John Gray, David Hawkes and the Myth of Progress

September 15, 2013 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

John Gray is a British social philosopher who, in the words of David Hawkes, puts forward an “uncompromising challenge to the myth of progress.” Hawkes (an English professor at Arizona State) has recently published an essay, “Backwards into the future” in the TLS (8-30-2013) which is a sympathetic presentation of Gray’s views and a review of his latest book, “The Silence of Animals: On progress and other modern myths.” What is Gray’s challenge all about.
Gray’s new book is an attack on “meliorism”– which Hawkes explains as the view “that the moral and material condition of humanity will improve over time” and that its improvement is, in the long run, inevitable. Defined this way “meliorism” will be easy to attack. Conjoining “moral” and “material” conditions with “and” rather than “and/or” and adding “inevitability” suggests that meliorism is some form of utopian dream and indeed a myth.
But not all philosophers use this straw man definition of meliorism. Much more useful is the definition given, for example, in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Meliorism “is the view that the world is neither completely good nor completely bad, and that incremental progress or regress depend on human actions.” This view holds that “By creative intelligence and education we can improve the environment and social conditions.”
Meliorism is the possibility that humans can make some progress towards improving the world but regress is also possible at times, and there is no guarantee of success since human actions cannot be predicted with inevitability. Under capitalism, for example, human actions are guided by competition and the profit motive and lead to socially destructive behaviors with respect to the environment and other people who are seen as objects to be manipulated for economic gain. Meliorism in such a system would not seem to have much chance of success in the long run, although in some parts of the world progress in scientific understanding and disease control can be discerned.
The Wikipedia article on “Meliorism” points out that this view is the basis on which the values of liberal democracy, human rights, and liberalism as a political philosophy are founded. I should also add that Marxism and other forms of socialism are likewise indebted to Meliorism but do not think the meliorist project can really get underway, or can get underway only with great difficulty, under capitalism or in under developed parts of the world where meliorist social projects, including socialism, are attempted in the face of capitalist hegemony.
Hawkes praises Gray for his “bold effort” to “exorcize” the “spectre of progress.” This “spectre” presents itself in “the guises of Enlightenment rationalism, Romantic individualism, liberal humanism, nationalism, Marxism, and neo-liberal capitalism.” Only the kitchen sink seems to be missing.
But I think Hawkes indulges in overkill. He attacks the uses to which science has been put in the last century and gives as negative examples the two world wars, the Holocaust and Hiroshima (all done under the aegis of capitalism). He says science is misused, perhaps, due to a defect in its methods and thinks “we may well ask whether such uses are not in some way inherent in the scientific method that enables them.”
I don’t know how many science courses English professors are required to take, but Gray’s target is not progress in science but the claim that there has been moral progress. In a talk he gave at an RSA conference in Britain, he stated that there has been progress in scientific understanding of the world from the time of Copernicus and he is not arguing against that, but he rejects claims of ethical and moral progress– the United States, for example, has reverted to the use of torture, a practice we had thought was extinct in advanced democracies and outlawed by all sorts of international agreements and conventions.
There is nothing “inherent” in scientific method, anymore than in mathematics, that leads to the Holocaust. The failure of morality that led to the Holocaust, or Hiroshima, or the Invasion of Iraq was not a failure of science. Science, as is mathematics, is neutral on moral questions and only seeks to describe how the world works in terms of natural processes. It is similar to the rules of chess.
Hawkes admits that Gray “never renounces belief in scientific truth” but still there are serious consequences resulting from an abandonment of belief in moral or ethical progress. The consequences Hawkes reports that Gray thinks follow from his rejection of moral progress are not “profoundly disturbing” as Hawkes maintains because they don’t really follow at all. Gray thinks it is worse to lose “faith” in progress than to lose it with respect to “God, reason or even science,” Hawkes writes.
We are told without the idea of progress we cannot see “meaning in life.” But this is just not true. Humanity makes itself by its choices and gives meaning to life by the commitments it undertakes. Sartre pointed this out before Gray was even born when he said “Whenever a man chooses his purpose and his commitment in all clearness and in all sincerity, whatever that purpose may be, it is impossible for him to prefer another. It is true in the sense that we do not believe in progress. Progress implies amelioration; but man is always the same, facing a situation which is always changing, and choice remains always a choice in the situation. The moral problem has not changed since the time when it was a choice between slavery and anti-slavery.” That there is no transcendental meaning to life does not mean there is no meaning at all.
