What it is, and why it's bad (a short note)
Nothing like studying history for things to fall into perspective. Knowing and understanding our past, incomplete and dim as such understanding inevitably is, relativizes things.
You begin to realize that your current view has simply formed historically over long periods of time, and that there are, and were, alternatives.
You see that you don’t exist in a vacuum—and that ideas you take for granted are not as self-evident as you thought. That the very foundation of your thought and outlook might be more shaky than you would like. In Thomas Kuhn’s famous terms: that the current paradigm represents just one powerful site where knowledge can be obtained via deep drilling, but you shouldn’t delude yourself into believing that it’s the only such site, or even the best one.
You begin to realize that there are, and have been, other moralities with different priorities and sacred presuppositions that have led to people living entirely different lives—outwardly and in terms of their inner life. Some of it might have produced bad things, but some of it good things too. Perhaps we might even say, without judgement, that it was just different. To say that, however, we must first understand.
And this is why what I’d like to call absolute progressivism is so dangerous, for it prevents us from understanding.
What is absolute progressivism? It is the assumption that over time, everything has got better in every respect.
If you believe that, then:
a) You won’t be motivated to understand the past and the historical development of ideas and events. Why would you, if everything was worse in every way?
b) You will misunderstand the past even if you do look, because you will be compelled to judge everything by today’s standards. And why wouldn’t you, if everything is better now in every way?
c) You won’t be able to understand the past anyway, because you would need to adopt past modes of thought, if only temporarily. But how could you if you consider today’s modes of thought to be better in every way, and past thoughts therefore to be positively sinful? Thinking differently, which is incredibly hard in the best of circumstances, becomes a sin in that picture, and therefore impossible.
How insidious absolute progressivism is can be illustrated by its (perhaps) three dimensions: the true, the good, and the beautiful.
The true: Absolute progressives will claim that we have advanced in a long march towards truth, having reached the pinnacle of our access to truth in the present time. This belief presupposes that our present deepest assumptions about reality are themselves true (or as true as it gets), which means studying past assumptions is a pointless hobby at best. What’s more, this makes our own deepest assumptions invisible, because we mistake them for the truth, when in fact they are merely a driving force towards certain kinds of inquiries: akin to Kuhn’s paradigm—one belief system giving access to certain aspects of reality. In the latter view, studying past paradigms makes sense because they might give access to different aspects of reality (which the current paradigm might obscure), while they also convince us that our current paradigm is not a feature of reality, but rather subject to change, sometimes radical change.
The good: Absolute progressivism subscribes to a perverse form of Neo-Leibnizian “best of all worlds” scenario, except that it wasn’t God who chose it among different potentialities, but man evolving morally so that our morals are always the best so far—and to the degree that they can be made even better, it can only be done along the same trajectory, that is, by amplifying today’s most sacred assumptions, not by changing them. In that view, the past appears as a straight line along the dimension of today’s most sacred moral propositions, and ignores that there are different moral propositions along which it is possible to plot historical development. Again, today’s assumptions are mistaken for a feature of reality, when they are just assumptions that have always been subject to change. Different sacred priors become invisible, history incomprehensible, the past morally reprehensible, and its study therefore not worth the effort.
The beautiful: Art and everyday objects are the products of minds, and therefore of paradigms and sacred assumptions people subscribe to. If your view is that today’s minds are the best, today’s sacred assumptions the only true ones (and therefore not assumptions at all, but part of reality), then it follows that the sacred assumptions of past minds were wrong. Therefore, art, everyday objects, fashion, etc. must have been worse in the past, and even immoral. Granted, most people are still too stunned by the beauty of cathedrals, Shakespeare and Goethe, a Turner painting, Bach’s music or ancient Greek plays to discredit them entirely. Part of the power of art lies in its ability to overpower and bypass our assumptions. But the logic, the implications are inescapable: past art and standards of beauty can only be worse than today’s. What’s more, once again, under absolute progressivism past sacred assumptions disappear from our vision, because absolute progressivism mistakes its own sacred assumptions for reality, and different sacred assumptions are therefore perceived as lies and, because of that, morally repulsive. This makes it impossible to even look at them, much less take them seriously, much less understand them. And so, we can’t use our past anymore as the fountain of our existence from which to draw creative energy and renew it by bringing this energy into the present, using today’s techniques and environment to fill it with concrete life. We get trapped in a vacuum, and produce things that increasingly look exactly like that.
In short: absolute progressivism shortens our sense of history to just a few minutes, with at best a thin line along the dimension of our contingent sacred assumptions running back like a stupid-ray of falsification, creating a chimera of pseudo-history in black and white where there should be a radiant well of existence.
LucTalks is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.