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Our President, " Professor" Barack Obama, in a recent attack of Paul Ryan's GOP budget proposal, labelled it as "thinly veiled social Darwinism," showing his misunderstanding of both.

Articles have started popping up in the media trying to explain what he meant. I suppose this means that they're going to dig up Richard Hofstadter's revisionist history screed, Social Darwinism in American Thought, which made his reputation in the academic world, showing that neither Hofstadter, nor those that applauded his book, had bothered to actually go back and read Spencer, relying instead on interpretations of Spencer by his ideological enemies.

However, in Hofstadter's case there is no excuse for him not being familiar withe the topic he was writing about. So it is more likely that he knew exactly what he was doing in fabricating a caricature of Spencer that would have been unrecognizable to Spencer's contemporaries.

The best summary of this smear came out today on Reason Online, by Matt Welch, and the Cato Institute's David Boaz weighs in, below:

http://reason.com/bl...winism-nonsense

http://www.cato-at-l...cial-darwinism/

The Ludwig von Mises Institute has some excellent essays comparing what Spencer really said to what Hofstadter, et al, claims he said. (e.g., "Herbert Spencer as an Anthropologist," by Robert L. Carneiro. The Journal of Libertarian Studies, Vol. V, No.2, Spring, 1980. http://mises.org/jou...s/5_2/5_2_2.pdf ).

Another excellant essay on this issue is "Origins of the Myth of Social Darwinisn: The Ambiguous Legacy of Richard Hofstadter's Social Darwinism in American Thought," by Thomas Leonard. (2009) http://www.princeton...papers/myth.pdf (forthcoming in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization)

And some guy by the name of George H. Smith, had the temerity to try to set the record straight by including in his book, Atheism, Ayn Rand, And Other Heresies, (Prometheus Books, 1990) a chapter entitled, "Will The Real Herbert Spencer Please Stand Up?" .

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Jerry,

Thanks for posting this. It persuaded me to interrupt my Cato series on education and write the next essay (for this Tuesday) on social Darwinism. This essay will include some of the same material as my earlier article, but it will be a bit more comprehensive, including the ideas of William Graham Sumner as well.

Ghs

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George,

I'm looking forward to your essay.

The Hofstadter rendition of Social Darwinism, unfortunately, has legs.

There is a really thorough review of all of the different varieties of Social Darwinism by an English sociologist, Mike Hawkins:

http://www.amazon.com/Darwinism-European-American-Thought-1860-1945/dp/052157434X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1333731071&sr=1-1

Hawkins reminds his readers how, once upon a time, there were pacifist Social Darwinists, socialist Social Darwinists, feminist Social Darwinists...

I lent my copy to a grad student who wanted to write a paper about the impact of Social Darwinism on psychology.

And the student's final version ended up relying mostly on Hofstadter...

Robert Campbell

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The Hofstadter rendition of Social Darwinism, unfortunately, has legs.

Robert:

I have not read it, are those legs "justified," or, not, in your opinion?

Adam

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George,

I'm looking forward to your essay.

The Hofstadter rendition of Social Darwinism, unfortunately, has legs.

There is a really thorough review of all of the different varieties of Social Darwinism by an English sociologist, Mike Hawkins:

http://www.amazon.co...33731071&sr=1-1

Hawkins reminds his readers how, once upon a time, there were pacifist Social Darwinists, socialist Social Darwinists, feminist Social Darwinists...

I lent my copy to a grad student who wanted to write a paper about the impact of Social Darwinism on psychology.

And the student's final version ended up relying mostly on Hofstadter...

Robert Campbell

Another study with similar conclusions, (that Hofstadter's "social darwinism" is a myth composed of selectively editing his sources to confirm his thesis), is Robert Bannister's Social Darwinism: Science and Myth in Anglo-American Social Thought,

http://www.amazon.co...1918361-7976165

But, as you say, the myth lives on, particularly in academic circles such as those who educated our President, primarily because they want to believe it and also because it is much easier to construct a scapegoat (or more accurately, a "strawman") and then refute it, than it is to deal with the positions of Mises, Hayek, Friedman, Rand, or, in this case, the real Herbert Spencer.

