Thoughts of progress past

Now the main text of the book is complete (yay), I may do smaller posts here more often – and some larger ones, too.

For now, I just reviewed David Knight’s nice new book on 19th Century science, The Making of Modern Science (Polity) – forthcoming in Times Higher Ed – and among many other things this 1802 quote from Humphrey Davy caught my eye:

“We do not look to distant ages, or amuse ourselves with brilliant, though delusive daydreams concerning the infinite improveability of man, the annihilation of labour, disease and even death. But we reason by analogy from simple facts. We consider only a state of human progression arising out of its present condition. We look for a time that we may reasonably expect, for a bright day of which we already behold the dawn.”

It is a nice combination of the chemist’s faith in material progress, without any of the much higher register rhetoric Davy sometimes used except at the very end, with sober British caution about the ultimate prospect.

Seems to me a striking contrast with current attitudes, which sometimes seem divided between those who no longer believe in “a state of human progression arising out of the present condition” and another, smaller, lot who really do believe in abolishing labour, disease, and even death. I’m still trying to find a comfortable place to stand in the middle ground here.

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