Monday, April 16, 2012

Could civilization be maintained without progress?

Adventures of IdeasA couple of weeks ago I quoted Friedrich Hayek: ‘In one sense, civilization is progress and progress is civilization’. Hayek provided a Cf reference to J S Mill’s ‘Representative Government’, but I don’t think the connection between civilization and ongoing progress comes through nearly as strongly in anything Mill wrote as in Alfred North Whitehead’s book ‘Adventures of Ideas’, published in1933.

I was prompted to take a look at Whitehead’s book by a recent comment by Jim Belshaw that Whitehead had an enormous influence on his thinking as a young man because he seemed to show a process of change in which combinations of ideas could, with time, create civilisation (Personal Reflections blog, March 31). Since then I have seen several other favourable references to Whitehead, including in Frederick Turner’s book, ‘Culture of Hope’, discussed recently on this blog.

‘Adventures of Ideas’ is largely about the link between civilization and progress (even though the word ‘progress’ doesn’t actually appear in the index). The following quote seems to me to capture the essence of that link as perceived by A N Whitehead:
‘The history of ideas is a history of mistakes. But through all mistakes it is also the history of the gradual purification of conduct. When there is progress in the development of favourable order, we find conduct protected from relapse into brutalization by the increasing agency of ideas consciously entertained. In this way Plato is justified in his saying. The creation of the world – that is to say, the world of civilized order – is the victory of persuasion over force’. (p 25)

At one point, Whitehead defines civilization as ‘the maintenance of social order, by its own inherent persuasiveness’. He suggests that ‘recourse to force, however, unavoidable, is a disclosure of the failure of civilization, either in the general society or in a remnant of individuals’. He views commerce, broadly defined, as an important example of intercourse between individuals and social groups that takes place by persuasion rather than by force.

Later in the book, Whitehead presents a more complex definition of civilization: ‘that a civilized society is exhibiting the five qualities of Truth, Beauty, Adventure, Art, Peace’. (p 274) He views the fine arts as an important element of civilization, but (unlike Kenneth Clark in his famous TV series) he makes clear that civilization is more than appreciation of the fine arts.
By peace, Whitehead means ‘a quality of mind steady in its reliance that fine action is treasured in the nature of things’. In his later explanation he suggests that the concept of peace that he is looking for is a ‘Harmony of Harmonies, which shall bind together the other four qualities, so as to exclude from our notion of civilization the restless egotism with which they have often in fact been pursued’. It is clear from his subsequent explanation that he is referring to an inner peace that involves a surpassing of personal interest.

Where does goodness fit into Whitehead’s concept of civilization? Is a civilized person a good person? Is a civilized society a good society? He doesn’t seem to answer these questions explicitly. He rejects the idea that the arts should strive for goodness as well as truth and beauty, but in viewing civilization as a process involving ‘the gradual purification of conduct’ he must see a civilized society as being in the process of becoming good, or better.

If there is any point in this discussion where it might be appropriate for me to mention my irritation at Whitehead’s writing style, it is here. Many passages in the book are full of mind-numbing sequences of capitalized words that seem to me to hinder rather than to help understanding of the ideas being presented. For example:
‘The attainment of Truth belongs to the essence of Peace. By this is meant, that the intuition constituting the realization of Peace has its objective that Harmony whose interconnections involve Truth. A defect in Truth is a limitation to Harmony. There can be no secure efficacy in the Beauty which hides within itself the dislocations of falsehood’. 
The author might mean that truth-seeking promotes inner peace, and vice versa. But he could be attempting to convey deeper thoughts. Who knows?

Now, back to Progress! In my view the most important contribution of Whitehead’s book is his explanation that Adventure is integral to civilization.  Whitehead argues that no static maintenance of perfection is possible:
 ‘Thus in every civilization we see at its culmination a large measure of realization of a certain type of perfection. … The culmination can maintain itself at its height so long as fresh experimentation within the type is possible. But when these minor variations are exhausted, one of two things must happen. Perhaps the society in question lacks creative force. Staleness then sets in. Repetition produces a gradual lowering of vivid appreciation. Convention dominates. A learned orthodoxy suppresses adventure. … There remains the show of civilization without any of its realities.
There is an alternative to this slow decline. … In that case a quick period of transition may set in, which may or may not be accompanied by dislocations that involve widespread unhappiness. … These quick transitions are only possible when thought has run ahead of realization. … The world dreams of things to come and then in due season arouses itself to their realization’. (p 277 – 279)

Whitehead emphasized the importance of liberty of thought and action to the ‘upward adventure of life on this Earth’.