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Adam,

I suppose it is too much to ask of scholars to consult Spencer's multi-volume A System of Synthetic Philosophy, which took him 20 years to complete (and in length, makes Atlas Shrugged look like a pamphlet), plus many more collections of his essays.

But, maybe they could try Spencer's Social Statics and his later The Man Versus The State But it is much easier to simply contemptuously dismiss him.

You know, paraphrasing Ayn Rand's examples in her The Argument From Intimidation (p. 166, VOS)

"Herbert Spencer?, My dear fellow, (a weary sigh), if you had read Richard Hofstadter's classic, Social Darwinism in American Life which (contemptuously) you obviously haven't, you would know- (airily) that Spencer has been refuted.".

This is not to say, that Spencer is above criticism, or that his philosophy was always sound. But his liberal/left critics simply present a caricature of Spencerian arguments, instead of what he actually wrote.

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This is not to say, that Spencer is above criticism, or that his philosophy was always sound. But his liberal/left critics simply present a caricature of Spencerian arguments, instead of what he actually wrote.

Thanks Jerry:

When Bob referred to Hofstadter's work, "...having legs...," I would assume that he meant if the vast left wing collegiate community and I just wanted to check.

As to Spencer, sure, like any philosopher, Rand included, he can certainly be criticized.

However, what always offends me, and I am sure most of us here, is the intentional misstatements and outright lies that the alleged scholastic representatives engage in and claim to be in the interests of truth and scholarship.

Adam

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Catholics United made a similar charge when they attributed Ryan’s budget to the influence of Ayn Rand.

“The social Darwinist teachings of Ayn Rand have consistently been denounced by major Catholic leaders as antithetical to Catholic doctrine,” argued Catholics United.

The earlier thread:

Catholics Credit Ryan Budget to Ayn Rand

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Dennis,

Indeed, they did! Same tactic. But, as I never tire of saying, this "strawman" tactic is overplayed and I think may drive the curious to pick up her books to see if she really is "that bad." In which case,those that had read the scathing criticism of Rand may conclude that they had "been had" by the Left.

Although in Rand's case, it would have been interesting if she had included a Catholic priest, which she was considering. Of course, the role that the priest would have played (pro-, or anti- Galt) would be the issue. I may be confabulating here, but I think one of her recent biographers, Burns or Heller, mention this proposed character. I think they said that Rand was considering his role to be proGalt.

Ah well, idle speculation....

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For a stinking pile of shit regarding Herbert Spencer, survival of the fittest, and social Darwinism, see this You Tube clip:

This is part 2 of the BBC production of John Kenneth Galbraith's Age of Uncertainty (1977). The part about Spencer begins at 3:50 and runs to around 9:00.

I mentioned this outrageous piece of lying propaganda in my 1978 article for Libertarian Review, "Will the Real Herbert Spencer Please Stand Up?" (later reprinted in Atheism, Ayn Rand, and Other Heresies). This was just a year after the series aired in 1977, and it had a lot to do with my decision to read Spencer in detail. Unfortunately, I didn't have access to the film at that time, so I had to work from memory; but now that the clip can be seen on YouTube, I will have more to say about it in my next Cato essay. It is even worse than I remembered. Get of load of the subtle visuals -- a lion devouring meat, after which the camera pans up to a sign reading ""These animals are dangerous." And the actor playing Spencer is made to look like a zombie.

Ghs

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I tried to watch it George, but I couldn't stand the esthetic dreck.

--Brant

I'd rather look at war photographs of dead and wounded, not that I would

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I tried to watch it George, but I couldn't stand the esthetic dreck.

