Monday, 13 August 2007

Necessarily Dull: Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life Last December, I met a couple of people from the Cato Institute and had a conversation with them about Herbert Spencer. Earlier this week, one of those people, Julian Sanchez, mentioned the publication of Mark Francis' Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life: A new book about Herbert Spencer apparently argues against the conventional wisdom that he preached "social Darwinism." I think that's right, and the association has lasted as long as it has just because it was useful to have an identifiable foil. The linked review convinced me to buy the book. The impressions Francis wants to correct about Spencer run parallel to the impressions I want to correct about the American literary and popular culture Spencer influenced. The fear of being trumped aside, I want to see whether my reading of Spencer jibes with that of someone who's done what no one's even attempted in over a hundred years: seriously studied the entirety of Spencer's massive oeuvre. I've many thoughts on the matter, some of which will go to my making good on a promise I made to the other person I met last December, Will Wilkinson. I warn you: these posts may be boring. Francis writes in his introduction: [Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life] is a hybrid between biography and textual analysis, which must achieve a precarious balance between chronicling an often-uneventful personal life and offering a substantial account of ideas that frequently seem to have no current interest. Any intellectual biography would face similar problems, but there is an extra difficulty here because Spencer's life appears especially empty. Francis then reproduces the faux-obituary Spencer's friend and former lover, the soon-to-be popular novelist George Eliot, wrote when he was thirty-four and a soon-to-be popular philosopher: Spencer, Herbert, an original and profound philosophical writer, especially known by his great work XXX which gave a new impulse to psychology and has mainly contributed to the present advanced position of that science, compared with that which it had attained in the middle of the last century. The life of the philosopher, like that of the great Kant, offers little material for the narrator. Born in the year 1820 &c.

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