The Philosophy of Style By Herbert Spencer

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“The Philosophy of Style,” explored a growing trend of formalist approaches to writing. Highly focused on the proper placement and ordering of the parts of an English sentence, [Spencer] created a guide for effective composition. Spencer’s aim was to free prose writing from as much “friction and inertia” as possible, so that the reader would not be slowed by strenuous deliberations concerning the proper context and meaning of a sentence. Keeping in mind these general truths, we shall be in a condition to understand certain causes of effect in composition now to be considered. Every perception received, and every conception realized, entailing some amount of waste–or, as Liebig would say, some change of matter in the brain; and the efficiency of the faculties subject to this waste being thereby temporarily, though often but momentarily, diminished; the resulting partial inability must affect the acts of perception and conception that immediately succeed.
Read By Gary Gilberd.

About Herbert Spencer:
Herbert Spencer (27 April 1820 – 8 December 1903) was an English philosopher, biologist, anthropologist, sociologist, and prominent classical liberal political theorist of the Victorian era.


Review By Диана : Jan16,2015

This book was such a pleasure.

Herbert Spencer sets here to describe the rules that capture how best to use language – namely how to convey ideas in such a way so that they leave their impression while at the same time the mental energies and mental sensitivities of the reader/listener are economised. (Thus for example the principle of the ‘economy of mental energies’ is itself one of the principles of composition.)

Some of the rules Spencer describes are fairly straightforward – eg the rule that one should put the word producing the greatest impression at the end of a list and not at its start.

Other of the rules are more original – eg the one that shorter words are in most cases to be preferred to longer ones (this making in English Saxon words preferable to those of Latin origin). Except, Spencer says, when the word is supposed to produce a great impression, in which case a greater length might be an advantage, because it makes the mind spend a longer time on the idea.

Those rules are not laid out at random; as seen above, Spencer keeps in mind the process of thought-formation while perceiving words, sentences, texts; (the rules can be said to be rules just because their use brings about the least frustration to the perceiving mind, while at the same time producing the greatest impression). This process of thought-formation I find quite interesting to meditate on.

My favourite rule that Spencer mentions is the one that in a phrase the adjective should precede the noun, and not the other way around. That is, it is better to say ‘black horse’ (with the English), rather than ‘horse black’ (as the Spanish say: ‘caballo negro’). This is so, Spencer argues, because if we say ‘horse black’ the mind is first impelled to think about a horse before it hears the specification ‘black’. However, since one cannot imagine a colourless horse, the mind necessarily imagines a horse of a particular colour, say a brown one (since brown horses are most common). Thus the mind has already spent some effort in forming the idea of a horse of a particular colour when, at subsequently hearing the adjective ‘black’, the mind has to modify the idea that has already started to form. All this re-modification wastes mental energy, Spencer argues, and so it is better to put the more abstract, less specified in front – the adjective in front of the noun.

Overall, I really liked the idea of the book. It is basically a search for the most efficient way to use a language system, and it makes me wonder if there is such a thing as an objectively most efficient language. Some of the rules Spencer describes might be controversial, but all are thought-provoking, as is the book itself.

PS: I listened to the LibriVox audiobook – although the narration wasn’t the very best I’ve heard, it is definitely quite good, so I would recommend a listen.

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