We also have to abandon the idea that “empirical appearances conceal substantial essences.” This is nonsense. Discussions of empirical and substantial essences, or real and nominal essences, of Aristotle’s views or Locke’s for that matter are quite independent of one’s theory about “progress” one way or another.
Nor is it responsible for our having to give up the belief of a “soul” within the body. Materialism is responsible for this view– it goes back to Epicurus at least and is not dependent on Gray’s views about the myth of progress. Ryle’s The Concept of Mind, written when Gray was a toddler, deals with “the ghost in the machine” quite apart from notions of progress.
One can also reject the idea of progress independently of being either a neo-pragmatist or a postmodernist– it does not commit one to rejecting the view that signs refer to external reality.
Finally we are informed, incorrectly, that not having faith in progress means we “view the world as a depthless simulacrum with no underlying significance.” Wrong again. Not all cultures have produced philosophies based on the idea of progress. The Ancient Egyptians for one had no concept of progress in our Western sense yet they did not believe the world was a depthless simulacrum without significance.
Again, Sartre would maintain that we are responsible for creating our own significance in terms of the values we choose to live by. The world presented by science is the backdrop for our experiences and choices — it up to us to provide the significance. None of the above five so called “profoundly disturbing”consequences of rejecting the idea of moral progress are logical consequences of such a rejection.
This very conclusion that I have articulated is the one Hawkes indicates is shared by Gray himself. Hawkes writes that one of the conclusions of The Silence of Animals is: “The world can only have meaning conferred on it, or be deprived of it, by human beings.” But this conclusion does NOT logically follow from Gray’s thinking. He thinks we have arrived at this conclusion not because the world has changed but because the mind– i.e., “the twenty-first century mind” has changed. But this conclusion would be consistent with the views of mid twentieth century thinkers such as Sartre, among others so no new and startling “development in human history” is responsible.
Marxists would say that the dominant ideas in a culture are a reflection in the ideological superstructure of the social reality that the culture has created around its basic interaction with the natural world it finds itself in and especially with respect to its mode of extracting food and sustenance in order to sustain the living human beings that comprise it.
And while the scientific world view would question the idea of “eternal verities” with respect to the development of ethical and moral systems, if Gray’s views are correct about the world’s meaning, or lack of it, being dependent on human beings then– the very idea he rejects– that it is “not the discovery of an eternal verity about the world” (as Hawkes puts it) is incorrect. The only way it could be true that the “meaning of the world” is put there by the human mind is the fact that the world in and of itself has no transcendent meaning of its own– it never did and presumably never will– it is just atoms and the void– and this is certainly an eternal verity about the world and a necessary condition for Gray’s views to even make whatever sense they do make.
Hawkes questions whether Gray is correct in apparently thinking that life, even for people who think it has meaning, is still meaningless. Gray writes, “symbols are useful tools; but humans have an inveterate tendency to think and act as if the world they have made from those symbols actually exists.”
Hawkes, however, asks if this is really an “inveterate tendency” rather than [as Marxism suggests] the result of historical conditioning. We might think the word “fire” is a symbol for the speedy exothermic oxidation of combustive substances resulting in heat and light and we would not, I think, be wrong to hold that what the symbol represents “actually exists.” However, we might not have the same opinion as the ancient Greeks about “Zeus.” It is the job of science, and philosophy, to try and hook up the proper symbolism with the actually existing world.
We can pass over the next section of Hawkes essay where he discusses the problems of symbolism and signs as elaborated by Gray in an earlier work– FALSE DAWN ( 1998; 2nd edition, 2009). Here the discussion revolves around Gray’s use of economic examples to illustrate his theories and Hawkes seems to take Gray seriously when he does so. The problem is that Gray’s economic views (and Hawkes remarks about them) appear nonsensical. I base this not only trying to parse this discussion but also on Paul Krugman’s review of the second edition of FALSE DAWN. Krugman, who has a Nobel Prize in economics, thinks that Gray’s writings on the subject are the “garbled” views of an “ignoramus.” Krugman, however, writes that Gray didn’t need to show himself “to be an economic ignoramus, when his core argument does not really depend on economics anyway.”
