Friday, 30 August 2019


Is it right to believe in progress? Putting the question this way, is meaningless: it's like questioning whether it is good to believe in justice, or goodness, or nature, or freedom. The subject can only become meaningful if accompanied by the what, the where, the how, in short: context.

There is only one meaningful meaning of the notion of 'progress' and that is: progress as improvement, something which has become better than before. But this merely relocates the subject into another context: 'improved' in relation to what? And according to which parameters? So, also 'improvement' is a relative concept.

In culture, artistic quality is heavily dependent upon context. It's there, but it is a fleeting presence. But it is always there, where talent is. When artists had restricted materials and means and opportunities, their field of activity was narrow. That is, narrow in relation to other periods when the field was much broader. Obviously, pigments which were much more stable did improve the means of painters, as did the quality of their canvasses, but this did not influence the quality of their imagination or invention. Keyboards and organs in the Renaissance were simpler than their progeny in the 18th century, and the development of the piano in the 19th century greatly enhanced the possibilities of composers, who gratefully accepted the challenges. But that does not mean that the keyboard works of Chopin are, in terms of artistic quality, better that those of Couperin, that Chopin's music has improved Couperin's keyboard writing because of progress having taken place since 1700. This confusion of aesthetics with material improvement is still widely ingrained in the mind of modern people, living in the unthinking myth that our own times must be better in all respects simply because of its contemporaneity.

The British historian John Gray on the topic:

"Faith in the liberating power of knowledge is encrypted into modern life. Drawing on some of Europe's most ancient traditions, and daily reinforced by the quickening advance of science, it cannot be given up by an act of will. The interaction of quickening scientific advance with unchanging human needs is a fate that we may perhaps temper, but cannot overcome... Those who hold to the possibility of progress need not fear. The illusion that through science humans can remake the world is an integral part of the modern condition. Renewing the eschatological hopes of the past, progress is an illusion with a future."

Related: chronological snobbery - an argument that the thinking, art, or science of an earlier time is inherently inferior to that of the present, simply by virtue of its temporal priority or the belief that since civilization has advanced in certain areas, people of earlier periods were less intelligent.