What are we to understand by progress? Does it even exist, and, if so, is it a Good Thing? This is the theme of O'Hear's new book. His answers to these questions will displease quite a few readers, for he is deeply critical of many of the ideas and beliefs that shape most people's thinking today, but there is no doubt that he makes a good many telling points.
Much of the book is unashamedly historical; indeed, it is his view that we have unwisely abandoned and rejected the values of previous views that a benign social order must rest on more than human foundations. Subsequent chapters consider the impact of Darwin, Marx, and Freud, all of whom, in their different ways, have contributed to the modern rejection of traditional values that O'Hear deplores.
Not all past philosophers have been convinced of the reality of progress, and O'Hear discusses some representatives of this minority but nevertheless very influential opinion. Both Plato and Aristotle expressed views that would be considered reactionary today, and so did Augustine. Nietzsche was no friend to modernity and he also attacked what he termed the Socratic position which holds that knowledge can be identified with virtue. O'Hear seems to hold a very similar view of knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, for he says that seeking truth at all costs can easily become a pretext for brash iconoclasm and corrosive pan-skepticism. At this point he comes close to saying that there are some questions we would do better not to ask.
Throughout the book O'Hear makes criticisms of modern society in passing, but in his final chapter he looks in more detail at where we stand today in relation to religion, philosophy, art, education, psychology, politics, sport, and the media. In all these areas, he thinks, we have if anything regressed, and it is hard to disagree with many of the examples he cites. But what, if anything, should we do about it all?
It's difficult not to feel that O'Hear pulls his punches a little at this point. He himself poses the question: 'What is to be done?' and answers: 'Nothing. Nothing is to be done. That is the short answer, but also the deep answer.' What he means by this is that we should acknowledge the inevitability of death, sickness, disappointment, and other sources of suffering that cannot be eradicated by politics or psychological counselling. These are part of life, just as much as happiness, but the whole trend of modern thinking takes us away from this recognition and encourages us to believe that there must be a technological fix for every problem. This, he insists, is a major and egregious error, and I agree. But does it follow that we should give up on medical research and attempts to improve public health?
At first glance O'Hear might seem to be advising a modern version of Stoicism: since you can't change these things, better grin and bear them with whatever fortitude you can muster. But it is not, in fact, Stoicism that he is advocating, although only in the final couple of pages does he make more or less clear what he has been hinting at throughout the book: that we need to rely on Divine assistance. We must come to see the world 'as animated by some higher quasi-personal purpose, operating through and behind the material processes revealed and studied by natural science… Enlightenment must give way to humility: sapere aude, dare to know, has to cede to silence and to waiting.'
I found myself agreeing with many of the points that O'Hear makes, yet I couldn't go along with all his conclusions. It would be possible for a hostile critic to sum up his argument, not wholly unfairly, as a plea for us to close our eyes to unpleasant reality and to take refuge in myths. To this he would no doubt reply that the reality in question is partly bogus; science, or rather scientism, has imposed a distorted and partial view of the world and our place within it. He seems to imply that progress in science, as in other aspects of our culture, is partly illusory. Perhaps he is right, but I tend to think that the real problem we face is rather that we are unable to accommodate the scientific world view psychologically; in T.S. Eliot's words, 'Human kind cannot bear very much reality.' I would wholly accept the need to avoid facile optimism and to face the existence of suffering with fortitude, but I am unconvinced of the possibility of Divine intervention. I am also not convinced that we can, or should, set limits on the kinds of questions we ask.
Whatever one's feelings about O'Hear's arguments may be, this is a book that demands to be read, and perhaps especially by those who are most inclined to disagree. And at least it has the merit of being comprehensible; O'Hear is a professional philosopher, but his writing is refreshingly jargon-free; whether you agree with him or not, at least you can be sure that you understand what he is saying.