Education and Evolution: Appropriations of Herbert Spencer in Scandinavia, 1870–1920

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Herbert Spencer’s ideas were first introduced to a Scandinavian audience in the early 1870s when the Danish philosopher Harald Høffding published and lectured on his evolutionary philosophy. At this time, Høffding also played an important role in disseminating Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and in discussing the philosophical consequences of an evolutionary worldview.

In the late 1870s and 1880s several of Spencer’s works were translated into Danish and Swedish and he became a household name among liberal intellectuals who primarily discussed his views on education and evolution. His most influential and widespread work in Scandinavia was Education from 1861. It was translated into Danish in 1876, into Swedish in 1883 and into Norwegian in 1900. Parts of his works on sociology, ethics and philosophy were also translated into the Scandinavian languages, and a new generation of university professors of philosophy and sociology with positivist leanings embraced some of Spencer’s ideas and applied them in cultural struggles against what they regarded as outdated romanticism, idealism and conservatism. At the other side of the debate, idealist philosophers regarded Spencer’s evolutionary thinking as a problematic example of nihilistic materialism and naturalism.

The popularity of Spencer was not restricted to lecture theaters at universities. Two renowned freethinkers, the Danish literary critic Georg Brandes and the Norwegian poet Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson popularized Spencer’s evolutionary and liberal ideas in their writings and in popular lectures. Also among some liberal Protestants within the national churches and at the folk high schools Spencer’s ideas of freedom and progress were received with sympathy, albeit not uncritically, and through articles in widely circulated periodicals, Spencer was one of the best known foreign thinkers in the general public at the time of his death in 1903. Moreover, in the decades around 1900 Spencer’s thoughts on education were part of the curricula at many colleges of education.

Spencer’s ideas on evolution and education were thus widely circulated and positively received among liberal philosophers, sociologists, educationalists and authors in Scandinavia, while his influence on Scandinavian naturalists remained limited. Scandinavian naturalists preferred their colleague Charles Darwin’s detailed empirical writings to the more philosophical perspective of Herbert Spencer. Likewise, Spencer’s laissez-faire liberalism did not gain much popularity in Scandinavia among neither socialist nor conservative or liberal politicians who in the early decades of the twentieth century introduced some of the fundamental principles of the Scandinavian welfare states.
TitelGlobal Spencerism : The Communication and Appropriation of a British Evolutionist
RedaktørerBernard Lightman
Antal sider25
Publikationsdato30 okt. 2015
ISBN (Trykt)978-90-04-26399-4
ISBN (Elektronisk)978-90-04-26400-7
StatusUdgivet - 30 okt. 2015


  • humanistiske fag
  • history of educational thought, intellectual history, Herbert Spencer, Scandinavia, evolution