Date of Award

2015

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

History

Abstract

The philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) is little remembered today, but in the late nineteenth century he was a world-renowned figure and widely read. Spencer was popular in his native England, but even more highly regarded in America. Modern scholars generally understand this popularity as stemming from Spencer’s social Darwinism—that is, his belief that natural selection does and should operate on humans to improve mankind. On the other hand, many of those who have studied Spencer’s work claim that he was not a social Darwinist at all. It is my contention that Spencer was a social Darwinist, but that other aspects of his work explain his popularity in America, most notably his views about theology and religion, and his audacious attempts to unify knowledge under the banner of science.

Spencer’s work was discussed and critiqued in many nineteenth-century American newspapers, periodicals, and books. The range of these sources, from popular magazines to technical journals of science and theology, makes it possible to see how Spencer was portrayed for a variety of audiences. For the religious reader, Spencer’s work was sometimes represented as a first step towards reconciling Christianity and modern science. More often, however, he was seen as a dangerous agnostic whose position was destructive to revealed religion. In secular publications, Spencer was deified as a fearless seeker after truth, an evolutionist, and a sociologist whose theories of human development informed modern political thought. However, writers also found much to criticize about his specific theories of society, government, and ethics. Spencer’s reputation, so lofty in the 1870s and 1880s, was already fading by the time he died in 1903. This dissertation attempts to explain both Spencer’s American popularity and his virtual disappearance from American memory in the twentieth century.

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Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

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