A new reading of Spencer on ‘society’, ‘organicism’ and ‘spontaneous order’

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

1 Citation (Scopus)

Abstract

Herbert Spencer represented societies as ‘social organisms’, but he also interpreted social life as a ‘spontaneous order’. This new reading of Spencer argues that these positions are not incompatible. The sociological challenge he tackled was how to conceptualise order, pattern and change in the mutually interdependent lives of social individuals as moral beings. Many critics, including Tönnies, Durkheim and Bosanquet, overlooked the subtlety of Spencer’s thought on the social organism and socially minded individuals, including its focus on ‘transcendental physiology’ and morphological variety. As a legacy, we behold mythical accounts of Spencer, either as an exponent of a reified ‘social system’ or as a mouthpiece for ‘laissez-faire’, and amoral ‘individualism’. This article suggests that individuals were understood to be neither ‘atomic’ nor amoral but capable of altruism and beneficence and to exhibit a ‘social self-consciousness’ within societies whose structures were mutable. If correct, Spencer’s contribution to the history of sociology has been commonly misjudged, and his basic thought retains value for sociology today in respect of ideas of individualism, holism and ‘society’.
LanguageEnglish
Pages337-360
JournalJournal of Classical Sociology
Volume15
Issue number4
Early online date10 Mar 2015
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2015

Fingerprint

individualism
history of sociology
holism
altruism
physiology
social system
society
consciousness
critic
sociology
Society
Values

Keywords

  • society
  • social organicism
  • spontaneous order
  • Hebert Spencer
  • Durkheim
  • holism

Cite this

@article{6627556c869f468e89a21bfdddb0a360,
title = "A new reading of Spencer on ‘society’, ‘organicism’ and ‘spontaneous order’",
abstract = "Herbert Spencer represented societies as ‘social organisms’, but he also interpreted social life as a ‘spontaneous order’. This new reading of Spencer argues that these positions are not incompatible. The sociological challenge he tackled was how to conceptualise order, pattern and change in the mutually interdependent lives of social individuals as moral beings. Many critics, including T{\"o}nnies, Durkheim and Bosanquet, overlooked the subtlety of Spencer’s thought on the social organism and socially minded individuals, including its focus on ‘transcendental physiology’ and morphological variety. As a legacy, we behold mythical accounts of Spencer, either as an exponent of a reified ‘social system’ or as a mouthpiece for ‘laissez-faire’, and amoral ‘individualism’. This article suggests that individuals were understood to be neither ‘atomic’ nor amoral but capable of altruism and beneficence and to exhibit a ‘social self-consciousness’ within societies whose structures were mutable. If correct, Spencer’s contribution to the history of sociology has been commonly misjudged, and his basic thought retains value for sociology today in respect of ideas of individualism, holism and ‘society’.",
keywords = "society, social organicism, spontaneous order, Hebert Spencer, Durkheim, holism",
author = "John Offer",
year = "2015",
month = "11",
day = "1",
doi = "10.1177/1468795X15572278",
language = "English",
volume = "15",
pages = "337--360",
journal = "Journal of Classical Sociology",
issn = "1468-795X",
number = "4",

}

A new reading of Spencer on ‘society’, ‘organicism’ and ‘spontaneous order’. / Offer, John.

In: Journal of Classical Sociology, Vol. 15, No. 4, 01.11.2015, p. 337-360.

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

TY - JOUR

T1 - A new reading of Spencer on ‘society’, ‘organicism’ and ‘spontaneous order’

AU - Offer, John

PY - 2015/11/1

Y1 - 2015/11/1

N2 - Herbert Spencer represented societies as ‘social organisms’, but he also interpreted social life as a ‘spontaneous order’. This new reading of Spencer argues that these positions are not incompatible. The sociological challenge he tackled was how to conceptualise order, pattern and change in the mutually interdependent lives of social individuals as moral beings. Many critics, including Tönnies, Durkheim and Bosanquet, overlooked the subtlety of Spencer’s thought on the social organism and socially minded individuals, including its focus on ‘transcendental physiology’ and morphological variety. As a legacy, we behold mythical accounts of Spencer, either as an exponent of a reified ‘social system’ or as a mouthpiece for ‘laissez-faire’, and amoral ‘individualism’. This article suggests that individuals were understood to be neither ‘atomic’ nor amoral but capable of altruism and beneficence and to exhibit a ‘social self-consciousness’ within societies whose structures were mutable. If correct, Spencer’s contribution to the history of sociology has been commonly misjudged, and his basic thought retains value for sociology today in respect of ideas of individualism, holism and ‘society’.

AB - Herbert Spencer represented societies as ‘social organisms’, but he also interpreted social life as a ‘spontaneous order’. This new reading of Spencer argues that these positions are not incompatible. The sociological challenge he tackled was how to conceptualise order, pattern and change in the mutually interdependent lives of social individuals as moral beings. Many critics, including Tönnies, Durkheim and Bosanquet, overlooked the subtlety of Spencer’s thought on the social organism and socially minded individuals, including its focus on ‘transcendental physiology’ and morphological variety. As a legacy, we behold mythical accounts of Spencer, either as an exponent of a reified ‘social system’ or as a mouthpiece for ‘laissez-faire’, and amoral ‘individualism’. This article suggests that individuals were understood to be neither ‘atomic’ nor amoral but capable of altruism and beneficence and to exhibit a ‘social self-consciousness’ within societies whose structures were mutable. If correct, Spencer’s contribution to the history of sociology has been commonly misjudged, and his basic thought retains value for sociology today in respect of ideas of individualism, holism and ‘society’.

KW - society

KW - social organicism

KW - spontaneous order

KW - Hebert Spencer

KW - Durkheim

KW - holism

UR - https://pure.ulster.ac.uk/en/publications/a-new-reading-of-spencer-on-society-organicism-and-spontaneous-or-2

U2 - 10.1177/1468795X15572278

DO - 10.1177/1468795X15572278

M3 - Article

VL - 15

SP - 337

EP - 360

JO - Journal of Classical Sociology

T2 - Journal of Classical Sociology

JF - Journal of Classical Sociology

SN - 1468-795X

IS - 4

ER -