Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life

Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life

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The ideas of the English philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) profoundly shaped Victorian thought regarding evolutionary theory, the philosophy of science, sociology, and politics. In his day, Spencer's works ranked alongside those of Darwin and Marx in their importance to the development of disciplines as wide-ranging as sociology, anthropology, political theory, philosophy, and psychology. Yet during his lifetime--and certainly in the decades that followed--Spencer has been widely misunderstood. Both lauded and disparaged as the father of Social Darwinism (it was Spencer who coined the phrase "survival of the fittest"), and as an apologist for individualism and unrestrained capitalism, he was, in fact, none of these; he was instead a subtle and complex thinker.In his major new intellectual biography of Spencer, Mark Francis uses archival material and contemporary printed sources to create a fascinating portrait of a man who attempted to explain modern life in all its biological, psychological, and sociological forms through a unique philosophical and scientific system that bridged the gap between empiricism and metaphysics. Vastly influential in England and beyond--particularly the United States and Asia--his philosophy was, as Francis shows, systematic and rigorous. Despite the success he found in the realm of ideas, Spencer was an unhappy man. Francis reveals how Spencer felt permanently crippled by the Christian values he had absorbed during childhood, and was incapable of romantic love, as became clear during his relationship with the novelist George Eliot. Elegantly written, provocative, and rich in insight, Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life is an exceptional work of scholarship that not only dispels the misinformation surrounding Spencer but also illuminates the broader cultural and intellectual history of the nineteenth century.
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Product details

  • Hardback | 464 pages
  • 154.9 x 233.7 x 43.2mm | 861.84g
  • Ithaca, United States
  • English
  • 27 Illustrations, unspecified
  • 0801445906
  • 9780801445903
  • 519,565

Review quote

"Victorian biologist and social philospher Spencer has largely been neglected in the literature, and Francis remedies that here. He covers well the many problems in Spencer's life: e.g., his conflicts with his overbearing and troubled father, his inability to form and consummate loving relationships with the women in his life (notably, novelist George Eliot), and his battles with depression, melancholia, insomnia, and hypochondria. Although Francis prefers to call this an "intellectual biography"--and it certainly is that, because much of it deals with the ideas and controversy surrounding the nature of evolution--what sets it apart is its insight into Spencer's inner conflicts and aspects as well. Ours is often referred to as the Age of Anxiety, and in this sense, the picture of the troubled person who emerges here indicates why the author places him squarely in 'modern life.' Recommended for most collections."--Library Journal "A stunning revelation of a personality and thinker 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, John Hay Whitney Professor of History, 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 that no scholar of nineteenth-century thought can afford to neglect."--David Boucher, Professor of Political Theory, Cardiff University
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13 ratings
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