Front Page Titles (by Subject) I: Progress - Literature of Liberty, January/March 1979, vol. 2, No. 1
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I: Progress - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, January/March 1979, vol. 2, No. 1 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Professor Nisbet has traced the evolving meanings attached to progress from 700 B.C. to the present, and shown the multifarious disagreements over mankind's advancement or progress. Professor Nisbet's essay questions the belief that the idea of progress is simply a modern notion that arose exclusively in the cradle of Enlightenment rationalism. Greco-Roman pagan antiquity and the nurturing soil of Christianity together with the Augustinian philosophy of history were vital to the flourishing of our modern idea of progress. Nisbet also sketches the darker side of progress. As against the idea that human reason and science always emancipate man and lead to continual human betterment, Nisbet points out the more sinister, irrational, and illiberal uses of “progress.”
Nisbet's tentativeness about the prospects of human progress in the future is a somber summons for us to reexamine the meaning and chances for progress. Can we be optimistic about the chances for human advancement in such fields as the intellectual, moral, political, scientific, and technical? Should theorists of progress regard moral, political, and technical development as interrelated parts of a whole? If human progress is meaningful, then what are its ethical and political preconditions? In this last regard it would repay study to examine anew the liberal rationalist tradition that stresses the ethics of natural reason and the politics of liberty as the sources most conducive to stimulating human betterment.
The following summaries explore a number of areas—some only indirectly addressed in Professor Nisbet's essay. These studies aim to explore the implications for progress of the thought of such individuals as Godwin, Marx, Popper, Dewey, and Koestler. In addition to clarifying theories of the growth of knowledge, the summaries also discuss the idea of progress in relation to religion, the rise of individualism, and a free economics.
Godwin: Flux vs. Stasis
“Godwin's Philosophy: A Revaluation.” Journal of the History of Ideas 39 (October/December 1978): 615–626.
The popular notion that Godwin believed mankind was of “necessity” compelled toward some future state of perfection oversimplifies Godwin's view of human nature, human institutions, and the idea of progress.
A dialectic of stasis and flux, central to Godwin's philosophy, helps us to understand his theory of progress. He sees these two opposing concepts as manifest everywhere. The evidence of stasis is abundant in human society, as its etymologically related words suggest: state, estate, static, statism, stagnate, status quo, statute, and standardize. In opposition to this insidious stagnation and inflexibility inherent in the concept of stasis, Godwin posits his liberating and progressive principle of flux. Flux is exemplified “by a spirit of enquiry to which a philanthropic mind will allow no pause.” Above all “we should never stand still, . . . everything most interesting to the general welfare, wholly delivered from restraint, should be in a state of change, moderate and as it were imperceptible, but continual.”
According to Godwin, the nature of government reflects stasis whereas the nature of the human mind exhibits flux. Godwin, however, acknowledges that the mind also has a sluggish tendency, a “vis inertiae” that withstands stimulation and makes it all the more critical to maintain a process of detachment in one's pursuit of truth.
Both political institutions and the law come under attack as instances of lethargic stasis in Godwin's philosophy. In his Political Justice (1793), Godwin envisions a utopian anarchism which allows for continual flux and a democratic pursuit of truth, replacing the dictates of a stagnant hierarchy. While writing Political Justice Godwin reversed his belief in the necessity of government and came to embrace its elimination. By logical extension, Godwin's philosophy is inimical to the inherent stasis (and therefore evil) embodied in law. Theoretically, law should have the same inferior status as opinion, yet law hypostatizes its own opinion, thereby transforming it into a universal truth duly enforceable by the state. In direct contradiction to Bentham's view of law in which crime and punishment are quantifiable and formulaic, Godwin advances the belief that “delinquency and punishment are, in all cases, incommensurable,” and that no “two crimes are ever alike.”
Paradoxically, despite his radical criticisms of the existing social order, Godwin's own belief in progress was of a gradual and reformist nature. He saw intellectual progress, the cultivation of truth and sincerity, as hinged upon a collective effort which evolved by small, imperceptible degrees. Godwin did not see political revolution as intellectual progress; in fact he viewed it as a hindrance to progress: a time when reason became clouded by “the passions of revenge, hatred, fear, selfishness.” Ultimately, he entrusted his faith to “the achievement of revolutionary consciousness,” but until that time “There will be oppressors, as long as there are individuals inclined . . . to take party with the oppressor.” Thus, Godwin identifies human intelligence and its capacity to reason as the final authority.
