite simply never be able to think of Spencer as they have before. Wonderfully and persuasively revisionist, backed up by superb research, this will be the book on Spencer for the present and next generation." -- Frank M. Turner, Yale University "A major new study of Herbert Spencer, revealing aspects of his personality and thought previously little explored. It is an impressive work of scholarship and interpretation which all scholars of nineteenth-century thought cannot afford to neglect." -- David Boucher, Cardiff University
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781844656783
  • Publisher: Acumen Publishing
  • Publication date: 3/27/2014
  • Pages: 464

Meet the Author

Mark Francis is Professor of Political Science at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand.
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Table of Contents

Preface List of Illustrations Introduction Part I An Individual and his Personal Culture 1. A Portrait of a Private Man 2. The Longing for Passion 3. The Problem with Women 4. Feminist Politics 5. Culture and Beauty 6. Eccentricities: Health and the Perils of Recreation Part II The Lost World of Spencer's Metaphysics 7. The New Reformation 8. Intellectuals in the Strand 9. The Genesis of a System 10. Common Sense in the Mid-Nineteenth Century 11. From Philosophy to Psychology Part III Spencer's Biological Writings and his Philosophy of Science 12. On Goodness, Perfection and the Shape of Living Things 13. The Meaning of Life 14. Science and the Classification of Knowledge Part IV Politics and Ethical Sociology 15. The Spencerian Foundations of Liberalism 16. Early Victorian Radicalism 17. Sociology as an Ethical Discipline 18. Sociology as Political Theory 19. Progress 'versus' Democracy Notes Bibliography Index
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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 4, 2010

    Reader Beware: unsupported claims and questionable scholarship

    The author has taken upon himself a Herculean task: to write about the life, mind and work of a man whose collected works encompass some thirty volumes, most of which are hefty tomes covering almost all fields of human inquiry.

    Considering the enormity of the task, it is reasonable to expect some errors of omission. Errors of commission, however, are never justifiable. Unfortunately, this book seems to be making false claims from its very beginning. These errors are glaring, and they must be mentioned lest the author gets away with this shady work of bad scholarship.

    On page 17, the author writes that "Spencer's An Autobiography was an act of expiation, and a warning to others to avoid his fate." On page 33 the author writes "The mature Spencer regarded his inability to follow his feelings as a loveless tragedy, and wrote An Autobiography to warn others of his plight."

    Having read Spencer's autobiography (D. Appleton & Company, 1904) in its entirety, I have found nowhere in these approximately 1,200 pages any evidence supporting either of these claims. Spencer's autobiography is written in a fairly neutral (and often self-satisfied) tone, with almost no expressed feelings of bitterness, loss, tragedy, plight, missed opportunities, or avoidable fate. The only chapter whose overall tone is negative is Chapter LVI, "A Grievous Mistake", and this chapter deals with a specific error Spencer had made, not with a series of lifelong mistakes. In the last chapter, Reflections, Spencer states that his tendency to criticize and point out the negative has damaged his social life, but this is a far cry from supporting the statements made in the book.

    On the other hand, there is positive evidence that Spencer did not regret the choices he had made, or the life he had led.

    On page 538, Spencer states: "Little, then, as I should encourage another to follow my example and throw prudence to the winds, it will readily be understood that, as things have turned out, I find no reason to regret the course I took and the life I have passed: very much the contrary, indeed."

    On page 539: "Even taking into account chronic disturbance of health, I have every reason to be satisfied with that which fate has awarded me."

    On page 540: "Thus, if I leave out altruistic considerations and include egoistic consideration only, I may still look back from these declining days of life with content." Later in the page, he mentions that one drawback of the path he had chosen is that he had never gotten married, but he concludes on the same page: "After all my celibate life has probably been the best for me, as well as for some unknown other."

    Taking these facts into consideration, I must conclude that it is very unlikely that Professor Francis has ever read Spencer's autobiography. It is astonishing that he chose to make such outlandish comments regarding a book about which he seems to know nothing. These claims call the entire scholarly integrity of the book into question, and they raise the question of whether Professor Francis is at all familiar with Spencer's work. After all, it is far easier to read about Spencer that it is to read Spencer. Professor Francis may have capitalized on the fact that many readers of this book will be satisfied with a second-hand account of Spencer's life and thought, and will not bother to sweat through Spencer's tomes to study the real Sp

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