Thursday, August 07, 2008

Weaver, Stewart. "Review of Mark Francis' HERBERT SPENCER AND THE INVENTION OF MODERN LIFE." H-NET REVIEW (July 2008).

Francis, Mark. Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2007. We remember Herbert Spencer, if we remember him at all, as the man who coined the phrase "survival of the fittest" and made free and unfettered competition a social and moral law. "Every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man," Spencer wrote in Social Statics, the book that made him famous on its appearance in 1851, and in the hands of such admirers as Andrew Carnegie this "right to ignore the state," as Spencer called it, became the philosophical justification for unrestrained, laissez-faire capitalism.[1] Imperialists too eventually latched on to Spencer and found in his immutable law of organic progress justification for colonial conquest and political subjugation of lesser nations and peoples. These are heavy historical burdens to bear, and needless to say they do not withstand close scrutiny of what Spencer actually wrote and said. In what the publisher's flyer trumpets as "the first comprehensive biography in over thirty years," Mark Francis sets out to sweep the clichés and caricatures away and recover the subtlety and nuance, as well as the intellectual and historical contexts, of Herbert Spencer's thought. His hope is that his painstakingly thorough archival research together with his sustained immersion in nineteenth-century philosophical and scientific literature "will permanently change existing discussions of Spencer's philosophy, and create new interpretive patterns where none existed" (p. viii). This is probably hoping for too much. Caricatures are stubborn things and in many other cases--Adam Smith comes to mind--have proved surprisingly resistant to the most careful and extended work of re-interpretation. But for those who have the patience for it, this remarkable work of scholarship will disclose a very different Spencer from the one they thought they knew. It is indeed, as one of the dust-jacket blurbs says, "the book on Spencer for the present and next generation." . . . Read the review here:

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