Godwin's philosophy admits of several paradoxes, such as the problematic nature of all truth-seeking, and the necessary “atomistic subjectivism” that results from his scrupulous respect for the individual. Still Godwin's outlook for human progress is indeed bright, both in its source and in its vast possibilities.
Progress, Naturalism, and Religion
“Notes on Progress and Historical Recurrence.” The Intercollegiate Review 13 (1978): 67–78.
Substantial evidence undermines the notion that progress is strictly a modern phenomenon. The idea of progress is ancient. Antedating the eighteenth century's Enlightenment, it reappears throughout history. Also erroneous is the notion that Christianity emancipated man from the imprisonment of historical cycles to the freedom of linear progress. This faulty view has persisted down to the present day, but is now receiving sober criticism and challenge.
Ludwig Edelstein's impeccable documentation of progress's presence in Greek and Roman times has refuted past contradictory claims. Edelstein's parallelisms in The Idea of Progress in Classical Antiquity conclusively show that the ancient world entertained the idea of progress in much the same way as did Renaissance Europe (demonstrated by J.B. Bury). We may see progress more accurately as “the overview characteristic of a recurrent type of mind or culture . . . that will not abide the sense of human limits instilled by traditional piety.”
Rather than being an outgrowth of Christianity, progress can be seen as its logical substitute. Progress, by its nature, displaces traditional theism. During its periods of dominance, progress effectively becomes the reigning “religion” in every sense of the term. At such times the state replaces the church, and political conviction replaces religious feeling. This other “religion” of progress, then, operates from a naturalistic world view in which the vision of a better world supplants traditional theism's promise of personal salvation.
Yet naturalism, dependent as it is upon empiricist knowledge, has been dealt shattering blows by such modern-day thinkers as Leibniz, Hume, Popper, and Kuhn. Utilizing empiricist principle itself, Kuhn has authoritatively invalidated the very possibility of knowledge, rendering naturalism's base somewhat, if not completely, unsound. By consequence, one is faced with the seemingly absurd conclusion that “only by recourse to a theism” can human knowledge escape the skeptic's verdict and “lay claim to thinking men's acceptance.” So also, “only by recourse to theism can morality be made intelligible.”
With human history oscillating between the two extremes of theism and naturalism, both of uncertain truth, surely our idea of linear progress must give place to the more realistic ebb and flow of human achievement.
Individualism vs. Peasant-feudalism
“The Origins of English Individualism: Some Surprises.” Theory and Society 6 (September 1978): 255–277.
The founding fathers of modern sociology, Marx, Weber, Maine, and Tonnies, focused on England as the first industrialized, modern capitalist society to construct models for the progressive stages of social development. Their interpretation of English history became central to their understanding of how human societies historically evolve. Their key but questionable assumption held that England's social evolution during the period 1350–1650 was marked by a “great transition” from a peasant-feudal ideal type of society to an industrial-capitalist type.
They further assumed that this transformation occurred this early only in England, and that it provided a model for similar transformations in other later societies. The “peasant-feudal” ideal refers to the view that English rural society was not yet split apart into separate economic and social worlds. In this view the basic element in society was not the individual, but rather the patriarchal family which acted as a unit of ownership, production, and consumption; the household was the basic unit of the economy, and production was mainly for use, not exchange; authority was patriarchal, land unalienable without consent of heirs, and heirs could not be disinherited.
But the alleged peasant-feudal ideal is a historical myth. Detailed studies of recent medieval economic historians disprove the concept of “a great transition” in the Tudor-Stuart period from peasant-feudal to industrial-capitalist model stage. There is no evidence that such a peasant model stage existed at any time since documentation became available in the late twelfth or early thirteenth centuries. On the contrary, thirteenth-century English society exhibits a cash economy throughout the countryside with most items from labor to property rights marketable for a cash price. Furthermore, products of the land were raised for markets as well as use; hired labor was already common; geographic and social mobility was also common among all classes; land was held by individuals, not patriarchal families, who could alienate it by sale at will. In fact, markets were as active as in the later periods with sales and purchases of land by both freemen and villeins; households were predominantly nuclear and kinship systems were quite similar to those of modern England or America. In short, thirteenth-century English society displayed no more a peasant-feudal ideal type than did sixteenth- or seventeenth-century England. It was, in fact, already an individualistic, mobile, and capitalist market society.
