Debate Magazine

Polarities of Progress

By Cris

While researching my next post in the series on the idea of “progress,” I came across two articles sitting at opposite poles of the progressive spectrum. In the first, the arch-skeptic of progress John Gray reviews yet another book by Francis Fukuyama which prophecies a kind of Hegelian world-spirit movement toward liberal capitalist democracy. One might think that events since 1992, when Fukuyama wrongly declared the “end of history,” had dissuaded him from this sort of thing, but he keeps churning out optimistic forecasts along similar lines. Gray is having none of it:

The telltale word here, and throughout the two volumes, is ‘evolve’. For Fukuyama, as for many other modern thinkers, today and in the past, political development is an evolutionary process. What drives this process is never specified; if there is a social equivalent of the natural selection of genetic mutations, we learn no more about its workings from Fukuyama than we did from Karl Marx or Herbert Spencer, who produced similar speculations in the 19th century. It is never explained why political evolution should have any particular end state, nor why the process should involve the convergence of institutions. As it operates among species, evolution shows no such tendency. Drift and diversity, punctuated by extinction, are the normal state of affairs. Why should evolution in society – if there is such a thing – be any different?

While Gray is surely correct, his dour pessimism grates on people. Just the other day, one of the smartest people I know quipped: “John Gray would benefit from someone else coming along to argue John Gray’s case against progress.” After I had stopped laughing, I realized it was true: Gray has an unfortunate tendency to proclaim against progress from on high, and assumes that everyone has the read the books he has read. The books I have in mind, which Gray has surely read, include JB Bury’s The Idea of Progress: An Inquiry Into Its Origin and Growth (1920) and Robert Nisbet’s History of the Idea of Progress (1980). I just finished the former (and have more to say about it below) and am halfway through the latter. They form the essential foundation for any serious consideration, either for or against, the idea of progress.

Before getting to these, let’s look at a particularly vulgar (in the marxist sense) manifestation of progress. In this Guardian article announcing a new series on materials, Mark Miodownik sounds like the Francis Fukuyama of stuff:

Everything is made of something. Take away concrete, glass, textiles, metal, and the other materials from our lives and we are left naked, shivering in a muddy field. The sophistication of our lives is in a large part bestowed by material wealth, we would quickly revert to animal behavior without the stuff of our civilisation: what makes us human is our clothes, our homes, our cities, our things, which we animate through our customs and language. This becomes very apparent if you ever visit a disaster zone. Thus the material world is not just a display of our technology and culture, it is part of us, we invented it, we made it and it makes us who we are.

The fundamental importance of materials is made clear from the naming of ages of civilisations – the stone, iron and bronze ages – with each new era being brought about by a new material…Making is not just an economic activity, it is the equal of literature, performance or mathematics as a form of human expression…The ages of civilization are named after materials precisely because they transformed and shaped society. By distancing ourselves from the act of making, by buying and consuming stuff but never having any experience of their manufacture, the developed world finds itself not to be the illiterate society that education ministers fear, but an unmakerly society. 

Woe unto illiterate societies without lots of stuff! It’s hard to imagine, given this view of things, how impoverished people were before bronze. A lack of stuff, Miodownik tells us, is species transformative: “the sophistication of our lives is in a large part bestowed by material wealth, we would quickly revert to animal behavior without the stuff of our civilisation: what makes us human is our clothes, our homes, our cities, our things.” God forbid that we should be primates and act like animals, with or without civilization! Miodownik is many conceptual miles away from an anthropology of materiality and adequate theory of things.

These ironies aside, I encourage everyone to read JB Bury’s classic on the idea of progress (free download here). Those who don’t have sufficient interest or time should read, at a minimum, the penultimate chapter “Progress in the Light of Evolution.” It’s such a tour de force that I have excerpted the chapter (in Word format) for interested readers and students. In the following passages (which I have excised, condensed, and emphasized), you can get a good sense for Bury’s style and argument:

In the sixties of the nineteenth century the idea of Progress entered upon the third period of its history. During the FIRST period, up to the French Revolution, it had been treated rather casually; Progress was taken for granted and received no searching examination either from philosophers or from historians. In the SECOND period its immense significance was apprehended, and a search began for a general law which would define and establish it. The study of sociology was founded, and at the same time the impressive results of science, applied to the conveniences of life, advertised the idea. It harmonised with the notion of “development” which had become current both in natural science and in metaphysics. Socialists and other political reformers appealed to it as a gospel.

