John Dunn

  • History of the Idea of Progress by Robert Nisbet
    Heinemann, 370 pp, £8.50, November 1980, ISBN 0 435 82657 3

Is there or is there not good reason to believe that the experience of being alive is still on the whole improving for the majority of human beings? And if there is, is there good reason to expect this improvement to persist into the reasonably near, the imaginatively accessible, future? The idea of progress involves the adoption of at least two very different perspectives. The first, plainly, is a vision backwards in time, broadly flattering the past for its prowess in having generated the way we live now. The backward face of progress is a logical correlate of the complacencies of the present. We felicitate the past for its having brought us about. No such vision is likely to be utterly unambivalent, regret being as intrinsic to the human condition as is hope. But even in the stark circumstances of this country now, it would be a wholly implausible claim to make about the consciousness of the majority of its population that they see life here as on balance less good than they believe it to have been half a century ago. There is no doubt that the practical preconditions for these attitudes are under very active menace. But, in contrast with the experienced past at least, there are also many excellent reasons why the attitudes should nonetheless prevail. Any past with which the present life of this society as a whole could be negatively contrasted would have to be recollected in a sentimental and heavily selective manner. The vision backwards from the present can, of course, readily be misjudged. But there is nothing inherently murkier or more bemusing about it than there is to any ambitious interpretation of human experience. The second constitutive perspective of the idea of progress, the vision forwards into the future, is necessarily more venturesome. Human experience encourages the making of predictions, discreet and indiscreet. But insofar as the idea of progress prescribes what the main significance of their lives will be for human beings far into the future, it involves predictions that are of a degree of indiscretion for which human experience offers no rational encouragement whatsoever. As for guessing the existential significance of the distant future of the species as a whole we are, and we will always remain, some way out of our cognitive depth.

Because it more or less brutally yokes together so many types of practical and evaluative consideration progress is unlikely in principle to be both a clear and an uncontentious category of social self-understanding. Since it is such a global category and since what it aims to render more intelligible is the situation of societies in time, its significance is also always as much a matter of sentiment as it is simply one of causal understanding. To write the history of such an idea, even in its retrospective guise, is at least to attempt an interpretation of the Western historical experience in its entirety. To write it with conviction might well require in addition at least some expectations about the status of its prospective guise – as a guess about our own futures and those of our more imaginatively accessible descendants.

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