Evolutionary Opponents: William James and Herbert Spencer

2011 SAAP Paper Submission
There is a growing debate within the philosophy of evolution about the very meaning of the facts
of evolution. There is an increasing tension between the tendency to value a reductionistic explanation
and the tendency to value a constructivist model. This is not a new debate and this is not a new problem.
As a professor of philosophy, William James taught a class titled “The Philosophy of Evolution” for six
years. And in this class, he directly confronted the most important philosopher and philosopher of
evolution of his day, Herbert Spencer. Their positions on this continuing debate about the meaning of the
facts of evolution can still inform and direct us today.
Evolutionary Opponents
William James and Herbert Spencer
Certain problems and certain influences always seem to float just under the surface of
American philosophy and just under the surface of American culture as a whole. Each time they
resurface, the academic, scientific, and general public treat them like completely novel
contemporary problems in need of new and more divisive definitions and separations. They of
course have histories but their historical context is most often lost in a recurrent haze of
dissension and argument. Evolution is just such a problem. It would be no exaggeration to say
that the philosophy of William James was born in the midst of a revolution—both for and
against—the thinking centered around and embedded in the ideas of evolution. For James
himself, it was not a discussion for or against evolution—James was an early proponent of
evolution—but a discussion between the differing evolutionary philosophies that were gathering
force in the middle of the 19th century. There were no settled answers then and it was far too
early to say with any certainty at all whether Darwin’s innovative model would win out. Much
like today separation, there were those in James’ time such as Herbert Spencer who were intent
on a fully mechanical and fully deterministic evolutionary model and there were those such as
James who favored a model where chance and possibility were real factors in organic life.
Though Darwin has for now won out, this underlying philosophical discussion about the
meaning of evolution has never really been settled.1
Between the years of 1879-1885, William James taught Philosophy 3: The Philosophy of
Evolution (James, 146). Nowhere is his personal philosophical struggle with the breadth and
implications of evolution clearer than in the class notes he used when he taught on this subject.
And nowhere else do we see such an early indication of how much of James’ philosophy was
tied up in this issue. The most fascinating aspect of these class notes is that they are entirely
devoted to an examination and critique of Herbert Spencer’s book First Principles.2 If this
seems surprising to us today, it is only because the momentous context of the first appearance of
evolution and the importance of Spencer to this period in history has today dropped below the
surface and faded from memory. There is no historical doubt however, that Herbert Spencer was
the most important figure in the philosophy of evolution in the mid-to-late 19th century and was
the most important figure in the formation of James’ evolutionary position. James’ developed
his own position on the meaning of evolution against that of Spencer. It is the main purpose of
this paper to bring this discussion—a discussion that is still important today—a little closer to the
surface of James scholarship. At the same time this discussion will begin to clarify the issues
James had with Spencer in a way that will demonstrate the continued importance of reading
James as a philosopher of evolution.
There are many excellent books that highlight and/or explain various aspects of this continuing history. See:
Bowler (2003), Daniels (1968), Depew and Weber (1997), Richards (1987), Schneider (1946), Wiener (1949), Mayr
James’ relationship to Spencer was a complicated and important one—as James was the first to acknowledge.
Not only did he focus on the evolutionary philosophy of Spencer but he also spent the two years prior to this
evolution class teaching an undergraduate class “Natural History: Physiological Psychology” in which he used and
critiqued Spencer’s Principles of Psychology. This work led directly to James’ essay “Remarks on Spencer’s
Definition of Mind as Correspondence” (1878) where we can clearly see that James begins with Spencer in
believing that consciousness is fully evolved and fully continuous with organic life. We can also see in this short
essay just how much of James’ ideas surrounding consciousness were developed—in direct contrast—to the vastly
different ideas of Spencer.
The breadth of influence and critique between James and Spencer is far too extensive to
explain or analyze in this short paper. Rather, the discussion between these differing views of
evolution will be limited to only the First Principles of Spencer and James’ direct response to
this text in his class notes from the Philosophy of Evolution.3 In one or two places, an aspect of
this response will be indirectly connected to a later philosophical position of James. And of
course, in order to properly contextualize this discussion historically, a short explanation of
Spencer’s importance and James’ response to this notoriety is necessary.
