What is “Progress”?
What is “progress”? What does it mean to be “progressive”?
The progressive ideal has become vague, indistinct, and controversial. It has become so abstract that it has lost any determinant meaning. I heard, the other day, a man say “you can’t stop progress”. And now I often hear the cliche “going forward, we will…” etc, etc. The mere fact of change and impermanence has come to be identified with “progress”, showing it has become unhinged from any real value determination or idea of destiny. Mere “growth” has also come to be synonymous with “progress”.
It is in the ideology of time as inevitable progress that Jean Gebser finds perhaps the chief symptom of “the mental-rational consciousness now functioning in deficient mode”. “Progression is also distantiation”, he notes, reflecting the parable of the journeys of the Prodigal Son into a “faraway land”. Progress has also latterly come to be revalued in terms of “creative destruction”, too. Progress has also become associated with fatalism, with inevitable death and disintegration and entropy.
“Progress” is ripe for a revaluation of values.
A history of progress will show that it follows a series of unifications or integrations, which has become confused with “growth” and expansion. In terms of the Modern Era, the first unification was of the three spaces – length, width, and depth — in perspectivism, which was the achievement of the Renaissance artists (particularly da Vinci). The fruit of this unification of the three dimensions of space was a great flowering of culture — the Copernican Revolution, Galileo’s “ideal space” (or “Galilean Space”), and “the Age of Discovery”, Descartes’ “coordinative geometry” of thinking, and so on.
The second great unification was Newton’s unification of the terrestrial and celestial spaces in his “Frame of the World”. There followed another great burst of cultural energy and creativity as society, and the arts and sciences, adjusted to the new conception of the Newtonian cosmos — Adam Smith in economics, John Locke in politics, Auguste Comte in sociology, and even theology. What we call “fundamentalism” is really the attempt to apply Newtonian principles to religious doctrine, by reducing religion to a handful of “fundamentals” in the same way that Newton unified the celestial and terrestrial spaces in a few formulas.
The next great unification was Einstein’s unification of space and time in the spacetime continuum. This is still working itself out in the human imagination, although this integration of time into thinking is also coming to be reflected in the arts and sciences and in human culture. Time is becoming increasingly “of the essence”, as they say. But “modernity”, as you will note, was really quite space-obsessed. So, if we are speaking of post-modernity, it is largely because that emphasis is switching to time and the experience of temporicity.
In all likelihood, the next great step in the unification of experience will be quantum reality with Einsteinian relationalism, which will again lead to another great burst of cultural creativity, because right now, the two cosmic conceptions are dissonant and contradictory, in terms of the micro-scale and the macro-scale. What this controversy amounts to, though, is the position of consciousness in relation to the cosmos, since in both the consciousness of the observer is implicate. That’s even the concluding statement of the article by Corey Powell in The Guardian “Relativity v quantum mechanics“,
The next great theory of physics will undoubtedly lead to beautiful new mathematics and unimaginable new technologies. But the best thing it can do is create deeper meaning that connects back to us, the observers, who get to define ourselves as the fundamental scale of the universe.
The unification of consciousness and cosmos that is implied in that statement would be the next great leap in human self-understanding, and that would indeed change everything.
So, indeed, there is a “progressive” development in all this, as a series of unifications. But each unification has also brought with it a discontinuity or bifurcation in social terms. The new discontinuity is the addition of time and consciousness to the matrix of experience.
So, in those terms “progress” and the “progressive” is meaningful as a series of unifications or integrations. With each unification, enormous cultural and creative energies were unleashed, not always with the best outcomes and results.
So, progress does indeed have a determinant value and meaning — only, it’s not about “growth”. It’s about progressive unification and integration, and ultimately about the unification of the so-called “conscious” with the so-called “unconscious”. The ideology of progress as growth and expansion, conceived in physical terms, is a distraction from the real nature of progress and the progressive as continuous integration or unification or, what is but the converse of that, self-overcoming. This impulse towards unification or integration comes from deep within the human soul.
“Analysis” isn’t the driver of these unifications. It is in great leaps of the imagination. For each great leap in the unification of experience started in the imagination first. Progression is integration.
What is now proved, was only once imagined — William Blake