Progress

Being one of the central concepts of Western civilization, the progressive perspective regards the present stage in an accumulative historical process as superior to the previous one. Human evolution is thus a tendency that implies in the long run an improvement. What is important in this vision is that the samples of the material culture (the innovations) represent proofs of a continuous course of perfection (ad novitatem argument). The state of technology is then contemplated as an indicator to measure or evaluate the progress of societies and groups. Historically, the idea of progress received the influence of other previous conceptions, from the Christian linear notion of time to the assumption that humans have the capacity to improve themselves by observation, experience and learning, or the human’s willingness to think that domination of nature is a valuable task. Throughout the modern era, these elements suffered a process of secularization, and it was in the eighteenth-century when progress and the advancement of material lifestyle were seen as complementary phenomena. According to Frank E. Manuel & Fritzie P. Manuel, “The Esquisse [written by Condorcet] was the form in which the eighteenth-century idea of progress was generally assimilated by Western thought. Condorcet wrote his manifesto with full awareness of its world revolutionary significance” (Utopian thought in the Western World, 491). The “Ninth Epoch” of Marquis de Condorcet’s Outlines of an historical view of the progress of the human mind [1795] is a tribute to the conquests of science as well as to the applications derived from them; the following fragment is an adequate example of this conception:

We may shew the influence which the progress of mechanics, of astronomy, of optics, and of the art of measuring time, has exercised on the art of constructing, moving, and directing vessels at sea. We may shew how greatly an increase of the number of observers, and a greater degree of accuracy in the astronomical determinations of positions, and in topographical methods, have at last produced an acquaintance with the surface of the globe, of which so little was known at the end of the last century.

How greatly the mechanic arts, properly so called, have given perfection to the processes of art in constructing instruments and machines in the practice of trade, and these last have no less added force to rational mechanism and philosophy. These arts are also greatly indebted to the employment of first movers already known, with less of expense and loss, as well as to the invention of new principles of motion.

We have beheld architecture extend its researches into the science of equilibriums and the theory of fluids, for the means of giving the most commodious and least expensive form to arches, without fear of altering their solidity; and to oppose against the effort of water a resistance computed with greater certainty; to direct the course of that fluid, and to employ it in canals with greater skill and success.

We have beheld the arts dependent on chemistry enriched with new processes; the ancient methods have been simplified, and cleared from useless or noxious substances, and from absurd or imperfect practices introduced from former rude trials; means have been invented to avert those frequently terrible dangers to which workmen were exposed. Thus it is that the application [229] of science has secured to us more of riches and enjoyment, with much less of painful sacrifice or of regret.

In the meantime, chemistry, botany, and natural history, have very much enlightened the economical arts, and the culture of vegetables destined to supply our wants; such as the art of supporting, multiplying, and preserving domestic animals; the bringing their races to perfection, and meliorating their products; the art of preparing and preserving the productions of the earth, or those articles which are of animal product.

Surgery and pharmacy have become almost new arts, from the period when anatomy and chemistry have offered them more enlightened and more certain direction.

The art of medicine, for in its practice it must be considered as an art, is by this means delivered at least of its false theories, its pedantic jargon, its destructive course of practice, and the servile submission to the authority of men, or the doctrine of colleges; it is taught to depend only on experience. The means of this art have become multiplied, and their combination and application better known; and though it may be admitted that in some parts its progress is merely of a negative kind, that is to say, in the destruction of dangerous practices and hurtful prejudices, yet the new methods of studying chemical medicine, and of combining observations, give us reason to expect more real and certain advances.

 [From Online library of liberty, http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/1669]

Twentieth Century World Wars and totalitarianisms, left and right, marked the decline of the overoptimistic confidence in progress. The idea of a global progress in the terms established in previous centuries, understood as a linear tendency towards higher stages of material and moral improvements, is now regarded as an illusion. A new perspective is then demanded for the determination of social advances (or the passage from “inferior to superior”) focused on small-scale contexts instead of on universal criteria. In sum, as Robert A. Nisbet pointed out in his classical book History of the idea of progress (New Bruswick, Transaction Publishers, 2009, p. 6):

Quite obviously, so sweeping a proposition as the idea of progress as just described cannot be empirically or logically verified. One may say, precisely and verifiably enough, that the art of medicine or the art of war has advanced, given our perfectly objective ways of noting the means toward the long-held end or purpose in each art: saving or healing life; destroying one’s enemies as effectively and lastingly as possible. Plainly, penicillin is, and can be proved to be, superior to old-fashioned remedies –blood-letting or leeching, for example. And modern artillery is superior to cross-bows and boiling pitch.

Matters become more complicated, though, even within either of these specialized, technical domains, when we ask what the overall effects are –environmental, social, moral, demographic, spiritual, and so forth- of even the kind of progress we see in the art of medicine. One need only think of the present burgeoning, fast-spreading area of thought known as medical ethics, including the right to die with dignity amid all the technological achievements by which the dying can be held indefinitely in that suspended state, to be reminded of the extent to which even the oldest of ethical issues can become activated by technological success in medicine.

Advertisements