It is extremely difficult today when the philosophy of Spencer has almost completely
faded from view to understand just how important he was in the last half of the 19th century. It is
equally difficult to reproduce the complex philosophical, scientific, and social impact his ideas
had on the formation of American philosophy at this time. To begin with a simple but revealing
fact, he sold 368,755 copies of his works in America alone between the years of 1860-1903.
(Hofstader, 34) This is an impressive figure for any type of book in that period but is even more
impressive when one encounters the sometimes difficult language and far ranging philosophical
connections made by Spencer in these works. As many commentators of this period have noted,
America was becoming conscious of its own growing position in the world and was beginning to
search for some guiding principles and,
Spencer’s philosophy was admirably suited to the American scene. It was
scientific in derivation and comprehensive in scope. It had a reassuring theory of
progress based upon biology and physics. It was large enough to be all things to
all men, broad enough to satisfy agnostics like Robert Ingersoll and theists like
Fiske and Beecher. It offered a comprehensive world-view, uniting under one
generalization everything in nature from protozoa to politics. (Hofstader, 31)
Something must be said about the use of “class notes” to make an argument against Spencer. First and
foremost—as we will see—I will only make use of the sections of the notes which are unambiguous and clearly
focused on the arguments of Spencer. And secondly—as we will also see—I will only be focusing on the aspects of
these arguments which undeniably migrated into the mature philosophy of James. Many parts of the notes are
simply bulleted lists or unconnected single sentences or phrases—these are not used even where they would be
helpful. Only the coherent sections where a full argument is used have been utilized in this paper.
This generalization was Spencer’s principle of evolution. There have been many
attempts to encapsulate the thought of Spencer in a phrase or two. And there have been many
attempts to use the thought of Spencer out of its original context and purpose in Spencer’s
system.4 I will attempt to avoid this tendency by looking directly to the text of Spencer and
James’ response to this text in his class notes. But before we can attempt this analysis, we must
try to drop out of our own contemporary ideas of evolution and try to understand the
philosophical tensions between James and Spencer surrounding this issue. Perhaps, the best
way to capture this moment is through the words William James wrote on the death of Spencer
in 1903.
After calling Spencer one of the two or three most influential minds of his time, James
gives us the following summary passage:
For wide and immediate influence, Spencer must come before even
Darwin. Darwin’s influence was primarily over technical circles…. On the
“public” his influence has been remote. Of twenty educated men who think they
know all “about” Darwinism, hardly one has read it in the original. Spencer’s
influence, contrariwise, is not only wide but direct. Thousands of readers who are
not technical students know him in the original; and to such readers he has given
(…) a simple, sublime, and novel system of the world, in which things fall into
easy perspective relations, whose explanatory formula applies to every
conceivable phenomenon, and whose practical outcome is the somewhat vague
optimism which is so important a tendency in modern life. (James, 21)
In this single passage, we can begin to see why James gave so much time and energy to both the
analysis and critique of Spencer’s philosophy in both his classes and written work. It is simply
because it was not Darwin’s ideas of evolution which were most influential in America at that
time but Spencer’s version of evolution which was driving both the popular and philosophical
understanding of evolution. Where Darwin was a working scientist attempting to formulate a
theory to explain what he saw as the changes in species over time, Spencer was a philosopher
Many examples of these misuses are highlighted (and corrected I believe) in the excellent intellectual
biography Herbert Spencer and the Invention of the Modern Life, Mark Francis, Cornell Univ. Press, 2007.
attempting to formulate a deductive philosophy whose guiding principle is evolution. He is
attempting to formulate a system of philosophy whose principle—evolution—applies to every
aspect of reality, from physics, to biology, to psychology. For Spencer, even non-living aspects
of our world follow this guiding principle. Where Darwin was a scientist pushing towards a
theoretical model to describe the living world; Spencer was a philosopher creating an all
encompassing philosophical scheme.5
William James approaches the philosophy of Spencer with this foremost in his mind and
so should we. James’ philosophy, especially his relationship to evolution, cannot be understood
if this historical context is not recognized. Spencer was the largest and most influential
philosopher and social thinker of his time. This bears repeating because it is so vital to a full
understanding of James’ response to Spencer. At least in his earlier work and his earlier classes
taught at Harvard, Spencer was the philosopher that James developed himself against. There
were other earlier influences and other influences at the same time but Spencer drew the most
attention from James especially on the question of evolution and even more so on the question of
the meaning of evolution.