By 1850 it was a familiar idea in Europe, but was not yet universally accepted as obviously true. The notion of social Progress had been growing in the atmosphere of the notion of biological development, but this development still seemed a highly precarious speculation. The fixity of species and the creation of man, defended by powerful interests and prejudices, were attacked but were not shaken. The hypothesis of organic evolution was much in the same position as the Copernican hypothesis in the sixteenth century. Then in 1859 Darwin intervened, like Galileo. The appearance of the ORIGIN OF SPECIES changed the situation by disproving definitely the dogma of fixity of species and assigning real causes for “transformism.” What might be set aside before as a brilliant guess was elevated to the rank of a scientific hypothesis, and the following twenty years were enlivened by the struggle around the evolution of life, against prejudices chiefly theological, resulting in the victory of the theory.

The ORIGIN OF SPECIES led to the THIRD stage of the fortunes of the idea of Progress. We saw how the heliocentric astronomy, by dethroning man from his privileged position in the universe of space and throwing him back on his own efforts, had helped that idea to compete with the idea of a busy Providence. He now suffers a new degradation within the compass of his own planet. Evolution, shearing him of his glory as a rational being specially created to be the lord of the earth, traces a humble pedigree for him. And this second degradation was the decisive fact which has established the reign of the idea of Progress.

Evolution itself, it must be remembered, does not necessarily mean, applied to society, the movement of man to a desirable goal. It is a neutral, scientific conception, compatible either with optimism or with pessimism. According to different estimates it may appear to be a cruel sentence or a guarantee of steady amelioration. And it has been actually interpreted in both ways.

The ablest and most influential development of the argument from evolution to Progress was the work of [Herbert] Spencer. He extended the principle of evolution to sociology and ethics, and was the most conspicuous interpreter of it in an optimistic sense. He had been an evolutionist long before Darwin’s decisive intervention, and in 1851 he had published his Social Statics, which, although he had not yet worked out the evolutionary laws which he began to formulate soon afterwards and was still a theist, exhibits the general trend of his optimistic philosophy.

The receptive attitude of the public towards such a philosophy as Spencer’s had been made possible by Darwin’s discoveries, which were reinforced by the growing science of paleontology and the accumulating material evidence of the great antiquity of man. By the simultaneous advances of geology and biology man’s perspective in time was revolutionised, just as the Copernican astronomy had revolutionised his perspective in space. Many thoughtful and many thoughtless people were ready to discern—as Huxley suggested—in man’s “long progress through the past, a reasonable ground of faith in his attainment of a nobler future.”

That optimism was not endorsed by all the contemporary leaders of thought. In fact, upon the neutral fact of evolution a theory of pessimism may be built up as speciously as a theory of optimism. And such a theory was built up with great power and ability by the German philosopher E. von Hartmann, [in whose works] we see how plausibly a convinced evolutionist could revive the view of Rousseau that civilization and happiness are mutually antagonistic, and that Progress means an increase of misery. 

Huxley himself, one of the most eminent interpreters of the doctrine of evolution, did not, in his late years at least, entertain very sanguine views of mankind. “I know of no study which is so saddening as that of the evolution of humanity as it is set forth in the annals of history….Man is a brute, only more intelligent than other brutes”; and “even the best of modern civilisations appears to me to exhibit a condition of mankind which neither embodies any worthy ideal nor even possesses the merit of stability.”

I have quoted these views to illustrate that evolution lends itself to a pessimistic as well as to an optimistic interpretation. The question whether it leads in a desirable direction or not is answered according to the temperament of the inquirer. In an age of prosperity and self-complacency the affirmative answer was readily received, and the term evolution attracted to itself in common speech the implications of value which belong to Progress.

In the 1870s and 1880s the idea of Progress was becoming a general article of faith. Some might hold it in the fatalistic form that humanity moves in a desirable direction, whatever men do or may leave undone; others might believe that the future will depend largely on our own conscious efforts, but that there is nothing in the nature of things to disappoint the prospect of steady and indefinite advance. The majority did not inquire too curiously into such points of doctrine, but received it in a vague sense as a comfortable addition to their convictions. But it became a part of the general mental outlook of educated people.

Within the last forty years nearly every civilised country has produced a large literature on social science, in which indefinite Progress is generally assumed as an axiom. But the “law of Progress” whose investigation Kant designated as the task for a Newton [of the social sciences], the “law” which Saint-Simon and Comte did not find, and to which Spencer’s evolutionary formula would stand in the same relation as it stands to the law of gravitation, remains still undiscovered.

We are still searching for the “law,” or even the “fact,” of progress. Our search for these will continue with the next post in this series.


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