Sunday, 19 August 2012


By Alice Guile

When we hear the word ‘progress’ we will all conjure up slightly different images in our heads. Businessmen will think of progress in terms of profits and market share. Scientists will see it in terms of new discoveries. Writers and artists will see it as the continual pushing back of the boundaries of culture. But what is progress to a philosopher?

I recently watched a program that was recommended to me by my friend Luke Davies, called ‘Surviving Progress’. At the beginning of it various philosophers and intellectuals were asked the question ‘What is progress’, and it was a question that none of them could successfully answer. I will however make my own attempt to explore this intriguing question.  I think one very interesting way for a philosopher to look at the idea of progress is to look at in terms of a fairly new idea, called ‘the raising of consciousness’.  At first glance this can be mistaken for that phrase so commonly used by charities and non-profit organisations, ‘raising awareness’. But it is much more than that. The idea of the raising of consciousness was pioneered by women’s groups in the 1960’s, and formed part of the gay rights movement. The idea was to open people’s minds to the life of ‘the other’, to help people to see the bigger picture, be that that women and men have the right to be treated as equals, or that somebody should not be considered worth more or less according to their sexual orientation.

The idea of what the ‘raising of consciousness’ is a very difficult one, as most subjects in philosophy are. The best way to try and understand it is this. Imagine someone three hundred years ago; imagine talking to them about homophobia, gender and racial equality, or human right’s issues. The majority of people would find the average person living two hundred years… small minded. For example they might not be able to ‘see’ like we can that slavery is wrong. Why? Because they may fail to have the ability to imagine what it would be like to enslaved, to have a different colour skin, and because the people behind the abolition had not yet come along and raised peoples consciousness by bringing the plight of slaves to their attention. Raising consciousness is partly about education, but it is far more than that. It is not so much about knowing facts and figures as about being ‘open minded’ and being able to empathise with ‘the other’, about having the imagination to put yourself in the shoes of someone who is different to you.

And this is what philosophers should look at as progress. That doesn’t mean that we should reject the more traditional ideas of progress such as the industrialisation of a country, an increase in profits of GDP. On the contrary we should see all types of progress as being linked with the raising of consciousness. Because what might that slave owner lack that prevents him from feeling empathy with his slaves? Imagination. The imagination to see more than just the inside of his own head, the imagination to understand what it must feel like to be treated as an object. And what causes a company to create a new product, which increases their profits? Imagination.  The raising of consciousness and imagination are inexplicably linked, as are material progress such as China’s economic progress, and immaterial progress, such as the increased awareness of human rights.

If raising our consciousnesses is what has brought both ethical and economic progress in the past then it stands to reason that it is something that should be encouraged. In the past we have been raising our consciousnesses without realising we are doing it, but we are beginning to become more aware of this process. It is interesting for a philosopher to wonder about the ways in which our generation might be described as being small minded by someone born three hundred years in the future, in the same was as we would view the opinions of someone born in 1700. People say that 2012 marks the beginning of a new era, and perhaps that will be that rather than the process of the gradual raising of consciousness just happening, we will become aware that it is happening, and indeed facilitate it, so that the whole process is speeded up, who know. But one thing is for sure, and that is the we need to think seriously about the ways in which we would see that Georgian person as being prejudiced, then look at our own prejudices and try to change them. Thus, we open our minds a little wider. 

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