Tuesday, August 5, 2014

"Progress"

.... The phrase seeks to win an argument by not having one. It says, “Your ideas are so laughably backward, they don’t deserve to be taken seriously. In time everyone will be embarrassed who ever held to them.”

No doubt, the “wrong side of history” retort is rhetorically powerful. But it also happens to be intellectually bankrupt. What’s wrong with the phrase? At least three things.

First, the phrase assumes a progressive view of history that is empirically false and as a methodology has been thoroughly discredited. Today’s historians often warn against “Whig history,” a phrase coined by Herbert Butterfield in 1931 which has come to refer to historiography which assumes the past has been an inexorable march from darkness to light and from ignorance into enlightenment. Whig history has in common with Marxist views of history a confidence in the rationality of man and the inevitability of progress. But of course, history is never that neat and knowing the future is never that easy. The Whiggish approach, with its presumption of enlightenment and progress, is not the best way to understand the past and not by itself an adequate way to make sense of the present. .... [more]