--Brant

I'd rather look at war photographs of dead and wounded, not that I would

The section on Spencer only runs a little over five minutes (from 3:50 to 9:00). You really should watch it if you are interested in how Spencer is still viewed by many academics. This bilge still appears in secondary accounts and is still taught. Even more, it is a prototype of how all advocates of laissez-faire are portrayed.

Ghs

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Natural selection vs. the progressive eugenics

easy choice

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I tried to watch it George, but I couldn't stand the esthetic dreck.

--Brant

I'd rather look at war photographs of dead and wounded, not that I would

The section on Spencer only runs a little over five minutes (from 3:50 to 9:00). You really should watch it if you are interested in how Spencer is still viewed by many academics. This bilge still appears in secondary accounts and is still taught. Even more, it is a prototype of how all advocates of laissez-faire are portrayed.

Ghs

I now have watched it because I've been drinking. I forgot that I've no interest whatsoever in what academics think about anything anymore.

--Brant

surrounded about them all my young life--they drank a lot; my bro-in-law drank himself to death

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Natural selection vs. the progressive eugenics easy choice

I vote for natural selection.

Ba'al Chatzaf

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Adam,

In referring to Hofstadter's treatment of Social Darwinism "having legs," I meant that it keeps hanging around the way some really bad ideas do, when they confirm people's prejudices or are convenient to some agenda.

Jerry,

Thank you for the pointer to Bannister's book, which is going on my reading list. A comprehensive treatment of Social Darwinism should also cover authors who wrote in German, French, and other languages, but it's the English language authors who have been in a position to influence American political thought.

Everyone,

Here's a round of applause from Philip Kitcher, on the New York Times' truly trashy philosophy blog:

http://opinionator.b...cial-darwinism/

Social Darwinism emerged as a movement in the late 19th-century, and has had waves of popularity ever since, but its central ideas owe more to the thought of a luminary of that time, Herbert Spencer, whose writings are (to understate) no longer widely read.

Spencer, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” thought about natural selection on a grand scale. Conceiving selection in pre-Darwinian terms — as a ruthless process, “red in tooth and claw” — he viewed human culture and human societies as progressing through fierce competition. Provided that policymakers do not take foolish steps to protect the weak, those people and those human achievements that are fittest — most beautiful, noble, wise, creative, virtuous, and so forth — will succeed in a fierce competition, so that, over time, humanity and its accomplishments will continually improve. Late 19th-century dynastic capitalists, especially the American “robber barons,” found this vision profoundly congenial. Their contemporary successors like it for much the same reasons, just as some adolescents discover an inspiring reinforcement of their self-image in the writings of Ayn Rand.

Has Kitcher read a lick of Herbert Spencer? Presumably not, as spending any time with Spencer's writings would render him ideologically suspect.

Robert Campbell

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The section on Spencer only runs a little over five minutes (from 3:50 to 9:00). You really should watch it if you are interested in how Spencer is still viewed by many academics. This bilge still appears in secondary accounts and is still taught. Even more, it is a prototype of how all advocates of laissez-faire are portrayed.

Is Will Durant’s chapter on Spencer in The Story of Philosophy accurate? All this talk of Spencer has led me to start listening to the audiobook version of the chapter again. I can’t say I’ve read much Spencer first-hand, no complete books in any event.

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It's been a long time since I read Durant's account, so I can't comment on its content.. I think that Durant wrote it before Richard Hofstadter's revisionist fantasy on Spencer, which unfortunately has colored most evaluations (really, dismissals) of Spencer.

Durant's book was a popular account and not meant for academics (not necessarily a disqualification... This is one of the few occasions where I feel tempted to quote Peikoff's intemperate, ill-considered, putdown of academics in the Preface to his OPAR). It was unusual that Durant even included Spencer, since most books on the history of philosophy do not mention him at all, or dismiss him with a condescending footnote. That is a rather dramatic change for an author who was widely quoted and commended by his contemporaries, and referred to as the equal of Aristotle by some of his many admirers.

