This post is in response to Hippo’s call for academic, historical, critical, and/or cultural essays that our readers might possibly “have lying around.” Is that you? Email for a chance to be featured here.

In the last article I suggested that the modern age began with the realization of the possibility of genuinely new, previously unimagined knowledge and with it the developing notion of Progress.

This idea means that civilization has moved, is moving, and will move in a desirable direction. —
The Idea of Progress, J.B. Bury (1920)

Every time it is mentioned the ambition and the certainty grows:

…every age of the world has increased, and still increases, the real wealth, the happiness, the knowledge and perhaps the virtue of the human race. —Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon (1784)

…no man who is correctly informed as to the past will be disposed to take a morose or desponding view of the present. —The History of England from the Accession of James II, Thomas Macaulay (1848)

So man is approaching a more complete fulfillment of that great and sacred mission which he has to perform in this world. …to conquer nature to his use… —Prince Albert in a speech given to promote the Great Exhibition (1851)

It is an uncompromising message – “Get with the program, people!” – that has had some dreadful and still unresolved consequences which are beyond the scope of this article.

Because having established this new direction a problem arises: if those we call the ancients are in fact the youth of the world, and remembering that our culture has been promised and is expecting an end of days, how old are we and how long have we got left?

Sir Thomas Browne was in no doubt that we were well past half way:

The number of the dead long exceedeth all that shall live. The night of time far surpasseth the day, and who knows when was the equinox? —Hydriotaphia (1658)

The time scale available was vastly increased by the discovery of “deep time,” well expressed by the geologist James Hutton:

…no vestige of a beginning – no prospect of an end. —Theory of the Earth (1785)

(Note a reappearance of grand world cycles by the uniformitarian Hutton.)

“Deep time” is closely allied to the discovery, most notably by Caroline and William Herschel, of “deep space.” At its simplest the first inkling of deep space is realizing that stars which are less bright than others might just be farther away.

Beautifully stated in the Irish sitcom where Ted uses some plastic toy cows to explain to Dougal:

OK, one last time. These are small… but the ones out there are far away. —Father Ted Linehan and Mathews (1996)

Similarly nebulae might differ in appearance because they are the same phenomenon at different stages of development over a vastly extended time scale.

It now becomes possible to conceive a very distant horizon:

The past is but the beginning of a beginning, and all that is or has been is but the twilight of the dawn. —The Discovery of the Future, H.G. Wells (1901)

But such a long view is not easy. J.B. Bury describes one of the psychological obstacles to the idea of progress as “The Illusion of Finality”- the feeling that present knowledge is more or less complete. There may be gaps, but we know where they are – it’s just a matter of filling them in.

It is the illusion of finality that led Dr. Johnson to write:

The trade of advertising is now so near to perfection, that it is not easy to propose any improvement. —The Idler (1759)

It is the overthrow of the illusion of finality that we see in this account:

My brother had, in 1720 or 1721, begun to print a newspaper. It was the second that appeared in America, and was called the New England Courant. The only one before it was the Boston News-Letter. I remember his being dissuaded by some of his friends from the undertaking, as not being likely to succeed, one newspaper being, in their judgment, enough for America. —Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography (1791)

It is surely a continuing illusion of finality which led one enthusiast to suggest that humanity had reached the end point of its ideological evolution, positing:

The triumph of the West, of the Western idea, is evident first of all in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism. —The End of History?, Francis Fukuyama (1989)

Mr. Fukuyama might not have made such a fool of himself had he taken notice of Bury:

It is quite easy to fancy a state of society, vastly different from ours, existing in some unknown place like heaven; it is much more difficult to realize as a fact that the order of things with which we are familiar has so little stability that our actual descendants may be born into a world as different from ours as ours is from that of our ancestors of the pleistocene age. —The Idea of Progress (1920)

Progress’s model of utility replaces Ovid’s model of decline in purity – gold, silver, bronze, iron. We can mark progress in material technology – stone, bronze, iron etc. Similarly in energy we have man power, horse power, water power, wind power, steam power, electricity and so on. In transport we have feet, hooves, wheels, sails, propellers and jet engines. These linear models of development are found in all sorts of disciplines:

We move from primitive hunter-gatherers, via the domestication of animals and plants, to agrarian cultures which are organised in tribes, then states. Those states move from agriculture to industry, control of them from despotism to democracy. Along the way we see the development of technologies – ceramics, metallurgy, textiles, architecture, bringing with them the beginnings of science. Religions move from animism to pantheism then monotheism. Language leads to writing then literature.

“Progress” means that this process is inevitable. Division of labour enables individuals and societies to satisfy their necessities efficiently and thereby create a surplus which is spent developing civilization.

