Friday, April 20, 2012

A note on the idea of progress

I found it difficult this morning to get my brain moving!

One of recurring themes that appears in any discussion on the concept of progress (the comments on Winton's Could civilization be maintained without progress? are a current example) is the relationship between progress and economic development where economic development is often interpreted as increases in per capita income.

Another view of progress that Neil Whitfield pointed me to is The Idea of Progress by J. B. Bury (1920). I haven't read this book; another gap in my reading! The preface to Bury's book says in part:

Under the control of the idea of Progress the ethical code recognised in the Western world has been reformed in modern times by a new principle of far-reaching importance which has emanated from that idea. When Isocrates formulated the rule of life, "Do unto others," he probably did not mean to include among "others" slaves or savages. The Stoics and the Christians extended its application to the whole of living humanity. But in late years the rule has received a vastly greater extension by the inclusion of the unborn generations of the future. This principle of duty to posterity is a direct corollary of the idea of Progress. In the recent war that idea, involving the moral obligation of making sacrifices for the sake of future ages, was constantly appealed to; just as in the Crusades, the most characteristic wars of our medieval ancestors, the idea of human destinies then in the ascendant lured thousands to hardship and death.

Ideas are slippery things. They exert great power, but you constantly need to define and refine to ensure that you have a common base for discussion. This is especially true for embedded ideas, those simply accepted as part of a given way of thinking.

In discussion on the ideas of civilisation and progress, a friend at work vehemently denied that there had been progress. To her mind, the growth in the human population and the pressures this had placed on the earth were, of themselves, sufficient to invalidate the very idea that there had been progress.

The dedication to Bury's book reads: 

Dedicated to the memories of Charles Francois Castel de Saint-Pierre,
Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat de Condorcet, Auguste Comte, Herbert
Spencer, and other optimists mentioned in this volume.

Optimists: now there's a word that I can identify with. You can be a pessimist and still believe in the concept of progress, if only as something that hasn't happened or cannot be achieved! Yet to believe that  real change is possible, that there has been advancement, that further advancement is possible. I think that requires a degree of optimism.

I will have to leave things there to get ready for the day.   


Anonymous said...

"I think that requires a degree of optimism"

And also a level of dissatisfaction with what 'is'? Or is Change an automatic, assumed to be inevitable, factor of Civilisation?


ps I vey much liked Winston's thoughts (Thoughts?) but disagree with his irrit on Capitalisation; I've always taken that as referential to preceding Definitions.

- said with Humor

Rummuser said...

Surely, words like civilisation and progress themselves need acceptable definitions before we can arrive at a consensus?

These two words have gained a lot of notoriety because of the heavy slant towards the Western idea of them. That other parts of the world could have different ideas need to be recognised and accommodated.

Anonymous said...

Very much agree with Ramana!


Jim Belshaw said...

Ramana, I spoke of the need for definition in the post. I also agree that different parts of the world, more precisely different cultures, may have different definitions.

That said, I would have thought that the idea of "progress' however defined was a very Western concept. By contrast, the idea of "civilisation" seems much more wide spread and much more culture specific.

In Australia, many of the European settlers saw themselves as bringing civilisation to the Aborigines. In China, court officials who saw their culture as civilsation struggled to deal with the European barbarians. I suspect that there was something similar in India.

I think that the linking of the ideas of progress and civilisation as in Whitehead is very western.

kvd, change is not an inevitable factor of civilisation - cf my Chinese example above. I think that one useful distinction is civilisation as is as compared to civilsation as an aspiration. If you represent civilisation, why change?

Thinking about this, the Western idea of both civilisation and progress have the future built in.

Winton Bates said...

I thought I had read Bury's book. But I missed the dedication. Bury regarded Herbert Spencer (the social Darwinism guy)as an optimist!

I think Bury was getting a bit carried away by his optimism when he wrote: 'civilization has moved, is moving and will move in a desirable direction'.

Jim Belshaw said...

Winton, I had largely forgotten Spencer and had to look him up. If you look at his views, you can see why Bury would regard him as an optimist. Spencer did believe, for example, that the state would wither as society evolved.

Anonymous said...

"the Western idea of both civilisation and progress have the future built in"

Jim, please, what do you mean by "have the future built in"? A polite query.


Jim Belshaw said...

Progress means movement towards a point, civilisation is something we are working towards. The idea of the earthly as compared to heavenly future.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thinking further, Winton, I should do a short post on the concept of the future.

Winton Bates said...

It seems to me that progress doesn't have to be to a point. We can progress beyond a point. It would be better to say that progress is always relative to some point.

The other point I should mention is that at least some Asians disagree that social progress is a peculiarly western idea. A Buddhist writer on this site says Max Weber was mistaken on that point.