A short summary of Spencer’s ideas in his First Principles will prepare the way for
James’ critique of that work. As was briefly mentioned, evolution for Spencer is a general aspect
of all of nature; it covers everything from protozoa to politics. This process for Spencer was
more a philosophical explanation of an evolving world than it was a scientific description of the
world. As we will see, he believed that the only goal of a philosophy was a unification under a
The relationship between Darwin and Spencer is a complicated one. Spencer was already an established
thinker when Darwin first published the Origin of Species in 1859. Darwin had very few allies at that time and
Spencer was one of the few who did not immediately dismiss his work—especially his explanatory theory natural
selection. Though Darwin was much more aware of their differences than Spencer seemed to be, they were cordial
and both added aspects of the others thought to their subsequent work. Richards (1987), Richardson (2006), Depew
and Weber (1997) explain the intricacies of this relationship in their works (noted in the bibliography). There is a
strong correlation between the differences of Darwin and Spencer and the differences between James and Spencer.
single principle and then a deduction from this single universal law into its particular cases. This
single “law” underlying all apparent progress is nicely summarized in the conclusion to his First
The changes everywhere going on, from those which are slowly altering
our galaxy down to those which constitute a chemical decomposition, are changes
in the relative positions of component parts, and everywhere necessarily imply
that along with a new arrangement of Matter there has arisen a new arrangement
of Motion. Hence we may be certain, a priori, that there must be a law of the
concomitant redistribution of Matter and Motion which holds of every change;
and which, by thus unifying all changes, must be the basis of a philosophy.
(Spencer, 455)
This underlying principle operated in all these different aspects of reality by a steady and
necessary progress. This progress was from the simple, undifferentiated (homogenous) grouping
towards greater distinctness, individuality (heterogeneity) and complexity. He gives us the
following example, “While the matter composing the Solar System has been assuming a denser
form, it has changed from unity to variety of distribution.” (Spencer, 458) What began as a
homogenous and energetic grouping of matter and motion has “evolved” over time into specific
planets, stars, and orbits. And this same movement from undifferentiated wholes to distinct
varieties can be found equally present at all levels of reality and even in all “super-organic
products—Language, Science, Art, and Literature.” (Spencer, 458) These are not separate
“evolutions” but there is one evolution underlying all matter and motion—even the matter and
motion of mind. For Spencer, there is an explicit universality coupled with an explicit teleology.
Evolution and progress are necessary.6
This is one of the areas of Spencer that is often mistaken for a categorical acceptance or even suggestion that
any inhumanity is acceptable in the name of progress. This is where he is often accused of suggesting an ethic of
“survival of the fittest” which has been taken up and used for various causes from libertarian capitalism to eugenics.
The real story of Spencer’s philosophical position is much more nuanced and complicated. Though he certainly was
a “liberal” in the context of his own day and though he was heavily influenced by Malthus, he was not actually as
simple and brutal as he is often portrayed to be. Mark Francis in his Herbert Spencer and the Invention of the
Modern Life (2007) goes into great and convincing detail on this point.
Importantly for Spencer, all of this is deducible—with certainty—from what he called the
“persistence of force”—or what we would today call the law of the conservation of energy or the
first law of thermodynamics. This law of physics was just becoming accepted science when
Spencer began to search for some underlying principle of reality. It seemed for him to be the
perfect way to understand the relationship between matter and motion. Besides this relationship,
it also seemed the perfect way to explain what he saw as the obvious progression from the simple
and undifferentiated towards the distinct and complex. The inner workings of this process were
characterized by a somewhat mechanical balance between the internal aspects of objects and
their attempt to find some equilibrium with the changing outside conditions. The middle level of
Spencer’s philosophy as outlined in the First Principles is essentially a continuing movement
towards equilibrium that leads progressively and unerringly towards greater and greater
distinctness, specialty, and complexity. Internal agitation encounters external conditions and this
necessarily leads towards differentiation and complexity—this is evolution for Spencer.
