Social Process

Chapter 34: The Tentative Character of Progress

Charles Horton Cooley

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CANNOT accept the view that progress is nothing more or other than the growth of intelligent control. No doubt this is a large part of it; an enlightened and organized public will is, perhaps, our most urgent need; but, after all, life is more than intelligence, and a conception that exalts this alone is sure to prove inadequate. Progress must be at least as many-faceted as the life we already know. Moreover, it is one of those ideas, like truth, beauty and right, which have an outlook upon the infinite, and cannot, in the nature of the case, be circumscribed by a definition.

The truth is that it is often one of the requisites of progress that we trust to the vague, the instinctive, the emotional, rather than to what is ascertained and intellectual. The spirit takes on form and clarity only under the stress of experience: its newer outreachings are bound to be somewhat obscure and inarticulate. The young man who does not trust his vague intuitions as against the formulated wisdom of his elders will do nothing original.

The opinion sometimes expressed that social science should set forth a definite, tangible criterion of progress is also, I think, based on a false conception of the matter, derived, perhaps, from mechanical theories of evolution.

(406) Until man himself is a mechanism the lines of his higher destiny can never be precisely foreseen. It is our part to form ideals and try to realize them, and these ideals give us a working test of progress, but there can be nothing certain or final about them.

The method of our advance is, perhaps, best indicated by that which great individuals have used in the guidance of their own lives. Goethe, for example, trusted to the spontaneous motions of his spirit, studying these, however, and preparing for and guiding their expression. Each of his works represented one of these motions, and he kept it by him for years to work upon when the impulse should return. So the collective intelligence must wait upon the motions of humanity, striving to anticipate and further their higher working, but not presuming to impose a formal programme upon them.

The question whether, after all, the world really does progress is not one that can be settled by an intellectual demonstration of any kind. It is possible to prove that mankind has gained and is gaining in material power, in knowledge, and in the extent and diversity of social organization; that history shows an enlarging perspective and that the thoughts of men are, in truth, "broadened with the process of the suns": but it is always possible to deny that these changes are progress. We seem to mean by this term something additional, a judgment, in fact, that the changes, whatever they may be, are on the whole good. In other words progress, as commonly understood, is essentially a moral category, and the question whether it takes place or not is one of moral judgment. Nothing of this kind is susceptible of incontrovertible demonstration, because the moral judgment is not bound

( 417) by definite intellectual processes, nearly the same in all minds, but takes in the most obscure and various impulses of human nature.

Suppose you compare the state of the first white settlers in America, narrow and hard, physically, mentally, and socially, with the comparatively easy and spacious life of their descendants at the present time; or contrast the life of a European peasant, dwelling in mediaeval ignorance and bondage, with that of the same peasant and his family after they have emigrated to the United States and come to a full share in its intelligence and prosperity. It may seem clear to most people that these changes, which are like those the world in general has been undergoing, are for the better; but the matter is quite debatable. The simpler lot of the pioneer and the peasant can easily be made to appear desirable, and there are, and no doubt always will be, those who maintain that we are no better off than we were.

Development, I should say, can be proved. That is, history reveals, beyond question, a process of enlargement, diversification, and organization, personal and social, that seems vaguely analogous to the growth of plant and animal organisms; but whether we are to write our moral indorsement on the back of all this is another matter. Is it better to be man or the marine animal, "resembling the larvae of existing Ascidians,"[1] from which he is believed to have descended ? In the end it comes down to this: is life itself a good thing? We see it waxing and shining all about us, and most of us are ready to pronounce that it is good; but the pessimist can always say: "To me it is an evil thing, and the more of it the worse." And there is no way of convincing him of error.

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In short, the reality of progress is a matter of faith, not of demonstration. We find our-selves in the midst of an onward movement of which our own spirits are a part, and most of us are glad to be in it, and to ascribe to it all the good we can conceive or divine. This seems the brave thing to do, the hopeful, animating thing, the only thing that makes life worth while, but it is an act rather of faith than of mere intelligence.

I hold, then, that progress, like human life in every aspect, is essentially tentative, that we work it out as we go along, and always must; that it is a process rather than an attainment. The best is forever indefinable; it is growth, renewal, onwardness, hope. The higher life seems to be an upward struggle toward a good which we can never secure, but of which we have glimpses in a hundred forms of love and joy. In childhood, music, poetry, in transient hours of vision, we know a fuller, richer life of which we are a part, but which we can grasp only in this dim and flitting way. All history is a reaching out for, a slow, partial realization of, such perceptions. The thing for us is to believe in the reality of this larger life, seen or unseen, to cling to all persons and activities that help to draw us into it, to trust that though our individual hold upon it relax with age and be lost, yet the great Whole, from which we are in some way inseparable, lives on in growing splendor. I may perish, but We are immortal.

I look with wonder and reverence upon the great spirits of the past and upon the expression of human nature in countless forms of art and aspiration. It seems to me that back of all this must be a greater Life, high and glorious beyond my imagination, which is trying to work

(409) itself out through us. But this is in the nature of religion, and I do not expect to impose it upon others by argument.

As regards the proximate future I see little to justify any form of facile optimism, but conceive that, though the world does move, it moves slowly, and seldom in just the direction we hope. There is something rank and groping about human life, like the growth of plants in the dark: if you peer intently into it you can make out weird shapes, the expression of forces as yet inchoate and obscure; but the growth is toward the light.


  1. Darwin, Descent of Man. chap. IV.

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