If MacFarlane's thesis is correct, paradigmatic shifts will be necessary in the fields of history, sociology, anthropology, and economics. The theories of Marx and Weber are very intimately linked to what are dubious assumptions on the character of English society during the transitional period. If we continue to take them as guides in studying the origins of capitalism, we may well be asking the wrong questions. If Marx and Weber's chronology is incorrect, then we will need to revise the role of the Reformation, Renaissance, and Enlightenment in creating modern individualism. We would also see fall apart the theories of Karl Polanyi, who believed that before the sixteenth century, true markets and free labor played no important role in the economy. Adam Smith's assumption that homo economicus had existed for centuries in England seems more correct.
In one sense R. M. Hartwell is right in holding that purely economic explanations for England's Industrial Revolution are not sufficient. But unlike Hartwell, we could place this social environment not in the seventeenth century, but push it back to some time prior to the thirteenth century when documentation already shows an individualistic, capitalistic market society.
This article is a synopsis of his argument presented in Professor MacFarlane's recently published book, The Origins of English Individualism: The Family, Property, and Social Transitions (Cambridge University Press, 1978).
Materialism, Determinism, and Progress
“Scientific versus Dialectical Materialism: A Clash of Ideologies in Nineteenth-Century German Radicalism.” Isis 68 (1977): 206–223.
In the nineteenth century “scientific materialism” denoted mechanistic materialism, not a scientific but rather a metaphysical position that claimed to be derived from natural science. Its major tenets were that (1) there is an independently existing world; (2) all objects, including human beings, are material entities; (3) the human mind does not exist as an entity distinct from the body; and (4) no nonhuman being could exist with a nonmaterial mode of existence. Its popular proponents were Karl Vogt, Jacob Moleschott, and Ludwig Büchner—all singled out for criticism by Marx and Engels, later themselves to be characterized as “dialectical materialists.”
Both scientific materialism and Marxian dialectical materialism shared conceptual debts to Ludwig Feuerbach, but differed on three key issues: religion, political activity, and philosophical materialism.
The scientific materialists used Feuerbach's arguments in their anticlerical polemics to replace traditional religion (and its alleged alienation) with a humanitarian, progressive religion based on love. But Marx and Engels wished to banish religion and not simply expose religion's anthropomorphic foundations or merely secularize it.
Feuerbach and the scientific materialists believed political activity and political emancipation would solve man's lack of freedom, by rooting political action in the values of German liberalism. For Marx, political action was a means to achieve progress and human emancipation, even from the political state—and man could break out of the political assumptions of his own society. The important thing was a social revolution, and as Marx and Engels came to see this as an inevitable development, political activity became even less important.
As reductionists, Vogt, Moleschott, and Büchner explained all forms of matter by the same deterministic general laws of physics. But neither they nor Feuerbach ever resolved the contradiction between their determinism and their call for human responsibility and political action. Although Marx opposed mechanistic determinism, his and Engel's materialist conception of history holds that man is determined by his surroundings. But Marx resolved the scientific materialists' contradiction by returning to Hegel's dialectic: the world of objects (mechanistic determinism) does not exist independently of the world of subjects (human responsibility). To be “scientific,” an explanation of reality must involve the acting subject as its core.
Marx and Engels were close to Feuerbach in that all three held that attention to empirical facts is necessary, but not sufficient, to philosophy, whereas the scientific materialists regarded it as sufficient.
Popperian Growth of Knowledge
“Traditional Rationality vs. a Tradition of Criticism: A Criticism of Popper's Theory of the Objectivity of Science.” Erkenntnis (Holland), 12 (1978): 329–338.
Karl Popper's theory of the objectivity of science is ambiguous. Does it guarantee correct evaluations of theories or only help uncover errors in such evaluations? The second alternative seems to flow from Popper's fallibilism and learning theory, but this leads to weaknesses in a fallibilist theory of scientific progress.
Popper's theory of science sees science progressing through criticism. Scientists do not discover “true” theories, but they do form theories what enable them to get progressively closer to the truth. Because objectivity in science cannot be guaranteed by knowing the truth of its theories, Popper forms a theory of scientific objectivity that differs from traditional accounts.
Science, for Popper, is objective because one scientist can replicate the theories and experiments of another scientist, and thus uncover error. Thus, although individual scientists cannot be objective, the scientific community can be objective and progress in knowledge through mutual criticism and discovery of mistakes. Popper also believes that this collective sifting process (through mutual discovery of mistakes and evaluation of theories) maintains the unity and rationality of science.
Popper's theory displays weaknesses. If his theory of objectivity means providing a guarantee (that the scientific community will correctly evaluate theories through criticism), it is inconsistent with his fallibilist theory of learning. If, on the other hand, his theory of objectivity shares his fallibilist views, he may have a theory of scientific objectivity but he needs to reconsider his theory of scientific method as well as of scientific unity and rationality.
