>Is progression linear?

>A few sub-questions to think about…

  1. What is progression?
  2. Are there stages of history that societies pass through?
  3. Do we inevitably improve ourselves individually and collectively?
  4. Was everything chaos in the beginning and will it be in the end?
  5. Was everything ‘eden’ (the Hebrew word for pleasure/paradise) in the beginning and will return to it in the end?


  • >Progression is a very common word in politics, the media and wider society e.g. blogs, novels, the arts. But should it be? After all the word has been used historically to mean many different things. Even if you hold the concept to have an absolute definition then what do you measure progress against? If you measure it against scientific progress you get a very different answer to if you measured it against happiness or GDP.Therefore I think progression is a subjectively defined concept designed to describe a process in which we attempt to achieve personally defined aims. One can easily argue that there are stages of history. But these are not set in stone and are not inevitable. If you measure progress against freedom then you define ages very differently to if you define progress against military advancement. Even if you stick with one measure there are still no set 'stages of history' that all countries have to pass through. The 'progression' of different countries will always bear similarities because all countries influence each other. Yet has not China achieved economic 'progress' without 'progress' in terms of civil liberties, democracy etc?

  • >1. Progression is a move towards something.2. Yes there are stages that society passes through but this does not mean they are progressing, just moving.3. 'Improve' implies an accepted form of good/bad. e.g. people 'improve' their looks via cosmetic surgery, but the perception of beauty is subjective, and what is considered an improvement by one person could be viewed as a deterioration by another.4. Are you implying that things are not in a state of chaos now ?5. Whose version of paradise ? the Qu'ran with 27 virgins. I don't like virgins and how is this paradise for the female species ? If we are talking about a nirvana state of being, then i don't think things started out like this (not solely because i don't believe in religion), and whether things do end like this is entirely possible along with all the other ending potentialities.

  • >1 & 2: Not quite sure what you mean by 2. If you're saying that progression is not possible and that states 'move' but do not 'progress' then it contradicts point 1.3. Agree4. You could say relative chaos. But then relative to what? Aren't you now talking about chaos relative to your subjective ideas of perfection? Or are you speaking scientifically? It's possible to argue that the singularity prior to the Big Band was perfect order, and that when the universe stops expanding it will contract. Hence now could be defined as chaos relative to the singularity that occured at the beginning of the universe and will occur again at its end.5. I agree. But what do you have against virgins? Do they offend you or something?

  • >This links nicely to the spirit of the age debate in two ways.Firstly, it is a pet theory of mine that the zeitgeist in 19th century western Europe (or at least Britain), from say 1815 until 1914, was The Age of Progress. I don't mean that it was particularly progressive, for I agree with the crux of what Sean says in that it is a relative term and cannot be usefully applied in any meaningful sense to politics or society, but that culturally Europe was obsessed with the notion of progress and of betterment. This was the age of utilitarianism and its attendant reforms geared towards the quasi-utopian happiness principle, Marx and his bastardised Hegelian dialectic applied to that other great spirit of the Victorian age – industrial capital – Darwin and the evolution of species through natural selection, through classical liberalism (J.S. Mill, to my mind still the quintessential classical liberal theorist, did not desire liberty for liberty's end, but as an agent of progress and betterment; witness his advocacy of free speech in On Liberty as, to all intents of purposes, a litmus test for filtering out 'truth' and avoiding 'stagnation' that he saw happening in China's closed society since the 1500s. It was Herbert Spencer, too, the great early philosopher of the most anti-social brand of classical liberalism, that coined the term 'the survival of the fittest'), the socialism and social democracy that grew out of liberalism towards the end of the century, the Whig interpretation of history and so on and on and on.Secondly, Rob initially argued that he saw our present age as the age of agnosticism and I argued that it was not. The very fact that politicians still talk about progress, label themselves and their policies as progressive implies a certain tacit agreement of a) where we are and b) where we ought to be going. Surely, in a truly agnostic age, any sort of progress would dissolve into a puddle of philosophical naval gazing. To the question: Sean has answered 1-3 in such a way that I couldn't add much to them. I would say, however, that to talk of progress as a subjective term that cannot possibly be applied to entire societies or states or polities or whatever is philosophically watertight. However, for argument's sake, societies do on the most superficial level experience certain trends, a bit like a line of best fit on a scattergraph (say, for example, 1914-1950ish as not awfully pleasant for most Britons and the fifteen or twenty years after that, generally, being rather better – it's a horrid generalisation, but just let me use it to answer the topic question differently). If we accept that societies do experience very broad upwards and downward trends, then progression is definitely not linear, there is no general trend of progression or regression, but lots of fluctuation. The long view of ancient nation states like China, Russia, India, Egypt etc. that have risen, fallen and, in some cases, risen again illustrates the point. (No, I don't consider the power of the state to be the measure of progress, as I said above I am fully of the post-modern position put forward by Sean and accept the near-uselessness of the term, I'm just trying to borrow a different position to add something new).Questions 4 and 5 are essentially the reverse of the same question. To answer them, when it comes to human nature I am a pessimist and essentially Hobbesian. I'm not as pessimistic as Hobbes in that I trust human nature enough to value democracy, pluralism, a stronger element of civil and political liberty than he would etc, etc. but, when it comes down to it, he imagines a state of nature to be pretty ugly and so do I. In short, outside some sort of society of collectivism and mutual interest human beings basically fight and society will disentegrate because of that basic, inherent selfishness and so the end won't be pretty either.

  • >PS Rob, there are minor errors in the above post that I trust won't hamper meaning, but is there any chance of you installing an edit function on these pages?Cheers.

  • >Unfortunately I don't think I can allow editing of individual comments. But as soon as James finishes his dissertation we're going to be working on a complete re-designing of the site. Then we'll have a forum so it'll be a bit easier to edit.In general I agree with you. Indeed your assignment of the era 1815-1914 as the one of progress is relevent throughout most subjects, but most of all Economics. Throughout most of human history economic growth has been fairly stagnant. It is only since the Industrial Revolution that it really took off. Also International Economists still refer to the early 20th century as the period of highest globalisation. Migration between countries was higher than today in relative terms, as was the flow of international capital.Your second paragraph assumes that any age will be 'absolutely' possible to define and hence that a 'Modern Age' would have no primitiveness in it or that an 'Age of War' would have no peace etc. But I agree with the point you made. I do think I had a point about the distinct presence of agnosticism with postmodernism and within the modern refutation of the pursuit of definite 'truths' for the embracement of subjectivity, relativity, compromise and freedom to think and act as you choose. However as you correctly say this culture hasn't affected the leaders and academics of society in quite the same way as it has the working man/woman. So I have been swayed by you that our age will not be labelled an 'agnostic' one.As for your reference to the state of nature I disagree but won't refute you here. I've been talking to a Professor about joining in a debate on that subject. So hopefully she'll have time in the near future and we'll be able to discuss it then.

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