If there were not another facet to his philosophy in the First Principles, one might be
tempted to see Spencer only as some type of materialist or Compte-like positivist. And within
the physical world around us, there is for Spencer a very tight determinism and necessity
attached to the directional process of “progress” at every level of reality. However, this is not
the entire story. Evolution is not an infinite natural and mechanical process and more
noteworthy—evolution is not neutral. For Spencer, all knowable things are inextricably related
to their limiting factors. There is an unknowable and unconditioned which borders and limits
what is knowable. In his own words, he explains this difficult idea—it is “by analysis of both
our religious and our scientific ideas that, while knowledge of the cause which produces effects
on our consciousness is impossible, the existence of a cause for these effects is a datum of
consciousness.” (Spencer, 464) In an argument that is too drawn out for a paper of this length,
Spencer concludes that all of our attempts to know absolutely and know completely are bound to
fail because there is a limit that human reason cannot penetrate. We may push deeper and deeper
into the mysteries of science but we will never find the end—because the unknowable is a limit
we cannot cross.7 This position is at once both an epistemology and a metaphysics for Spencer.
Our knowledge is limited and this limit is a real though unknowable part of the world. It was in
this way that Spencer believed he had left room for both science and religion and it was this final
part of Spencer’s system that led James to call it “a simple, sublime, and novel system of the
world, in which things fall into easy perspective relations, whose explanatory formula applies to
every conceivable phenomenon, and whose practical outcome is the somewhat vague optimism
which is so important a tendency in modern life.” (James, Critic, 21)
The most central critique that James makes of the First Principles is against Spencer’s
idea of the persistence of force. The rest of his critique and the aspects of these critiques that
appear in his later philosophy all arise from this initial critique of Spencer’s persistence of force.
In a section of his class notes actually titled “Persistance of Force,” we find the following
passage about this idea:
Begin by saying to what extent I mean to criticize Sp. (shorthand for
Spencer used throughout the text). I don’t object to his saying we have an
intuitive belief in the principle. If it is any thing at all it is intuitive. But the
principle itself is so vague that I object to saying we can use it to deduce anything
from it. Sp. does try to deduce his whole system from it. Just as if Darwin had
tried to deduce his system from natura non facit saltum. (James, Man. Lec., 151,
My Parenthetical)8
There is a slight—and perhaps too easy—correlation between the idea of Spencer’s unknowable and Kant’s
noumenal world. Though some commentators have noted and/or asserted this similarity, I believe Mark Francis is
correct that its source is rather closer to home (perhaps politically, socially, and religiously motivated) for Spencer
and that the Kantian influence is at several removes if it is there at all.
Natura non facit saltum—a famous phrase used by (but not invented by) Darwin meaning nature make no
There are two very important philosophical points being pushed forward by James. The first and
most obvious is that Spencer is attempting to turn the persistence of force into a “first principle”
from which every other part of his philosophy—biology, psychology, ethics—will follow with
logical and metaphysical necessity. In a move characteristically Jamesian, he candidly admits
that we do in fact have an intuitive belief in some type of a persistence of force. But as he says
in the very next paragraph on the same page, this belief and Darwin’s belief that nature makes no
leaps “belong to the same class.” (James, Man. Lec., 151) This class is the class of statements
we intuitively believe about nature. In this same class, James puts—every change has a cause
and nothing happens without a sufficient reason. All of these specific statements for James can
be generalized as “Nature must be completely intelligible, for as Helmholtz says they are
postulates of our understanding of Nature.” (James, Man. Lec., 151) They are not metaphysical
statements but simply reflect our human way of understanding nature.