Popper vs. Historicism
“Is Any of Popper's Arguments Against Historicism Valid?” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science (UK), 29 (1978): 117–130.
In his 1957 edition of The Poverty of Historicism, Karl Popper presents a famous polemic against the so-called doctrine of historicism. It is widely believed that Popper wreaked irrevocable damage on this doctrine. Popper's “refutation” of historicism proceeds as follows: (1) The course of human history is strongly influenced by the growth of human knowledge; (2) We cannot predict, by rational or scientific methods, the future growth of our scientific knowledge; and (3) We cannot, therefore, predict the future course of human history. This plausible argument involves the questionable suppressed premise: we cannot predict (by rational or scientific methods) events which are strongly influenced by events which cannot be so predicted. But, Urbach contends, Popper's arguments do not hit historicism at all.
Popper describes historicism as: “An approach to the social sciences which assumes historical prediction is their principal aim, and which assumes that this aim is attainable by discovering the ‘rhythms’ or the ‘patterns,’ the ‘laws’ or the ‘trends’ that underlie the evolution of history.”
Four nonconclusive arguments against historicism appear in Popper's work:
(1) Popper's claim that historicist theories are unscientific (which means that they are untestable) simply misses its mark. Popper fails to provide good reasons for accepting his claim.
(2) Popper's claim that historicist theories are necessarily false ought to be compared to Popper's philosophy of physics. It is argued that there is no good reason to think that any of the things Popper says about the social sciences do not apply equally well to the natural sciences. This Popperian claim fails because of a curiously non-Popperian set of assumptions about scientific work.
(3) Popper's argument against prediction in the social sciences, and against “prophecy” in general, relies upon forgetfulness with regard to Popper's own discussion of prophecy within the natural sciences.
(4) Popper's argument from our inability to predict the growth of our own scientific knowledge relies upon a false suppressed premise, and upon a questionable explicit premise.
The conclusion is that none of Popper's arguments is valid, and that therefore the principle of the unity of the natural and the social sciences is unimpugned by these arguments.
Koestler: Chance vs. Reason
“Arthur Koestler's Theodicy: On Sin, Science, & Politics.” Encounter 52 (February 1979): 46–57.
What philosophical viewpoint underlies all of Arthur Koestler's criticisms—whether against behaviorist psychology, or neo-Darwinian biology and evolution, or quantum mechanics, or statistical interpretations of history? Koestler's main concern (as suggested by a careful reading of his 1978 book Janus: A Summing Up) is to extirpate any hint of indeterminacy, randomness, or chance as explanatory forces in these sciences. Whether writing about science, philosophy, or history, Koestler's unifying thread is to uphold rationalism, order, and the providence of nature. In a politically chaotic era, Koestler is endeavoring to restore order where chaos reigns. Although Koestler's effort is to justify an anti-Marxian rationalism as a basis for human progress and qualified optimism, Toulmin believes that Koestler still finds the scientific socialist ideal appealing.
Koestler's main targets are: (1) behaviorist psychology; (2) neo-Darwinian evolution theory; and (3) the belief in historical coincidences. All three targets horrify Koestler's rationalistic aversion to “happenstance” or randomness in nature and man. As a secular rationalist, Koestler wished to provide nature with a “theodicy” or justify natural phenomena as being “rationally necessary.” Koestler's three positive theses likewise reflect the rationalistic search for stability amid chaos: (1) Bisociation (the purposeful, nonrandom faculty of human thinking) orders the human mind to be creative; (2) “Holons” and “holarchies,” entities that behave as parts as well as wholes and achieve order, hierarchy, and purposeful integration, create complex organization without randomness of a blind kind; and (3) “The hypothesis of a ‘paranoid streak’ in human beings, which acts as the Worm in the Apple of human affairs but proves . . . to be the outcome of an ‘evolutionary mistake’ in the development of the human brain, and corrigible by pharmaceutical means.”
Koestler's proposed solution to the “paranoid streak” in human nature (the evolutionary mistake that allows the dark, chaotic emotions of the primitive brain to overthrow higher reason and lead to destructive social or political movements) reveals his underlying attempt to restore order to human affairs through a rationalism that resembles his earlier “scientific socialism.” Koestler proposes turning to psychopharmacology, to a drug to reunite the primitive and more rational parts of the brain and thus usher in the Age of Reason. Koestler's drug aims to counteract irrational obedience, but even if it worked who would administer and control it? This question reveals that the real hope of human progress, of eliminating conflict and irrational fanaticism in politics, is not through psychotropic drugs in themselves but by devising new political institutions.