At the end of the book, Whitehead suggests that the concept of civilization remains inherently incomplete. He seems to be suggesting that advancing civilizations must continually re-define the concept for themselves. In that regard, it is interesting to speculate whether Alfred North Whitehead would define the characteristics of civilization differently today, in the light of changes that have occurred in the last 80 years. My guess is that he would, perhaps, feel inclined to put greater emphasis on the importance of loving kindness and reverence for life in all its forms.


Jim Belshaw said...

Interesting post, Winton. Given the length of time since I read the book, I wondered what my reactions would be too it now. Still positive, I imagine. I didn't actually notice the English style issues when I read it.

Winton Bates said...

On reflection, I think his writing style might stem from his philosophy and method of analysis. I don't pretend to know much about this but his analysis seems to be based heavily on definition of concepts.

Nigel Reading said...

Constructal Theory is the behaviour of progress, whilst the Asynsis Principle is it's geometry. For an architectural perspective on nature's dynamical beauty and elegance (made in parallel to Adrian Bejan's work), please refer to
Nigel Anthony Reading RIBA

Winton Bates said...

Thanks Nigel.
The concepts you are describing on your site are difficult for me to understand. Some practical examples might help to explain the points you are making to a wider audience (assuming that is your aim).

Lori said...

I find a little frightening the possibility that the maintenance of civilization requires constant progress; almost, but not quite, as frightening as the prospect of civilization requiring constant economic growth. Some advocates of steady state economics (with which I'm largely in agreement) point out that while growth in the size of the economy is probably not sustainable, growth in its level of sophistication or level of technology may be sustainable and may indeed be necessary. This I generally find to be cause for optimism, and if 'progress' is similar to 'development' (to the extent that development can be decoupled from growth, anyway) I can go along with civilization being something that runs on progress.

It should be noted that I'm agnostic on the question of whether civilization is a good thing (let alone whether a civilized society is a good society). While I'm certainly not a primitivist, I find inescapable the conclusion that civilization is akin to domestication. I think of a civilized society not so much as a good society as a cultivated society (cultivated is to plants as domesticated is to animals). In that spirit, I declare that, in contrast to competition, civilization is "a delicate flower, not a hardy weed."

Perhaps there really is a trade-off between freedom and flourishing, although I find somewhat persuasive the ample evidence to the contrary that you present here. Then again, perhaps progress is what pushes the envelope, expands the efficiency frontier, of the freedom/flourishing tradeoff.

Winton Bates said...

It is interesting that a substantial part of growth in per capita GDP is attributable to growth in total factor productivity, which is in turn linked to technological progress i.e. the advance of knowledge. It seems to me that it might be inconsistent to advocate steady state economics while being in favour of the ongoing advance of knowledge.

Your idea that progress expands the efficiency frontier seems to be consistent with the views I am presenting in the draft of Chapter5 of the book I am writing. (Please follow the links on this page.) Near the end of the chapter I provide some evidence suggesting that for people in low-income countries who are interested in providing greater opportunities for human flourishing, the relative merits of U.S. and Swedish models is largely beside the point.

Winton Bates said...

I wanted to add something relating to the question of whether civilization is a delicate flower. Perhaps it is a delicate flower, but it seems to keep coming back despite attempts to eradicate it. I need to think more about the question(and finish reading Steven Pinker's 'Better Angels ... 'book) before responding properly.

However, I don't think it is valid to view competition as being in contrast to civilization. It seems to me that norms of peaceful competition (as distinct from war, theft, zero sum competition for political favours etc) are close to the essence of civilization.

Lori said...

Relatively peaceful competition. Different from [war, theft, "politics"] in degree not kind. Perhaps a compromise between war and peace. Friendly competition would be amateur athletic competition, not competition over survival, or market "niche."

Winton Bates said...

If we start pretending that attempting to obtain a competitive edge over a business rival by, say, introducing a new low cost technology is similar in kind to such acts as threatening violence against him, we will soon be heading back to barbarism.

I don't want to pretend that market competition does not involve a large element of disruption to the lives of many people and provide them with choices that seem unpalatable. The question we should be asking is whether better outcomes are possible under alternative institutional arrangements.