Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Fifth Stage of Civilization: Proposed Introduction 2013

Greetings from Santiago, Chile. This is the present draft of the Introduction to a work that I fully expect will occupy years, given the environment in which it will be researched and written (doing a small business, teaching, possibly looking after an elderly person although that remains to be seen at this point). Labors of love are like that. This is something more than a labor of love, however. It is not self-love, surely; nor it is simply the enjoyment of writing, although I do. It is with a sense of urgency that I write--a sense of urgency that the larger civilization of the West, with which I tend to identify, is gradually slipping away as the years pass. As I've often said, looking at the U.S., it is not the country I grew up in. I don't think Western civilization as a whole, with its aggregate uncertainty and anxiety, is the place it was 60 years ago during the post-war years--although there were storm clouds on the horizon then if you knew what to look for (the prevailing philosophy & especially the literature). We've seen the advent of nihilism Nietzsche warned about over a hundred years ago, but not any "new values" he urged be created. Professional philosophy, unfortunately, is barely aware that there is a problem.

There are some small scale signs of good things happening, however. There are people beginning from where we are now and forging ahead. A few institutions are either in the business of thinking creatively about the future (The Long Now Foundation comes to mind), or in creating new educational dynamics that bypass existing ones that are proving inadequate (I have been watching an enterprise due to launch here in Santiago in three months called Exosphere). And then there are TED talks, of course, always creative, colorful, and thought-provoking. So there is activity. Where this activity will lead is, of course, something none of us can know for sure. However, every large scale positive development began with a small scale venture, and today's small scale ventures have something their ancestors could never have imagined in their wildest dreams: the Internet. Yet we've a lot of inertia and negativity to overcome. Perhaps this is the nature of the sort of endeavor we have embarked upon: moving, however haltingly, from Stage Four, a stage characterized by skepticism and negativity, to Stage Five, characterized by-- Well, that's still a bit hard to describe in any detail at this point, but evidence is emerging, even here in Chile, that the dynamics of several systems are riding in essentially the right direction.


The purpose of this project is unabashedly to reach for a “big idea” about civilization and develop it.

Such an effort may seem at first glance quixotic and outlandish—even pretentious—but there is everything to gain from making the attempt.

Western civilization faces a crisis of major proportions. We can try to turn away, but the crisis is there. The crisis spans the global economy and is wreaking havoc within national economies, but is far more than merely economic. Our political systems appear to be broken. We are more divided than ever before, as our “leaders” answer not to their peoples but to corporations and pressure groups of various sorts, some of whose irresponsible activities were responsible for precipitating the crisis. Those who refuse to bow to these powerful interests, however, are consigned to oblivion. They may have followings, but no capacity to initiate the necessary fundamental changes. Our educational systems appear equally ineffective. There is, however, something to the allegation that our schools, from elementary up through university, were designed for another age. Charged with “educating” youth for the “jobs of the future” which change annually, even if we accept this vocational model of education we may be asking from them the impossible, at least given their current credentials-centered structure and tendency toward specialism. Our religious “leaders” appear unable to help; many, over the past several decades, have been exposed as charlatans. Perplexed and bewildered, many have turned aside. Philosophers, with rare exceptions, have retreated into invisibility in a culture and marketplace that sees little use for the “free play of ideas.”

Even confidence in the sciences has broken down, not just in their ability to bring about a better human world but in their capacity to deliver value-neutral truth at all. It is not just a cliché that we now inhabit a postmodern world—a world where all is in flux and nothing is stable. This kind of theme permeates the arts, literature, music, TV and film, fashion, cuisine, you-name-it. Media messages scream at us from all sides with the latest you-must-haves. In this world some cling to technology as savior (and employer!) while others see many of our technologies as having jeopardized the very ecosystems on which the sustainability of life itself depends. Fearing cataclysmic breakdown, some have become “preppers,” storing food, clean water, other goods, against a future that isn’t what it used to be! Most people, of course, are less apocalyptic in their outlooks, but nevertheless see the West as in decline and expect U.S. influence to wane in the future—as its people face ever greater struggles to secure the necessities of life.

Where do we go from here? This essay tries to wrestle with this question in a fresh and bold way—in the spirit that again, given the trouble we are in, we have everything to gain from the attempt!

What’s the plan? First, a multitude of writers—philosophers of history and sociology mainly, but also others—have tried to grasp and lay out sweeping “laws of history.” While the present writer sees this phrase as a misnomer, the idea is compelling. Auguste Comte developed the most visible effort with his Law of the Three Stages, which saw the ushering in of an age of science (and technology) as the path to a quasi-utopian order—or, at least, an order allowing a quality of human life vastly superior to all that had gone before. The Comtean vision, one might call it, envisioned a world of advancing science and technology and moral meliorism as we improved social, political and educational institutions with the thought that these could actually make us better human beings.

Today, in the wake of world wars, the breakdown of so-called democratic institutions, the fear of environmental calamity, and the sense that would-be dictators are just waiting to pick up the pieces of the looming fiscal holocaust, we are clearly in a position to see where this vision was wrong—the postmodern world has ushered in a “Fourth Stage,” we will come to call it. This stage is characterized by what some believe to be a devastating critique of all that went before, especially the Comtean vision. The present writer believes the West must get past Stage Four as a condition of civilization's long term survival—and reach a Fifth Stage of Civilization. Unfortunately, we are hardly able to do more than sketch where we should go, or what the Fifth Stage of Civilization will look like. Marx, of course, couldn’t describe Communism, so our position is hardly novel! And surely, given the past century, we can build in proscriptions that will prevent the Fifth Stage from becoming another example of the sort of dictatorship that rose to power during the twentieth century!

There has long been a consciousness of the role of systems in the world and in human life. This consciousness also goes well back into the twentieth century, and almost constitutes a parallel development. This project seeks to tap into this development, and thus “peer beyond” postmodernity into deep systematicity: both by examining how we got here (Auguste Comte’s Law of the Three Stages), considering how the cultures of science, technology and corporatism have broken our confidence in our institutions and in ourselves, and then inviting readers to envision a future which seeks to harness the best and avoiding the worst of what came before. What were best in what came before? Hope, principle, freedom of action, faith, courage, the willingness to innovate, and a devotion to humanly important truth. What were worst? Despair, expediency, slavery, cowardice, deceit, and the lust for power (and to live at the expense of others). Given the rich material recent history supplies, we should know what to promote and what to avoid. What we do not always know are the specifics. Human ingenuity has given us what is best in the present, however. Allowed to develop unhampered, perhaps human ingenuity will give us a future, however unpredictable.

Our paradox is that however unpredictable the future, it is up to us to create it: to learn to think really well about the kind of world we would prefer to leave to our children, and to their children—and what we are willing to do to build that world. If we do not, others will do it for us. Circumstances themselves might do it for us. I’ve said that we have everything to gain by making this attempt. I’ve not said, though I will now, that we have a lot to lose by doing nothing. That is, if as some claim, Western civilization itself hangs in the balance.

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