Social Engineering for Progress
“Radicalism vs. Liberalism: C. Wright Mills' Critique of John Dewey's Ideas.” American Journal of Economics and Sociology 37 (October 1978): 413–430.
C. Wright Mills errs both in his claim that Dewey's instrumentalism fails to stress and criticize the structure of liberal society, and in assuming that Dewey was unwilling to change that society to work for progress and social development.
Dewey's instrumentalist philosophy seeks truth not in the mind's objective and speculative grasp of reality but in the practical way of judging truth by whether it “works,” whether its consequences are valuable to society. Dewey's pragmatic version of truth shapes his ideas about man and society. Dewey thought that man must associate with others to achieve life, full development, “growth,” and progress. Through scientific method Dewey sought to evaluate such human associations by the standard of their social effects and consequences.
The state enters when such associations are judged to be hindering “growth” and social progress. Not simply an umpire, that state more positively aims to reorder those associations in order to achieve social development. State action in education is contenanced by Dewey when parents have not been able to educate their offspring. State education would prepare future citizens to maintain conditions conducive to progress.
It is true that Dewey lacked a vision of an immutable social order or ultimate good society. New conditions rendered outmoded the old principles that governed failed societies. But Dewey had clear ideas about what was not “good” or not “working” in his own society. Among the cultural conditions that he judged were blocking progress were big business and modern industrialism (with its alleged overproduction in the midst of poverty). Individualism Old and New (1930), written in the critical period of the Depression, expressed Dewey's preference for socialism (as a “socially planned and ordered development”) over capitalism (“a blind, chaotic and unplanned determinism”). Although critical of Roosevelt as not radical enough to satisfy the socialistic ideal, Dewey (in Edward Bordeau's words) applauded the New Deal as “greatly under the influence of his instrumentalism and pragmatism even if this pragmatism was more ad hoc and headless than his own.”
Progress in Economics
“Progress in Economic Life.” In Trial and Error and the Idea of Progress. LaSalle, Illinois and London: Open Court, 1978, pp. 123–156.
Thomas S. Kuhn alleged that our notion of progress correlates with science but this leaves “progress” unexplained. To attribute progress to science is straightforward because it is oriented toward an accepted end of greater ability to predict the observed universe. “Progress” is only intelligible in terms of aims, and wherever those aims are agreed upon (e.g., in science, but also in games, say golf), progress is most readily ascribable.
Attributing progress to a society is difficult, however, because of its members' unshared or changing aims. General progress can be claimed when advancement occurs toward one objective that most members of a society share; or a group can be said to make progress if its members, pursuing individual objectives, simultaneously approach them. The second kind of progress is possible (except in cases of coincidence) only if individuals' aims are self-referring, or do not require that others fulfill some objective. We can in this sense speak of collective progress. However, progress must be evaluated with respect to individual aims. Then, if only some but not all members of a group “progress” (in achieving their individual aims), there will be no common scale—because no common objective—enabling us to judge that the advance of some compensates for the regress of others (contra the utilitarians).
Individuals have personal, and disparate, economic aims. A society's economic progress amounts to most members advancing toward those aims. Self-referring economic aims tend to be comparative (a better house, a more efficient car) and thus achievable simultaneously by many individuals (since total wealth is not fixed).
As scientists improve their predictive power over nature by testing models and selecting better alternatives, business people improve consumer satisfaction by testing new and better products and processes in the market, where consumer preference is the ultimate test. In a market situation, individual competitive proposals and elimination of inadequacy thus increase consumer satisfaction. Such a system also allows for the pursuit of nonmaterial ends because it demands fewer resources for self-sufficiency.
Some claim that centrally directed economies eliminate waste and inefficiency implied in the market economy's testing of alternatives. But just as in science, only comparative testing shows which theory to prefer (so the scientist must “waste” time and resources on a later-to-be-rejected theory), so with economic goods, processes, and resource allocation: only testing shows which is preferable. To eliminate “wastage” is to eliminate the possibility of progress.
Some object that the market system emphasizes self-seeking. But the system does not generate ends; it merely excels at allowing pursuit of particular ends, whether individual or social, material or nonmaterial.
The market system is morally neutral since it allocates rewards on the basis of economic, not moral, worth. Some criticize this as unfair, but any attempt to impose moral ends on the economic system means frustrating some individuals from fulfilling their economic ends. Since ideological aims in the economic sphere are not self-referring, they cannot be pursued without disappointing personal aims. This frustrates consumer satisfaction and the fulfillment of noneconomic as well as individual objectives.