Darwin On Herbert Spencer -- By: G. Frederick Wright

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 046:181 (Jan 1889)
Article: Darwin On Herbert Spencer
Author: G. Frederick Wright


Darwin On Herbert Spencer

G. Frederick Wright

The remarkable urbanity characteristic of Mr. Darwin’s writings made it rather difficult to tell just what he thought of the capacity of the writers whom he quoted or to whom he referred. Thus his passing reference to Herbert Spencer as a “profound philosopher” was long ago set down by many either to the credit of Mr. Darwin’s good manners or to the discredit of his judgment of philosophers. This doubt has not been altogether dissipated by the publication of the great naturalist’s “Life and Letters; “for though he confesses repeatedly that he himself is no philosopher, his writings show that he greatly underestimated his abilities in that direction; while his distinct references in correspondence to Mr. Spencer’s work and methods of argument show how far apart the two men were in their whole plane of movement, Mr. Darwin being, in the main, in the strictest sense of the term, an inductive philosopher, bent on keeping within sight of his facts, while Mr. Spencer was a deductive philosopher, who treated facts as some preachers do texts, as though their chief value consisted in furnishing a point of departure. A voyage with Mr. Darwin is like a trip in a coasting vessel through the interminable channels of the Alaskan archipelago; while a voyage with Mr. Spencer leads you straight out into the boundless waves of the Pacific.

Mr. Darwin’s hesitancy in accepting Mr. Spencer’s conclusions is incidentally expressed in a letter to Mr. Wallace upon the subject of spontaneous generation, which he himself could never believe. Speaking of Mr. Bastian’s effort to prove the theory, he says: “I am not convinced, partly, I think, owing to the deductive cast of much of his reasoning; and I know not why, but I never feel convinced by deduction, even in the case of H. Spencer’s writings.” In writing at a later date to Mr. J. Fiske, who early became in this country the most prominent expounder of Mr. Spencer, Mr. Darwin gives his views of the importance of the true deductive method quite fully, remarking, to begin with: “I have long wished to know something about the views of the many great men whose doctrines you give. With the exceptions of special points I did not even understand H. Spencer’s general doctrine; for his style is too hard work for me. I never in my life read so lucid an expositor (and therefore thinker) as you are; and I think

that I understand nearly the whole—perhaps less clearly about Cosmic Theism and Causation than other parts.” Here we may remark by the way, that it is a genuine comfort to many to find that even Mr. Darwin had difficulty with Fiske’s Cosmic Theism.

But it is in the next quotation, a few ...

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