Implications of Historical Progress

By Moad, Omar | Global Virtue Ethics Review, April 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

Implications of Historical Progress


Moad, Omar, Global Virtue Ethics Review


Abstract

Often, on the ideological battlefield of world politics, one side identifies its agenda as progress and the opposition as regress. Citing history as its vindication with the claim that one is on the 'right side' of history and the opposition in the 'dustbin', presupposing that history is itself progressive. But historical progress presupposes a purpose of humanity that is independent of human aspirations - a 'transcendent human telos'. Consequently, commitment to the existence of such a telos, as well as an account of its nature and metaphysical possibility are necessary conditions of the coherence of any ideology claiming to represent historical progress.

The modern world has witnessed the ascendancy of the term 'progress' as a weapon on the ideological battlefield of world politics. Each side identifies its own agenda as progress, and the opposition, therefore, as opposition to progress. Then, history is cited as the decisive vindication of that agenda as progress, and the damnation of all else as regress. Thus, one can claim that one is 'on the right side of history,' and that everyone else will be relegated to its 'dustbin'. Such rhetoric presupposes that history is itself progressive, calling into question not only whether that is, in fact, the case, but also what the very concept of historical progress involves.

What follows is an investigation of this question that shows that, in spite of the frequency with which such claims are made from all corners, any coherent and substantial concept of historical progress presupposes the existence of a purpose of humanity that is independent of human aspirations - a 'transcendent human telos'. Consequently, commitment to the existence of such a telos, as well as an account of its nature and metaphysical possibility are necessary conditions of the coherence of any ideology claiming to represent historical progress.

In its most basic sense, "progress" indicates a movement toward something. 'Movement', here, should be understood in its broadest sense; that is, not only a simple physical motion, but as covering a range of phenomena that can be - and are - understood as analogical to simple physical motion in that they represent processes of change characterized by toward-ness. This toward-ness, though it raises questions that we will address presently, is an essential feature of the idea of progress. Thus, the idea of a simple circular motion cannot be conceived as progressive without thinking into it a correlative linear directionality fixed to a given reference point. Wherever progress is postulated, four questions can be asked: what is moving, with what sort of movement, toward what, and with what sort of toward-ness.

In any given instance of a movement toward something, the something toward which the movement is directed can be thought of as playing a role in the explanation of the movement itself. Each alternative corresponds to a distinct sense of toward-ness that can be understood in terms of Aristotle's distinction between efficient and final causation.

Let the term "teleological progress" connote movement toward a something for the sake of which the movement occurs - a telos. Let the term "efficient progress" connote movement toward a something that does not function as a telos. In this case, that toward which the movement is directed represents nothing over and above the culmination of the movement itself. It may enter into the causal explanation of the movement, but not as final cause; the movement in this case will be exhaustively explainable in terms of efficient causes.

In this way, we think differently about the progress of a student toward finishing his degree (teleological progress), and the progress of a stone rolling toward the bottom of a hill (efficient progress). Whether anything in reality corresponds to one or another of these categories is a separate metaphysical issue. It may be that everything is exclusively explainable in terms of efficient causes, or indeed, final causes. …

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