Dynamic vs Static Societies

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Kevin Jon Fernlund:

"The New World of Bacon was not just geographical; it was also psychological — a new state of mind. In short, as reflected in the methods of Bacon and René Descartes — and later with the work and achievements of Isaac Newton and John Locke — Western society had become “dynamic,” to use the term of David Deutsch, a British physicist and philosopher of science.

To Deutsch, a “static society involves,” in contrast to a dynamic one, a “relentless struggle to prevent knowledge from growing.” This conservatism was not irrational since, without science, there was no way to test whether a new idea was true or useful. Thus, in static societies, authorities sensibly viewed all ideas or innovations with caution, if not outright suspicion. Cultures that reproduce themselves by avoiding innovation and adhering to tradition — where sons and daughters learn to copy their fathers’ and mothers’ ways of doing things — may have been static but they were also stable, which was a crucial achievement in what was otherwise a dangerous and an unpredictable world. Dynamic, as opposed to static, societies, on the other hand, were exceedingly rare. To quote Deutsch again, modern Western civilization is “the only known instance of a long-lived dynamic (rapidly changing) society.” Unlike those in static or traditional societies, participants in Western civilization were aware, sometimes keenly so, that change had occurred or was occurring during their own lifetimes, and they believed that change would go on to remake their children’s world as well. In 1776 and 1789 Americans as well as the French, respectively, both embraced revolutionary change. As these two revolutions demonstrated, change was not a random occurrence but could be intentional and directed. Change also brought unintended consequences. With the rise of freer markets, freer and regular elections, amendable constitutions, scholarly criticism, peer review, due process, freedom of the press, patents, double-entry bookkeeping, and many other processes and mechanisms of self-correction and transparency, including the very study of history itself, change became self-perpetuating and its pursuit institutionalized within new, fiercely competitive and increasingly powerful nation-states as well as within other forms of intrastate organizations, such as the joint stock company and later the business corporation. Even the simplest associations came to keep minutes and to divide the business into old and new. These new freedoms certainly did not emerge all at once or occur everywhere. The development of a liberal or free culture, after all, was complex and multifarious, but the liberal ideal was grasped early, and by the end of the eighteenth century, progress toward its full realization had been made on a number of fronts—from Paris to Philadelphia. At the same time, the belief took hold that the future would or should be better than the past; that the next generation could expect to live better than the last."