A thought relevant to our own age following a re-reading of the opening of Herbert Spencer’s (1820-1903) “First Principles” (1862/1893)

The cover of my 1893 edition 
As my last post will have revealed, I’m slowly trying to get my books back into my study after seven months of exile due to some serious water ingress caused by our neighbour’s failure to maintain their gutters properly, coupled with what was clearly a poor initial build. But don’t let me get started about that!

Anyway, this has meant I have had in my hands many volumes which I have simply not opened for years. One of them is my copy of Herbert Spencer’s (1820-1903) “First Principles” (Fifth Edition, 1893) given to me in the 1990s whilst I was studying theology at Harris Manchester College, Oxford. On the fly leaf I see that, in 1960, it was owned by Colin Birtles of Liverpool who, if I’ve got this right, was the brother of the well-known Unitarian minister in that city, Hilton Birtles.

Now, Spencer is not a favourite philosopher of mine but, since he has an interesting and important (if also problematic) place in the religious/philosophical history of British culture, I have continued to hang on to the volume. Will I ever properly read it through? Probably not, but, this morning, I idly opened it up to reacquaint myself with at least its opening lines and, to my surprise, they struck me as being incredibly pertinent to the present time and I reproduce them for you below.

The issue they speak to is the increasing tendency of too many public commentators (no matter whether on the left, centre or the right of things) who are simply prepared immediately to write off as being ridiculous, stupid, bigoted, etc., etc.,  any ideas with which they do not immediately agree or resonate. But this approach fails to notice that for many people these ideas are not felt at all to be ridiculous, stupid or bigoted, etc., but ones which really do resonate with them and command their attention. Surely it is, therefore, more rational, intelligent and helpful to acknowledge this uncomfortable fact and then seek to try to understand, as best we can, why on earth our neighbour (and, perhaps, also enemy) thinks the way they do? Only when we have done this are we likely to have any real chance of persuading those same people to change their minds and adopt a different view of things or, of course, open the door to being persuaded out of our own unexamined opinions into a new way of looking and seeing the world.

But no, almost everyone these days seems to be content simply to slag everyone else off and remain safely inside their own bubbles of wholly unchallenged prejudice. It’s no wonder our public discourse is now as dysfunctional as it is . . .

So, for what it’s worth here are Spencer’s opening words to his “First Principles”.

First Principles
Part I: The Unknowable
Chapter 1: Religion and Science

§1. We too often forget that not only is there “a soul of goodness in things evil,” but very generally also, a soul of truth in things erroneous. While many admit the abstract probability that a falsity has usually a nucleus of verity, few bear this abstract probability in mind, when passing judgment on the opinions of others. A belief that is proved to be grossly at variance with fact, is cast aside with indignation or contempt; and in the heat of antagonism scarcely any one inquires what there was in this belief which commended it to men’s minds. Yet there must have been something. And there is reason to suspect that this something was its correspondence with certain of their experiences: an extremely limited or vague correspondence perhaps, but still, a correspondence. Even the absurdest report may in nearly every instance be traced to an actual occurrence; and had there been no such actual occurrence, this preposterous misrepresentation of it would never have existed. Though the distorted or magnified image transmitted to us through the refracting medium of rumour, is utterly unlike the reality; yet in the absence of the reality there would have been no distorted or magnified image. And thus it is with human beliefs in general. Entirely wrong as they may appear, the implication is that they germinated out of actual experiences — originally contained, and perhaps still contain, some small amount of verity.