Linear models of development are very popular but not always accurate – one can often almost hear uncomfortable facts being squeezed into theory.

And the survival of models which originated in the supremacist attitudes of the nineteenth century is disquieting, especially when we consider how pervasive they are. For example, Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man (re-issued in 2011 with an introduction by Richard Dawkins.) Although Bronowski is well aware of stops and starts of civilization the book is imbued with the inevitability of increasing knowledge and the inference that this increase follows a certain line. Speaking of the Inca civilization he notes:

…on the roads there were no wheels, under the bridges there were no arches, the messages were not in writing, The culture of the Incas had not made these inventions by the year AD1500. That is because civilization in America started several thousand years late, and was conquered before it had time to make all the inventions of the Old World.

Note that Bronowski, a scientist by trade, does not supply any evidence for his assertion – he states the opinion with absolute certainty. He does admit to being puzzled by the Greeks’ failure to conceive an arch but suspects that it awaited the arrival of the Romans – a “more practical and plebeian culture.”

A possible explanation of the popularity of linear models comes from an unexpected angle:

In 1984 the American anthropologist Misia Landau asked the provocative question, “Can science use literary theory?” in an article in American Scientist entitled “Human Evolution as Narrative.” She noted that many scientific theories and even lab reports “bear at least a superficial resemblance to a typical narrative, that is, an organized sequence of events with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Whether or not scientists follow such a narrative structure in their work, they do not often recognize the extent to which they use narrative in their thinking and in communicating their ideas.”

Landau illustrates her argument by comparing several early 20th century accounts of human evolution using the methods of the Russian formalist scholar Vladimir Propp.

To paraphrase: our weak and feeble hero (early man) moves from his primitive existence as a tree dwelling ape and confronts a series of challenges (competition, the Ice Age) before winning through by use of his special weapons (bipedalism, brain size, tool use) and achieves the prize (civilisation, reason, morality).

Landau’s point is not just to raise awareness of a possibly unnoticed narrative bias – she goes so far as to suggest that textual analysis could “provide a basis for comparing conceptual differences between theories.”

Other scientific accounts of the past contain features of narrative: they are an assemblage of events ordered into a meaningful totality. But as Landau points out: “Selecting events and arranging them sequentially involves considerations of causality as well as of chronology.” Tree-dwelling, bipedalism, tool use etc are accepted scientific facts but the story can be told differently depending on the order and importance given to each element.

Bronowski’s account is an unashamed hero tale. Certainly a great deal of the source material for the study of innovation from creativity to entrepreneurship is stories very reminiscent of folktales.

Not that folklore should be dismissed. For one pioneer in the field it “summed up all that passed for wisdom when the world was young.”

After all, what we call truth is only the hypothesis which is found to work best. —The Golden Bough, J.G. Frazer (1890)

Nevertheless it is more than a little alarming that the way we arrange the evidence may depend on patterns of storytelling as old as humanity itself. Because narratives depend not upon the quality or quantity of the material:

It is the consistency of the information that matters for a good story, not its completeness. Indeed, you will often find that knowing little makes it easier to fit everything you know into a coherent pattern. —Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman (2011)

Although they may argue about the details, optimists seldom seem to doubt but that progress is a “good thing.” In doing so they betray the reality that the notion of progress, like the other two world-views is not subject to any form of absolute proof. As J.B. Bury says:

…the Progress of humanity belongs to the same order of ideas as Providence or personal immortality. It is true or it is false, and like them it cannot be proved either true or false. Belief in it is an act of faith.

And so an Enlightenment belief in the triumph of reason over faith is an act of faith itself. In 1930 those enlightened historians Sellar and Yeatman (who, incidentally also posited an end of history) remarked, “Nowadays people are not so pious, even sinners being denied the benefits of fervent Religion.” That opinion reflects Matthew Arnold’s “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the sea of faith. But fervent religion is not going quietly. Some of us fear that the Enlightenment has been undermined by a combination of tolerance and complacency leaving it under threat, hanging on the rusty nail of reason. We can hope that the historian Ibn Khaldun (732 A.H.) is correct: “At the end of a dynasty, there often also appears some show of power that gives the impression that the senility of the dynasty has been made to disappear. It lights up brilliantly just before it is extinguished, like a burning wick the flame of which leaps up brilliantly a moment before it goes out, giving the impression it is just starting to burn, when in fact it is going out.” But we do not know!

Making progress when the destination is unknown is the subject of the final part of this essay.

Featured image courtesy of Flickr.

About The Author

Avatar photo

Paul Kirkham is a Researcher in the field of entrepreneurial creativity at the Haydn Green Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Nottingham University Business School. Prior to joining the institute he worked for 35 years in the manufacturing industry.