Third hand thoughts on George Santanaya

Has been a long time since I’ve blogged here, but decided I should start regurgitating some of my reading, pooping instead of just eating as someone put it. Have picked up a copy of John Gray’s Gray’s Anatomy as an attempt to get back into some solid thinking before I try to dig up the five foot shelf again on my Kindle, and hit chapter 3 about George Santanaya, who I’ve heard about, but don’t know enough about, and was struck by some of his (reported) thoughts on liberalism. My half translated interpretation of his thinking below:

Progress and Time Worship

“What is excluded in Santanaya’s moral conception is, in short, progress.” For me, the important thing here is he is talking about moral progress, not technical progress. I work in a technology field, and it’s the perfect example of things getting better. Faster computers, smaller phones, etc, etc, but this is not what it’s about.

“The idea of progress involves a sort of time worship“. In other words, as soon as you take a time perspective, things start to become valued for what they leading to rather than what they are, a means rather than an end, and that starts to make it possible to justify just about anything. And as we all have experienced, once we hav a fast computer, or a big screen TV, we immediately start to wonder if maybe it’s possible to make a faster one, a bigger one, or an even funnier cat GIF. As ooposed to something like art or entertainment – is this year’s John Lewis Christmas ad better than last years?

Progress becomes defined as physical, in part because that’s an easy way to experience that belief. Looking out into the world and seeing things constantly bigger, faster, more connected, it becomes impossible to see it any other way than as progress. This definition of progress makes it become self-defining, self fulfilling.

Of course, in technology, like fashion, change needs to happen, or what’s the point. people are after something new or novel. Twitter changing favourites to likes is an example of a change that has upset and existing ecosystem and messing with their value system to make something more commercial. It made a lot of noise in certain areas, but is it progress? I’m not sure it is. Companies reorganise constantly, centralise, decentralise, centralise, decentralise, it’s a cycle (or a circle), rarely is it progression. Sometimes the change is deemed good, and is kept, other times it’s bad and reverted, but either way, there’s no necessary progression, it’s just something different, and as something changes, so do expectations and desires around it and we move on to the next new thing, for better or worse.

Perscriptive Liberalism

The related issue Santanya takes with liberalism is that is it supposed to be about freedom, yet quickly becomes prescriptive when people try to push an agenda for the right kind of freedom. John Stuart Mill defined freedom as freedom to do what you like if it doesn’t harm others.

But the most earnest liberals are telling people what they need to do to make progress in this life, to make progress as a society. They are willing to use laws to make this happen. Should people be able to “protect” others from the consequences of the freedom they are trying to promote if it heads in a direction they don’t like.

All this seems to make instant intuitive sense, but the pain of thinking through issues is that as soon as you try to take a concrete example, things suddenly become less concrete. Smoking falls under the personal freedom banner, but it does have impacts on other people. As does global warming and most other issues I can think of.

Progress and Technology

More from John Gray on technology and progress, this time from his essay, Joseph Conrad: Our Contemporary

The core of the belief in progress is that human values and goals converge in parallel with our increasing knowledge. The twentieth century shows the contrary. Human beings use the power of scientific knowledge to assert and defend the values and goals they already have. New technologies can be used to alleviate suffering and enhance freedom. They can and will be used to wage war and strengthen tyranny.

Which brings me back to the dangers of progress being equated with technology, because a lot of the time technology is not bringing us the big or powerful things, it’s turned to the mundane. Like so many things in this Twitter-shaped world, entertainment is only a click away and fortunes have been made from not making people think to hard. We may never have had it so good, but I’ve seen a lot of writing recently about the lack of a moral purpose, with people devoting lives to inconsequential things to make money, how the 1950s visions of the science fiction visions of exploring new planets and creating new societies and generally saving the world have fallen away and are replaced with more mundane visions.

Allen Ginsberg may have seen the best minds of his generations destroyed, but they were destroyed in a hell of a lot more exciting way than by being diverted to find fulfillment in creating a better chat tool, or making a faster computer that can capitalise on high frequency trading.


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