Here I try, however imperfectly, to honor the Thomistic practice of putting one’s opponent’s argument as strongly as one is able, in order to make sure you are arguing legitimately and fairly, and not merely against a straw man:
True understanding must always take place in context. Thus, for a biologist, understanding horses, say, requires more than understanding how a horse works biochemically and biomechanically, but must include how he interacts with his environment and the herd. Further, a particular horse needs to be seen as representative of a species that has developed over time. So a biological understanding of horses must needs include the Big Picture: how horses fit into evolutionary history (so to speak), into its herd, into its lineage, and into its environment. Trying to understand horse without context would be like trying to understand horses by analysis of a chunk of horse meat. Ultimately, the best understanding of horses comes within the largest possible context – as parts of the whole of life over time.
In practice, everything we know about horses starts from particulars. As we add more context, the particulars don’t go away, but rather become seen in a new light. Sometimes, things we thought we were sure of turn out, in the larger context, to be wrong – and that’s a good thing, we’ve corrected an error based on better, more all encompassing knowledge.
With me so far? Now, with people this process becomes very interesting. All the things just said about horses apply to people as well, but, because we think about things in a way that animals don’t, yet further issues arise. What is the context for human thought?
It appears that progress over time is human thought’s defining characteristic. Certainly, if one looks around today, the physical products of human thought are much advanced from what we hear our ancestors used to have. And political and social thinking has improved as well, bringing us representative democracy and social services unknown in the past. So we would expect human thought to change over time – and to get better.
But we have yet to describe the context, the environment, of human thought. Let’s call it History. History is best understood as the record of advances in thought. Not necessarily smooth or consistent advances, but the overall trend seems to be moving from less insightful and sophisticated thinking to more.
When we look around us, we see we are at the apex of human thought, as evidenced by the huge advances made in the physical world, such that 7 billion people can be easily fed, housed and clothed, the majority of dreaded disease have been banished, and that countries in which these things originate are the most humane and civilized that have ever been. What kind of an environment would produce such appearances? An environment with a bias toward progress.
(Note: Hegel placed the source of that bias squarely on the Spirit, which is God except insofar as it’s not. Marx kept the bias, but removed any purposeful source for it. It is just the nature of things that things get better somehow. It is this latter belief that is central to virtually all modern thought.)
Now History, which under our new understanding is the record of how this environmental bias toward progress has brought about advances in human thought over time, shows that there are fits and starts – progress is made when people become aware of and embrace new thinking. Certain people, perhaps gropingly at first, then more pointedly as the new thinking becomes more clear, are the heroes of this process, bringing new ideas into the world in such a way that more and more people become aware of them and embrace them. This is most clearly how progress is made.
Insofar as this new thinking is truly new, it may be impossible to understand under the older, less advanced thinking that holds the field while the new thinking is being promulgated. Progress, in this sense, is embracing the new thinking not because it is understandable within the context of old thinking, but precisely because such new thinking defies and defeats old thinking (or, if we’re more sophisticated Hegelians, subsumes and suspends the old and its contradiction in a new synthesis). When that happens, those who cling to the old thinking are simply incapable of understanding the new thinking. It’s not that they are unreasonable, exactly, it’s that what they think of as reasonable is wrong, superseded and obviated by a new way of thinking.
This inability to reason with those stuck in old thinking is a key and unavoidable feature of the largest context within which all human thought takes place. Therefore, those of us who are enlightened properly refuse to spend any effort reasoning with those who are on the wrong side of history – what would be the point? Until they embrace the new understanding, we would merely be talking past them, with no hope of persuading them. Better to keep pushing the new thinking by whatever means are necessary – that is the only path to progress. It is not we who have discarded our opponents, after all, but History.
Well? Does that seem an accurate and fair exposition? How can I improve it?