Spencer Vs. Wilde on Truth Vs. Lie

The Aug. 13 New Yorker describes famous philosopher Herbert Spencer as an eccentric virgin depressed libertarian moral-hedgehog future-optimist autodidact obsessed with honesty and truth:

Sincerity was the virtue that Spencer set greatest store by: "Let every one insist on reality and sincerity, and refrain as much as he can from complimentary usages which involve untruths. If each resolves to tell as few tacit lies as possible, social intercourse will be much healthier." … For Spencer, the importance of being earnest could not be underestimated; the truth was all that mattered. Science, and a scientific approach to all the problems of social life, was another mode of sincerity, and the more science there was, the more moral people would be …

In November of 1882, two British literary lions were prowling New York. One was Spencer, and the other was the twenty-eight-year-old Oscar Wilde … Spencer knew who Wilde was and recognized a rival in the coming culture wars between science and art.  American newspapers reported that Spencer called Wilde "an outlandish person who attempts to reconcile idiocy with art." …  In 1891, [Wilde] published "The Decay of Lying," a celebration of insincerity in a culture that was becoming less convinced that truth really did settle matters of morals or of beauty. Science told the truth about the world; art made its own worlds. Who would you prefer, Wilde asked – the truth-telling scientific philosopher or the delight – giving liar? Go for the liar every time:

Nor will he be welcomed by society alone. Art, breaking from the prisonhouse of realism, will run to greet him, and will kiss his false, beautiful lips, knowing that he alone is in possession of the great secret of all her manifestations, the secret that Truth is entirely and absolutely a matter of style; while Life – poor, probable, uninteresting human life – tired of repeating herself for the benefit of Mr. Herbert Spencer, scientific historians, and the compilers of statistics in general, will follow meekly after him, and try to reproduce, in her own simple and untutored way, some of the marvels of which he talks.

Of course "science" isn’t quite the universal truth elixir Spencer hoped, but it is interesting that Wilde instead objected to truth itself as a goal.  Of course we might not agree with many of Spencer’s conclusions, but in some ways at least Spencer did live up to his ideal of honesty, by changing his mind, criticizing his fans, and more:


Nowhere did Spencer have a larger or more enthusiastic following than in the United States, where … [his works] were celebrated as powerful justifications for laissez-faire capitalism. … any institution that stood in the way of individual liberties was violating the natural order. "Survival of the fittest" – a phrase that Charles Darwin took from Spencer – made free competition a social as well as a natural law. Andrew Carnegie admired Spencer enormously …

Instead of graciously bathing in the torrents of tribute, Spencer told his admirers that they had got him seriously wrong. He did not approve of the culture of American capitalism, and, while he admired its material achievements, he was concerned that, for Americans, work had become a pathological obsession. … "Life is not for learning, nor is life for working, but learning and working are for life." …

Just as his father had refused to address men as anything other than "Mr.," Spencer balked at wearing the insignia of aristocratic or bourgeois supremacy. … "he saw top hats as the black cylinders that symbolized tyranny"  … He disliked formal wear and declined public invitations that involved putting on the garments of oppression.  …  He was aware that people thought philosophers shouldn’t do things like play billiards or give picnics, and professed himself delighted to confound expectations. …

Over almost half a century of furious writing, Spencer continually reworked and reconfigured his views. … Spencer became so closely associated with this wholesale rejection of state intervention in social welfare … [but] Given Spencer’s unabashed hard-heartedness, it may come as a surprise that he was an enthusiast for theoretical selflessness and one of the earliest users of the word "altruism," …

This supposedly laissez-faire writer advocated both a progressive death tax and the nationalization of land [and] a vast extension of systems of free legal aid, far in excess of anything we have today. … He held that "the rights of women are equal with those of men," … But, over time, his position on women changed, … Enfranchised women would tend to vote for authoritarian figures, and so obstruct the natural law of progress toward an egalitarian society. …

The fact that he lived his philosophy so thoroughly was itself a show of sincerity, as was his account of himself in the "Autobiography."  Even though its confessional mode often went against the Victorian grain, its underlying seriousness was quintessentially Victorian.   

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  • http://profile.typekey.com/nicholasshackel/ Nicholas Shackel

    I think Wilde’s position could be a bit more sophisticated than you are allowing. He says ‘Truth is entirely and absolutely a matter of style’. So although he speaks, in the common tongue, of the decay of lying, he really means there are truths that Spencer’s realism cannot encompass and that art tells those truths. I’m not saying this is a coherent theory of truth, but it looks as if Wilde is all for truth telling, it is just that he disagrees about what that is, and he thinks Spencer’s philosophy rules out the telling of many important truths by wrongly labelling them lies!

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Nicholas, thanks for the elaboration – too bad the New Yorker author didn’t make this clearer.

  • TGGP

    Nicholas, I’m confused by your explanation. If “Spencer’s realism cannot encompass” something, how can it label it true or false at all? As an emotivist, I don’t then claim that it is a lie to call something “good”, just that it is like shouting “Hooray” and without any “truth-value”, which means it cannot be false either. How then would Spencer be “labelling them lies”? It just seems to me that Wilde’s art-truths are fundamentally unlike normal-truths, which is why it seems sensible that the word be reserved for the latter kind.