The Idea of Progress

Reading Ingold’s article about trust and domination made me think about an issue that has come up in many of my classes and in conversations with people outside of class.  This happened during our first discussion as well.  The issue is a problematic idea of what progress is and what it means and implies.  I apologize in advance if this doesn’t make much sense, but I’ll do my best.

Progress is a term that has many ideas wrapped up in it that don’t seem incredibly obvious at first glance.  Progress implies a movement toward in a direction that is better than the current state of things.  The better that is implicit in this turns the idea of progress into a value judgement.  Progress is a good thing because it leads to something better.

The problem with this idea is that the way that we, being us in the class, define better is very subjective and based on our own cultural experiences.  Our idea of better is not the same as another culture’s idea of better.  Therefore, our ideas about progress can not be applied to other cultures because of the disconnect between idea’s of what is good.  When we lose sight of this disconnect, we try to superimpose our idea’s of progress on other culture’s and end up being judgmental in an unfair way.

Ingold mentions this in the first part of his article.  Darwin talked about the hunter-gatherers he encountered on his voyage around the world and compared them to the culture he knew and deemed them backwards and without many redeeming qualities.  The rest of Ingold’s article discusses why this is an unfair judgement.  Hunter-gatherers were and are not any worse than other cultures because they lack technology, they simply live differently.  Judging their progress as a culture or civilization based on the Western standard of how much can they produce is unfair because, as Ingold describes, production as we see it is irrelevant to the hunter-gatherers.  Their conception of nature as something to be trusted to provide as opposed to something to be dominated is so different from what Darwin knew as good, that his judgements ultimately do not mean anything.

Unfortunately, unfair judgements like Darwin’s are not limited to 19th century naturalists.  It seems that many people in the present day do the same thing to Native Americans.  In my experience, many people think Native Americans were backward because they did not have the technology that colonists had.  The colonists helped Native Americans progress by introducing their technology to North America.  They helped the Native Americans progress beyond their unsophisticated hunter-gatherer ways.  This narrative is unfair because it imposes a Western cultural standard on the Native Americans.  It is also unfair because Native Americans lived much better than early colonists.

I don’t think that people do this purposefully.  I think it is mostly that people don’t think about the implications of the word “progress.”  By more closely examining what we say in class, I think we can better analyze the arguments that we read.  Again, I apologize if this seems like a rant.

5 thoughts on “The Idea of Progress

  1. Thanks for this very thoughtful post. Forgive my lengthy response!

    You’ve pointed to a crucial and difficult dilemma. “Progress” does indeed mean “better.” And “better” depends entirely on how one defines the “good.” And *that* depends on one’s ideas about the meaning (or meaninglessness) of life. As you say, there are many different ideas about that, and it’s hard to find a meta-standard by which they can be judged. Hard, or impossible. So that diversity is one horn of the dilemma.

    One could resolve the dilemma by embracing a thoroughgoing relativism and say there *is* no basis for judging among competing ideas of the good. One person says “eat, drink, and be merry!” and that’s fine. Another says “sacrifice immediate pleasure for future gain, including benefits for future generations whom you will never live to see or have any personal connection to at all.” And here the other horn of the dilemma comes into view, as it’s clear that these two philosophies are in conflict. My hedonism may well wreck the planet. Your desire to preserve the planet interferes with my capacity to seek gratification in a world that I will someday leave. Etc.

    This is a difficult situation!

    And it becomes more difficult when one considers that we live together, and much of what most of us value (if I can make such a generalization–bear with me) requires that we work together and pull in the same direction, a direction we all agree is “better,” even if we disagree about many of the details.

    Now we’ve arrived back at the original problem again. Who has the right to declare the good? Yet without a shared notion of the good, what’s the basis for our actions? And without the idea of progress, we either imply that this is the best of all possible worlds (an idea that has been entertained seriously, though not by me!) or that we have no way of judging whether we are improving as a civilization.

    A tough dilemma!

  2. One of the many insights Ingold offers, to my mind, is a reminder that we in the west often conflate historical change with progress. They are not synonyms, but since we are so conditioned to think teleologically about historical development (in a kind of “General Electric” vision of a brighter tomorrow) we often assume that change means improvement, when sometimes change is just change, and sometimes, of course, change can be bad — even catastrophic. The shift in human-animal relations Ingold theorizes about serves as a wonderful cautionary tale about the importance of uncoupling assumptions about “progress” from the analysis of change. (As a Russianist, I’ve got a long rant in a similar vein about the “progress” vs. “backwardness” binary, but will save that for another class!)

  3. Wow! This was a really interesting post.

    What if, rather than saying “this is good” and “this is better,” we just said “this is different.” How might this change the study of history? I wonder if such a change in perspective is even possible? This culture is so deeply entrenched in the ideal of improvement, we might find ourselves unable to analyze changes without thinking about progress. Even in this comment, I propose a change in how we think about history that might be better–progress.

  4. Where to begin? The troubling idea of progress is one I have thought about in previous classes. Learning about American history it was discovered to be a concept that created intended and unintended consequences (good and bad, subjectively) but is a notion that is also a part of our American identity. We are determined to consider “progress” as a way that individuals in America can succeed – that by progressing as a country anything good (and an exponential amount of good at that) is possible individually.

    It is similarly true that we are beginning to think as a society (of at least the higher educated sector of the United States) that what is best for “us” might not be best for others. That the cheep products/food and globalized system of standardized production disproportionally distributes global wealth and even reinforces those unequal poverty-wealth relationships.

    Valuing others based on simple acceptance of difference would be great theoretically but they too are participating in some form to the globalized system. Therefore it is difficult to even consider societies apart from ours as just “different” when these “different” peoples too contribute to our ideas of progress.

    Let’s consider Native Americans. Their way of life to many is viewed as a simpler, happier and more harmonious way of living. Although there were many factors at play during the time English settlers came to the new world (90% population collapse, disease, etc.), the Native Americans to some extent did adopt the progressive ideas and technologies readily – because they were useful. For example, it was not long that domesticated animals like swine were being claimed by Native American tribes. It may be because they had no choice given the pervasive culture (takeover, really) of the Europeans but it cannot be denied the ideas were adopted because they were useful and they liked them.

    This is a big generalization but worthy of consideration… let’s just be careful here. Just as Native Americans adopted Western Ideas because they were liked so too is this happening with developing countries across the globe. These countries want the conveniences and infrastructures of progress the developed world has. So our idea of progress in 2013 is arguably the developed world with its current systems.

    So if that’s our idea of progress the real question Dr. C contributed really is, who has the right to declare good? How do we critique our current ideas of global progress so that good is ensured? And possibly more importantly, whose responsibility is it to ensure this thoughtful progress as the world continues to make history?

    P.S. if our understanding of good progress comes from our ideas and values for the meaning of life then this becomes, perhaps, the most important consideration for all debates about the future and how to get others to comprehend your point of view.

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