Hawkes next deals with a contradiction in Gray’s position. Progress may be a myth, but “modernization inexorably occurs” [the spectre of progress under another name] Hawkes writes. We may claim not to find any meaning in history but history and change still go on. If the myth of progress is overcome and our understanding of the world is no longer perverted by it– is this not progress? Hawkes, I fear, may be a victim of dispirited English department post modernism when he writes, “If the Western intelligentsia no longer acknowledges any significance to life, that does not mean that we have discovered a timeless truth that had been hidden from Aristotle, Plato and the prophets of monotheism. It means that we can no longer see meaning where others once did.”
Well, I don’t think Hawkes speaks for the whole “Western intelligentsia.” As far as finding significance in history is concerned the “Western intelligentsia” would do well to ponder the following admonition from Hegel with regard to any scientific study and that is the categories we use to find significance or meaning in the world are the ones we ourselves bring with us and a thinker “sees the phenomena presented to his mental vision exclusively through these media.” From which he concludes that to a person “who looks upon the world rationally, the world in its turn, presents a rational aspect.”
And what do we find when we look at the world rationally– i.e., scientifically. We don’t find the world according to Plato or Aristotle or the prophets of monotheism. We find a universe about 13.8 billion years old, we know of life on one planet (so far), Earth, which is about 4.6 billion years old and, it seems, has had life for the last 3.6 billion years. Our species resulted non-providentially by a process of evolution by natural selection. So here we are and we have to make the most of it.
Do we see any significance or meaning in the history of our species. Hawkes seems to agree with Gray that it is irrational to believe in (moral and ethical) progress– he is very unimpressed by the twentieth century– but, he says, that doesn’t mean there is no meaning in history.
Hawkes proposes that the meaning of history is not progress but anti-progress– i.e., not ascent but decline. “History is not progress but regress, not advance but decline,and it leads to destruction rather than to utopia.” Gray would think this just as ridiculous as progress because for him the basic reality is that the animal man is an unchanging essence. In his book Straw Dogs, he writes “Humanism can mean many things, but for us it means belief in progress. To believe in progress is to believe that, by using the new powers given us by growing scientific knowledge, humans can free themselves from the limits that frame the lives of other animals. This is the hope of nearly everybody nowadays, but it is groundless. For though human knowledge will very likely continue to grow and with it human power, the human animal will stay the same: a highly inventive species that is also one of the most predatory and destructive.”
Hawkes writes that “Belief in historical regression is a far more challenging proposition than Gray’s assertion of insignificance.” It is challenging because it is ridiculous. What is history regressing from– Atlantis? Ancient Egypt? the Stone Age? At least Gray’s warmed over Schopenhauerian pessimism makes some sense where regression doesn’t.
Hawkes also seems to miss the point about the difference between moral progress and scientific progress. A world without polio or smallpox is a great scientific advancement and shows that we can make progress in disease control and understanding nature. If there are areas where polio still breaks out, mostly in the underdeveloped world, it is a moral crisis not a scientific one. If capitalists demand money and profit for medicines it is a moral crisis not a scientific one.
When Hawkes writes, “It is relatively easy to admit that what we have seen as scientific advancement and economic enrichment are meaningless” he is missing the whole point of what science is all about. It is not meaningless to fight against malaria, yellow fever and other infectious diseases. Pasteur was not engaged in a meaningless exercise when he discovered how to prevent rabies, nor was Koch when he discovered the cause of tuberculosis.
Hawkes ends his essay by remarking that we may soon have to consider the fact that scientific advance and economic enrichment (two inherently different activities indiscriminately lumped together) are “actively evil and destructive.” This is like calling cooking evil because some people over eat and get sick. Did cooking make them sick?
I will give the last word to Bertrand Russell who sums up all that anyone will get out Hawkes’ essay or Gray’s books as far as positive knowledge is concerned. “Change is one thing, progress is another. ‘Change’ is scientific, ‘progress’ is ethical; change is indubitable, where as progress is a matter of controversy” (Unpopular Essays, 1951).

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This post was written by Thomas Riggins

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