George H. Smith's discussions of Spencer in his book, Atheism, Ayn Rand and Other Heresies, is well worth reading, as is his article-essay on Spencer in The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism, and his more recent series of essays for The Cato Institute on Spencer, for which he often provides a link at the end of his postings here on OL.

Additionally, the Mises Institute (mises.org) has some very good articles on Spencer which can be found in their archives on their website.

Finally, to get an idea of the scope and extent of Spencer's philosophy, see Michael W. Taylor, The Philosophy of Herbert Spencer (London: Continuum,2007), and, for an eye-opening account of how much of the current libertarian arguments for individualism are actually re-statements :blush: of arguments put forth by Spencer and a circle of like-minded writers from nineteenth century Brittain, see Michael W. Taylor, Men Versus The State: Herbert Spencer and Late Victorian Individualism (Oxford Univ. Pr. -:Clarendon, 1992).

And then, remember that these arguments were dismissed and/or ignored :huh::o:wacko: as Fabian socialism in England, and so-called "progressivism" in America, took hold among the intellectuals. And then reach for a drink? :sad:

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The section on Spencer only runs a little over five minutes (from 3:50 to 9:00). You really should watch it if you are interested in how Spencer is still viewed by many academics. This bilge still appears in secondary accounts and is still taught. Even more, it is a prototype of how all advocates of laissez-faire are portrayed.

Is Will Durant’s chapter on Spencer in The Story of Philosophy accurate? All this talk of Spencer has led me to start listening to the audiobook version of the chapter again. I can’t say I’ve read much Spencer first-hand, no complete books in any event.

I haven't read Durant's Story of Philosophy in over 40 years, so I cannot comment on the accuracy of his account of Spencer. But Durant was a left-anarchist, so it would not surprise me if he was at least sympathetic to Spencer's antistatism, even if he got the "survival of the fittest" part wrong.

Early versions of the chapters that appear in Story first appeared separately as "Little Blue Books," published by the freethought publisher Haldeman-Julius. H-J was something of a pioneer in the mass marketing of cheap paperbacks

Durant made a ton of money from Story, a best-seller -- enough to devote the rest of his life (along with his wife, Ariel) to projects that interested him, most notably, the 11-volume Story of Civilization. I have owned that set for many years and have a much higher regard for it than do many historians. Roy Childs was especially fond of the first volume, Our Oriental Heritage, because it defends a conquest theory of the origin of the State.

I also like Will and Ariel's Dual Autobiography. There were into "free love" in their early days, they knew a lot of interesting people, such as Bertrand Russell, and they tell many amusing stories. One can get a pretty good feel for the intellectual culture of pre-WWII NYC by reading that book. Far left, of course, but brimming with interesting people.

Ghs

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George,

Although my copy of Durant's The Story of Philosophy is still buried,... somewhere, the finding of which would require an archeological dig, I did find my copy of the Haldeman-Julius "Little Blue Book " edition, The Philosophy of Herbert Spencer. The booklet does not list a copyright date.

However, according to the Haldeman-Julius website,. which has a database of (almost) all Little Blue Books and similar editions that H-J brought out, the publication date was 1927. This is well before Hofstadter's re-write of history to fit the Progressive-New Deal ideology.

And how did Will Durant summarize Spencer's career? Here are a few sentences from the conclusion of the article:

"When he died, in 1903, he had come to think that his work had been done in vain.....We now know, of course, that it was not so....the revival of liberalism will raise him again to his place as the greatest English philosopher of his century.....He summed up his age as no man had ever summed up any age since Dante; and he achieved so masterly a co-ordination of so vast an area of knowledge that criticism is almost shamed into silence by his achievement. We are standing now on heights which his struggles and his labors won for us; we seem to be above him because he has raised us on his shoulders. Some day, when the sting of his opposition is forgotten, we shall do him better justice."

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