Timescales of hope and critique

In Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s “Some Reflections on Progress” from The Future of Man,  we are confronted with a view of progress which is refreshing in the honesty with which it is proposed. This honesty and this hope are the best parts of Teilhard de Chardin because they are something that is all too alien to us critical secularists. As he says, “Whether from immobilist reaction, sick pessimism or simply pose, it has become ‘good form’ to deride or mistrust anything that looks like faith in the future.”

What is refreshing here is that progress is taken as a given. On the conditions he sets out, it is, seen in the light of life as a “phenomenon of prodigious age”, hundreds of millions of years in the making. What is then the next step, is to consider how such a timescale influences arguments about progress. In another essay in this collection (“The New Spirit, 1942”) he describes “the immense travail of the world” as inevitably the reverse side of “an immense triumph.” This is as troubling as all theodicies. One cannot an longer assert a crude polarity whereby suffering inevitably leads to its reverse; every manner of cruelty and hatred have been justified thus. This is the brutal catholic element of his thought which must be immediately jettisoned. This type of argument leads us to an optimism of which we have been rightly suspicious ever since Voltaire’s critique of Leibniz, and even more so since the Holocaust. 

We must be very careful when we take a long view, because this is the timescale of institutions and the state. This is how suffering and injustice is rationalized. It is the deus ex machina to which individuals appeal when they wish to silence other individuals. It is just as troubling in this guise as it is in the philosophical apparatus of Habermas’s “consensus”. We should probably start (as with Hans Georg Gadamer, pace Habermas, though this article correctly points out that the two positions are finally united somewhat by Paul Ricoeur) from what is, and proceed thence to where we actually wish to be. This might lead us to a nuanced and fluid mode of thought and action. It begins with our human all too human foibles, and takes us from there towards something better. This is a praxis of becoming. 

By contrast, the position (one might say pose) of critique starts with negative criticism. It is already hoarse with the shrill haranguing of self-righteous denunciation. It takes no time to reflect, to consider, to discuss, to debate. It reifies critique. It is praxis still-born, strangled at birth by a flawed theory. This is not to suggest that critique has no place, ever. It is to show what influence a particular conception of time has on human thought. To say that an awareness of time stopped with the insights of phenomenology is misleading, and indeed has misled thought ever since. Returning to a more fundamental, even basic awareness of how time influences thought is a necessity. 

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