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date: 29 October 2020

Abstract and Keywords

This article is concerned with the nature and extensive scope of Spencer’s thought and deals in detail with three core aspects. It reviews, first, his general theory of evolution, indicating inter alia how little it had in common with Darwin’s theory, second, his innovative contributions to the social sciences (featuring such concepts as ‘the social organism’, ‘spontaneous cooperation’ and ‘transcendental physiology’), and, third, his developmental approach to understanding ‘justice’ and ethics in general. Commentators agree that Spencer significantly influenced nineteenth century thought in Europe, America and beyond. However, while his work has for long been criticised for certain structural shortcomings, on grounds that this review suggests are sound, it has also been subjected repeatedly to serious misinterpretation. In particular, his work in respect of the foundations of psychology and sociology often repays careful re-reading. The present discussion should assist in reappraising his place in intellectual history.

Keywords: Herbert Spencer, evolution, evolutionary ethics, social organism, altruism, spontaneous cooperation, First Principles, selectionism, psychology, sociology

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