James is in no way denying the validity of this class of statements about nature and he is
certainly not denying our intuitive belief in their practical force. His target is not really these
statements but rather the deductive use of these statements by Spencer. This is an important
moment in James—often overlooked—where we can begin to understand his view of science
and of evolution (there is even a nascent philosophy of science here). It is not only that this idea
of force is vague—though it certainly is in the First Principles—but that even if we do affirm it
to be the case it does not qualify as a first principle. The place of “necessary ideals” such as
these in science is clarified by James, “That this ideal should be real is the hope of all of us. We
assume it even where unproved, hoping it will be proved.” (James, Man. Lec., 151) Spencer’s
persistence of force is just such an ideal. It is certainly a necessary assumption. It is hoped that
it will be found real; but it is not real until somehow proven to be real. James even goes so far as
to suggest that these ideals may be aesthetically based—and this is not meant negatively. Rather,
it further stresses that we cannot know such “beliefs” with a certainty that reaches a deductive
level—they are only postulates of our understanding of nature.
The second essential point being pushed forward against Spencer here is derived from the
first and reveals just how far this reaction against Spencer spread into James’ future philosophy. 9
In a great practical example meant to push against the intuition of continuity and persistence of
force, James tries to push a little daylight between the distinct and complex parts of our
experience (heterogeneous phenomena). Outside of the unknowable, everything in the
phenomenal world is mechanistic and potentially quantifiable for Spencer and this becomes
James’ next target. He writes,
Is cold duration greater or less than hot? Is sleep with or without
dream the larger? You cannot make a sum of heterogeneous magnitudes:
Beethoven’s 7th Symphony + smell of roast beef + rainbow is it greater or less
than a walk to Boston + a scientific discovery + $3.25 divided by an anthracite
coal fire. (James, Man. Lec., 152)
Underlying many of the notions of Spencer, there is a strong belief in a persistence of force.
And, all matter and all motion as they evolve from the simple and undifferentiated towards the
distinct and complex are only rearranged matter and motion. It is into this continuity that James
wants to push a little uncertainty and possibility. If Spencer is correct and there is a direct
mechanical continuity that can be understood, James says “The only way is to find if possible
some common aspect of all these phenomena and measure that.” (James, Man. Lec., 152) Of
course, James does not think that this is possible. In fact, he thinks “we have no a priori or
native sensibility whatever to the quantities of phenomenal motion.” (James, Man. Lec., 153)
Far outside of the scope of this short paper, these ideas could be easily traced into essays of James’ such as
“Great Men and their Environment,” “The Dilemma of Determinism,” “The One and the Many,” and many others.
James’ reasons—for both his attack on deduction from First Principles and his equally
strong attack on the notion of continuity within our understanding of nature—become explicit in
a section titled “Concluding Lecture on Spencer.” It is this passage which marks the sharp
differences between these two thinkers and also brings this early discussion of evolutionary
philosophy back into present importance. He begins with a notion that could be very useful even
today, “We have all got to attack the problem of the meaning of the facts of evolution.” (James,
Man. Lec., 158) It is not the facts of evolution where James and Spencer disagree just as it is not
the facts that separate today’s more reductionistic thinkers from the more constructivist
philosophers of evolution. Rather, it is the meaning of these facts that separates. For a
mechanistic thinker like Spencer, the higher has no meaning except the lower. In other words,
the smell of roast beef and the sum $3.25 can both be reduced to some common mixture of
matter and motion. Beyond this mixing and matching of component parts, there is no chance for
novelty in such a model. There is no room for chance or possibility in a world such as this
“Nothing comes new—no new essence” and of course we humans are no different than all other
aspects of Spencer’s reality. There is no chance or possibility within us to allow us to modify or
meliorate our own world—it is also all determined.
These very issues about the meaning of evolution are still important in today’s most
pressing discussions and debates about the scope of evolution. This paper has been a plea that
Spencer should be read in the original and James’ strident response to this fully deductive system
should be read right next to it. There is a freshness and a novelty to their views that should push
them above the surface and into a wider field of view. Their social, scientific, and philosophical
context is still vital and still pertinent—we have not changed as much as we have forgotten.
Both of these thinkers still have an enormous amount of insight and value. They are not merely
a past faded from view; their differences have informed and can still inform our understanding of
evolution’s meaning today.
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