The Problem with Progressivism

by / Tuesday, 11 March 2014 / Published in Philosophy

Carra, Funeral of the Anarchist Galli

No, this article is not about “Progressive Muslims” specifically, but some of the following certainly applies to them.

The vast majority of us are, knowingly or unknowingly, progressivists. What I mean by this is that we view ourselves and the present age as, historically, the latest and greatest. The question is, are we justified in believing this?

The way I use the term, “progressivism” is the broad philosophy that humanity is on a perpetual path of progress. As human civilization advances through time, it gradually improves on the intellectual and moral plane as our knowledge of the world around us increases. Sure, there might be setbacks here and there (e.g., world wars, genocide, etc.), but the overwhelming trend is that of advancement.

Intellectual and Moral Advance

Progressivism finds its origins in the Enlightenment and its peak in the widespread acceptance of Darwinism in the 20th century, which gave progress its first scientific expression. Thinkers as influential and diverse as Locke, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, and Marx all propounded on the power of human rationality to overcome the baseness of human nature and continue to propel mankind to a shining destiny of his own choosing.

According to such views, not only are humans, as a race, increasing in knowledge of the empirical world — chiefly through science — but, also, they are advancing in moral rectitude. The barbarism of the past is seen for what it was. Religious self-determination, freedom of conscience, inalienable rights, women’s rights, and a whole slew of other humanist liberal doctrines have developed, each sounding a drumbeat in the march toward ultimate human actualization.

Are We Living in the Best of Times?

Of course, there have also been skeptics of this kind of progressivism. The most prominent strand of critique reasons that modern man, living in a primarily global capitalist technocratic world, is clearly not better off than certain of his predecessors. Industrialized capitalism, for all its technical achievement, has struck a weighty blow against the health of the planet. And liberal democracy, for all its aspirations of justice and equality, has written checks the modern nation-state, with its tendencies for corruption and violence, can’t cash. As for Darwinism, its application to sociology and social engineering in the early 20th century and beyond has had less than stellar results. Reviewing these examples and others, there is good reason to think that, rather than progressing, in fact the human race is on fast decline.

Outlining a Critique

As a critic of progressivism myself, I prefer a different approach. While it is helpful to point out the glaring problems plaguing the modern world, this line of critique does not address the central premise of progressivism, which is that, as time moves on, human knowledge accumulates.

A progressivist, for example, might argue that all the ills of the modern world only represent the imperfect implementation of the otherwise venerable values developed through the centuries. For example, technology may be used by ill-intentioned actors to engineer weapons of mass destruction while others invent new medical procedures to save lives. The existence of individuals who would misuse advanced technology for nefarious ends does not take away from the fact that human knowledge has progressed in an estimable way. Same with capitalism, democracy, and other institutions and values.

Does Human Knowledge Accumulate?

What I would like to suggest, however, is that human knowledge does not accumulate. This might seem like a dubious claim, especially in light of technology and science. Clearly, technologically speaking, we are light years ahead of our ancestors, right? In any case, I will not introduce the entirety of the argument and its considerations now, but, what I would like to share are a few reasons why we should revisit and, perhaps, be skeptical of the notion that knowledge accumulates throughout history.

The point of all this is that, if we do away with the idea that human knowledge accumulates, then this has a host of implications, chief among them this: If knowledge does not accumulate, to what can we attribute the “amazing triumphs” of the modern age, with all our technology and human rights? Is it not curious that in the past 150 years humans have seemingly been able to accomplish more than was done in 5000 years of human history combined?

Knowledge of Knowledge

So, how are we in a position to judge whether knowledge has accumulated or not? Obviously, we cannot survey all of human history and plot the cumulative amount of knowledge in a given period in order to produce a clean line graph illustrating progress.

Given our limited perspective from which to adjudicate, what other reasons would we have to think that knowledge accumulates?

In actuality, there are 5 major reason why we should be skeptical that knowledge accumulates from one millennium to the next.

Read Part 2 >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>


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