What is meant by the phrase “there is no god but the unknowable, and Herbert Spencer is its prophet”?

. . . as answered on Quora. . . .

This is a taunt from the pages of Jack London’s great novel Martin Eden, 13th chapter:

Martin had heard Herbert Spencer quoted several times in the park, but one afternoon a disciple of Spencer’s appeared, a seedy tramp with a dirty coat buttoned tightly at the throat to conceal the absence of a shirt. Battle royal was waged, amid the smoking of many cigarettes and the expectoration of much tobacco-juice, wherein the tramp successfully held his own, even when a socialist workman sneered, “There is no god but the Unknowable, and Herbert Spencer is his prophet.” Martin was puzzled as to what the discussion was about, but when he rode on to the library he carried with him a new-born interest in Herbert Spencer, and because of the frequency with which the tramp had mentioned “First Principles,” Martin drew out that volume.

So the great discovery began. Once before he had tried Spencer, and choosing the “Principles of Psychology” to begin with, he had failed as abjectly as he had failed with Madam Blavatsky. There had been no understanding the book, and he had returned it unread. But this night, after algebra and physics, and an attempt at a sonnet, he got into bed and opened “First Principles.” Morning found him still reading. It was impossible for him to sleep. Nor did he write that day. He lay on the bed till his body grew tired, when he tried the hard floor, reading on his back, the book held in the air above him, or changing from side to side. He slept that night, and did his writing next morning, and then the book tempted him and he fell, reading all afternoon, oblivious to everything and oblivious to the fact that that was the afternoon Ruth gave to him. His first consciousness of the immediate world about him was when Bernard Higginbotham jerked open the door and demanded to know if he thought they were running a restaurant.

Martin Eden had been mastered by curiosity all his days. He wanted to know, and it was this desire that had sent him adventuring over the world. But he was now learning from Spencer that he never had known, and that he never could have known had he continued his sailing and wandering forever. He had merely skimmed over the surface of things, observing detached phenomena, accumulating fragments of facts, making superficial little generalizations—and all and everything quite unrelated in a capricious and disorderly world of whim and chance. The mechanism of the flight of birds he had watched and reasoned about with understanding; but it had never entered his head to try to explain the process whereby birds, as organic flying mechanisms, had been developed. He had never dreamed there was such a process. That birds should have come to be, was unguessed. They always had been. They just happened.

Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) was a Victorian Era polymath, remembered for

  • his early development of evolutionary theory — “The Development Hypothesis” (1852), “A Theory of Population, deduced from the General Law of Animal Fertility” (1852), Principles of Psychology (first edition, 1855) and “Progress: Its Law and Cause” (1857);
  • his political liberalism — in Social Statics (1851), Justice (1891, Part IV of Principles of Ethics) and The Man versus the State (1884), all celebrated only by libertarians, today;
  • his pioneering of sociology — Study of Sociology (1878), Descriptive Sociology(19 vols., 1873–1934), and Principles of Sociology (1876–1896 );
  • coining the term “survival of the fittest” after hearing Charles Darwin’s initial presentation of “natural selection,” and as introduced formally in Principles of Biology (1864).

But Spencer first made his name as a metaphysician and religious philosopher. His main concept was “the Unknowable,” as indicated in the quip in above. It received its main exposition in the first half of First Principles (1860). Spencer was trying to show the limits of human knowledge, but also address an understanding of what he regarded as the underlying foundation to all existence, which, he argued, we know of but cannot actually know. Spencer believed that awe and reverence for this “Unknowable” is the remaining — “ultimate” — religious idea, after science had done its work.

The best treatment of this peculiar element to his philosophy is by George Santayana, in his Herbert Spencer Lecture at Oxford in 1923, “The Unknowable.” I highly recommend this beautiful and profound essay, to every thinking person — see Obiter Scripta (1936), but I first came across it in Clifton Fadiman’s Reading I’ve Liked (1945).

Spencer’s agnostic concept of “The Unknowable” was once all the rage. Victorian scientists such as John Tyndall, rapidly losing their faith, grabbed at it as if a lifeline in deep ocean. Since then, however, it has dropped out of circulation. I did once hear it discussed in the 1990s’ TV dramedy Northern Exposure, though.

So why the sneering remark? It apes the famous Islamic credo, sure. But it was from a socialist character. Herbert Spencer was deeply anti-socialist. No more need be said.


Herbert Spencer