The Place of Progressive Historicism in Modern Consciousness

Progressive historicism is the notion that historical forces have a direction, and this direction is towards the fullest development of humanity. In an academic context, this idea tends to be ridiculed as it is viewed as an archaic, western metanarrative that is not only false, but also pernicious in the way that it has been and is still used to justify colonialism and other evils. However, despite the fact that this idea is not taken particularly seriously among academics, it is still a large part of the popular consciousness of modern post-industrial societies. Furthermore, while progressive historicism provides an intelligible answer to the question of how we have arrived at this point in history, we should be suspicious of progressive historicism, because while there have been significant improvements in well-being throughout the development of human society, these improvements are not necessarily tied to a necessary process, and these improvements have also included historical losses in forms of value. Similarly, we should be suspicious of the progressive historicist narrative as it encourages a form of close-mindedness which discourages people from properly considering what the good is.

The tendency to write off progressive historicism as an antiquated theory is problematic, because even though its premises seem questionable and it has been used as a justification for problematic practises it has become a large part of the consciousness of post-industrial societies. For example, we often refer to people with ideas we disapprove of as backwards or medieval, and refer to those with ideas that we approve and admire as ahead of their time. Furthermore, I have heard seemingly intelligent people write off Plato and Aristotle, among others because the fact that they had lived an earlier era necessarily means that they are stupid and must be wrong about everything. This suggests that the way that individuals think about history fits in with the progressive historicist narrative as people tend to see the past as having been superseded by the present, and see humanity marching towards a bright new future.

The appeal of progressive historicism partially lies in the fact that we know that people in early ages have been subject to mass famine, disease, suffering and oppression, and at the very least, in post-industrial societies, it seems that we have begun to overcome famine and disease, and furthermore traditionally oppressed groups (women, ethnic minorities, homosexuals) have been able to gain legal, and perhaps social equality. In this sense, it seems that there has been progress in terms of justice as more and more people have their dignity respected, and progress in terms of technology as humanity becomes less endangered by the forces of nature and has more control over their destiny.

However, there are a few reasons why we should be suspicious of progressive historicism. Firstly, the idea of a necessary historical process while effective at explaining societal development is not necessary to explain such development. We can recognize that there has been a process of development, but consider it to be something that was contingent, and thus not inevitable, but rather one possibility among many. In this case we might consider history as something that is path dependent in that at one point there were certain events that could have led to a multiplicity of differing trajectories for the development of society, but particular choices that were made caused the current path of historical development to be much more likely. Unless we are already strongly committed to the idea of necessity determining societal change, it seems that the alternative that I have articulated is at least equally plausible to the progressive historicist story.

Secondly, the other issue with the progressive historicist story is that it pays keen attention to the gains that have occurred for humanity, but is troubling silent about the losses that have occurred throughout societal development. The development of society is partially a story of the gradual expansion of the recognition of dignity, but as a result of this development and particular technological changes certain forms of practise that constitute unique forms of value have been lost. For example, even if we are deeply disturbed by the brutality of the warrior way of life and the ethic of honor that goes along with it, we also admire the kind of courage that was necessary to live this life. And while this way of life had to be set aside to make way for egalitarian justice, certain forms of value were lost. Likewise, while finding certain elements of Ancient Athenian democracy particularly troubling (ie slavery), we can also see something deeply valuable in the solidarity that the citizenry of Athens achieved at particular points in its history. But this solidarity was probably made far more likely by the fact that the citizenry had slaves who could provide for their daily needs while they were active within the public sphere. Thus, the ending of slavery while necessary for the expansion of the recognition of all as equal, likely also lead to the loss of forms of value, such as the solidarity that could be achieved among the citizenry of Ancient Athens. Consequently, we should be suspicious of the progressive historicist narrative as it does not seem to tell an accurate story of the development of value throughout society’s history. Clearly, the equal dignity of all is more important than the courage of the warrior or the solidarity of Ancient Athens, but nonetheless these are still losses in value that must be taken account of.

Thirdly, the last reason why we should be suspicious of progressive historicism is the fact that the progressive historicist narrative encourages a kind of close-mindedness that sees the wisdom of the past as having been superseded by the wisdom of the modern era. This close-mindedness closes off people from deeply asking the question of what the good life is, as individuals under the grip of progressive historicism only seriously consider modern alternatives that share their own basic assumptions about what the good is, and do not deeply consider the wisdom of previous ages. If there is an inevitable process that is leading to the fullest development of humanity, then why would we need to learn from the wisdom of the past? Consequently, it seems that the progressive historicist narrative is problematic in its tendency to encourage close-mindedness. As a result while there seems to be a grain of truth within the progressive historicist notion that societal development has involved a long march towards equal respect for the dignity of all, this is only one element of the story of our history, and if we myopically focus on this one element we may fail to properly answer the question of what the good is.

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