From Wed Feb 19 12:43:55 2003
Date: Wed, 19 Feb 2003 12:43:53 -0500
From: Haines Brown <>
Subject: Re: Progress


By Haines Brown, from a dialog on the PhiloOfHi list, February 2003

I guess we've beat this topic into the ground, but there's one issue to which I said I would return, and so please bear with me. This contribution is also intended to convey to Jim that I'm really quite sympathetic to his aims, despite some qualms and confusions along the way.

I had suggested that our conclusions regarding progress in history had a lot to do with people's reasons for raising the question in the first place. I will try to illustrate this and will conclude that the approach we ought to take today is not far from what Jim proposes.

Rather than expecting the roasted pigeons of pure science to fly into our open mouths, we should perhaps start by bringing in an element of significance or meaning that results from the question of the social function of a conception of historical progress.

So I'd like to offer a little hypothesis regarding the stages of the development of the notion of historical progress. Being merely a hypothesis, I will not try to elaborate or defend it, for the hypothesis only provides a little context for a concluding suggestion that today we need a new conception of progress that is better suited to the contemporary world.

To keep things simple, and because of my ignorance, I will confine my remarks to the Western tradition.

Intuitively, we would expect there to have been stages in the development of the idea of progress appropriate to the stages of historical development.

For example, we might name the first stage in the history of this idea, the “consolation of philosophy.” In classical antiquity, people had limited sense of any power over circumstances, and this made a notion of linear progress very unlikely. Rather, most citizens (for whom alone the issue of time had significance) assumed that history was circular and governed by “fortuna.”

This contradictory combination of predestination and accident could be readily applied to any situation, of course, for the aim was not to control history by getting it right, but to reconcile oneself to the world. If you had the misfortune of being born in difficult times, the best you could do was to hope that the cycle will soon return an age of gold. Until then, you had to acquire a strength of character—the “virtu” needed to to endure a age of iron.

Much has been written about the emergence of a notion of a linear spiritual progress in the Judao-Christian tradition. The Incarnation opened the possibility for a struggle against fortuna in spiritual terms (the notion of evil was a later invention), and for many there was an expectation of a Second Coming that would bring history to a close and offer everlasting life to the saints. That much of this was anticipated by Zoroastrianism need not detain me here, for the point is that there was a limited sense of linear progress, or at least progressive stages in history, defined in terms of spiritual development, in lieu of any real control over fate.

The Second stage in the development of a notion of historical progress was in fact named “renovatio (respublica cristiana).” A study of the culture associated with the Carolingian Renaissance and the feudal society that followed reveals a remarkable confidence in man's ability to transform, not just his own essential nature, but his material environment as well. Again, much has been written about this, such as the centrality of labor as the model of human struggle (Benedictine Rule), on how a spiritual transformation is connected with a material one in which society is a bride bathed and made worthy of Christ's Second Coming as her groom, etc.

However, this optimistic view of human capability was subsumed under an ideal order that constrained it, not just ideologically (anti-usury laws, for example), but also through a structure of power based on religion and legal tradition that ensured aristocratic domination. There were sharp limits to the extent to which you could or should pursue worldly progress as an end in itself.

These constraints were shattered by the bourgeois revolution, for it was argued (Adam Smith) that a pursuit of private gain was no longer the principle vice, but was morally justified because it resulted in the wealth of nations—in a general economic progress that benefitted, to varying degrees, everyone.

What the bourgeois revolution offered was a substantial and unfettered material progress, which justified a violation of the aristocratic ruling class, the Church and traditional norms. For this reason, it was important to offer a conception of progress that was naturalistic, that depended on everyone's pursuit of private gain, but gave rise to an emergent wealth that was greater than the sum of individual contributions. Without such emergent wealth, the rich would just get richer and the poor, necessarily poorer.

I'll name this notion of progress, “ideological self-justification.” Bourgeois progress found justification in an actual rise of general prosperity, and it supported a three-stage conception of world history: savagery, barbarism, and finally civilization. It was civilization that created a civil order in which individual gain would give rise to an emergent wealth which could to some extent benefit everyone (or at least, possessors of means of production, which originally was almost everyone).

Since this ideology nicely described the actual world that Europeans had encountered since the 15th century and also coincided with an observable increase in the economic product (as in 18th century England, well before the so-called Industrial Revolution), it justified behaviors such as greed and regicide that had hitherto been damned.

Because this notion of progress was ideological, it was impervious to the actual economic ups and downs of the 19th century, and in fact gained a new lease on life at the time of the Second Industrial Revolution, where, for the bourgeoisie, technology replaced labor as the source of economic growth. So the owner of capital (materialized technology) could rightfully lay claim to the profits and push aside the increasing demands of the emergent industrial working class, which had appropriated for itself (and transformed) Adam Smith's labor theory of value.

In terms of European intellectual history, the final collapse of an optimistic notion of linear progress may be associated with the First World War. Although technology remained the source of new wealth, so that the owners of the means of production might justifiably appropriate the surplus value it created, there arose a darker vision of progress that either doubted its existence entirely or attributed it simply to the Realpolitik of empire (redistribution).

However, just as the bourgeois notion of progress stumbled toward its demise, there arose an alternative that might be named the “class-struggle” notion of progress. This shared with the bourgeois definition a focus on material progress, but argued that the contradictions of capitalism that had given rise to so much war and economic uncertainty could be overcome so that the relation between wealth and its social base would be restored.

What might easily be missed, however, is that this new vision entailed a basically different way of seeing things. Progress in this view was not a linear historical change in terms of some external standard, whether that standard be empirically objective (linear development) or subjective (improvement), but a measure of the degree to which social power sufficed to impose on circumstances the needs of the social man.

Working-class solidarity is the only embodying mankind's social nature, but also is in a position to transform the present world in conformity with that social nature. The aim was not a utopian vision of some future society, but an assertion of human needs and capacities, as they exist in a particular time and place and transforms circumstances in those terms. Progress, in short, refers to the process of the social transformation of circumstance; it is the establishment of a causal relation, not a pattern of empirical change.

In this conception, progress is not really linear in the sense that it is guided by an external goal, but focused on the injection into a situation of actually existing human capacities, which in effect humanizes that situation, freeing it, for example, of the anti-social conditions required for capital's self-expansion. If our social capacities suffice to transform the present, that would represents progress in terms of our social existence, however fluid or diverse the particulars might be.

While empirically one might also well argue that social power has on the whole increased throughout history, this does not automatically bring any commensurate benefit. It only represents a potential, for society as a whole needs to harness that power to social needs, rather than have economic development remain the servant of the conditions that had originally made it possible and are no longer required.

It should be evident that one presupposition of this view of progress is an inner mechanism of change intrinsic to all things, rather than an external driver. Now days we often associate that external driver of progress with the vision of those people who happen to enjoy the power necessary to determine outcomes, but ,of course, to the extent that is compatible with the conditions of their power.

The new view of progress requires it to be intrinsic in every situation, rather than the result of the imposition of a greater power from the outside. We need only to know how to seize upon natural potentials, for development is always an intrinsic possibility in the natural world in which we live. That's what I believe Jim was getting at.

Haines Brown