Now that the Raimon Panikkar year has been celebrated, it is appropriate to remember that in 2017 we lost one of the most unique intellectuals of Catalonia: his brother, Salvador Pániker. The difference in the surname is because Raimon decided to modify his to adapt it better to the phonetics of the original surname.
Like Raimon, Salvador Pániker was unique because of his family background, son of an Indian father and Catalan mother; but his personal career was also unique, dedicated first to industry, then to public life in a broad sense and finally to philosophical-vital speculation; and definitively unique was his point of view, on the one hand between East and West, and on the other joining classical philosophy with the most innovative and groundbreaking thinking.
When he died in April 2017, the newspapers explained that a philosopher who was known as the founder of Kairós publishing house had disappeared, and the last decades also for having dedicated himself to promoting legislation in favor of euthanasia, dignified death. Someone also recalled that his philosophical thinking had focused on a remarkable concept: the retro-progressive model. This is what he called it in his most ambitious essay, “Aproximación al origen” (“Approach to Origin”) published in his editorial in 1982.
The limits of progress
In that same book, and later in his memoirs and also in articles, conferences and interviews, he referred to that model with other names: the retro-progressive scheme, the retro-progressive dialectic, etc. And it also condensed it into a single word: retroprogression or RETROPROGRESS. But what does this concept mean? What is the concrete proposal you make? The starting point is that progress, as an ideal that moves the western world and that of the westernized pattern – which, in fact, is already the rest of the world – is exhausted.
We could define progress as the belief that the progressive rationalization of the world, primarily through scientific-technological development, allows us to solve all the problems that humanity faces, however difficult they may be. And also, and perhaps more importantly, that this progressive rationalization of the world makes humans “better” in every way, especially morals.
This belief begins with the Renaissance, consolidates with the Enlightenment and gains momentum during the 19th and 20th centuries. And it is during this last century, mainly in the last third, that the ideal enters into crisis. And this happens because it is evident that the optimism that aroused the follow-up of his postulates was excessive. The proof is that it has generated equivalent or worse problems than what it was supposed to solve.
Do we need to give examples? Perhaps for the most adept at the ideal yes. There they go: pollution and climate change, depletion of raw materials and fossil fuels, loss of biodiversity, etc. In general they are ecological problems, which show the nonsense of a socioeconomic model based on an ideal of progress that has treated natural resources as infinite on a finite planet.
From this awareness came the so-called postmodernity, that is, the finding that progress-based modernity was coming to an end and that, therefore, there was a change of era. Pániker built his philosophical proposal in full swing of postmodernity and did so based on his extensive knowledge in Western and Eastern philosophy, but also on what has been called the theory of complex systems or complexity.
Pániker’s thesis is the following: the rationalization of the world that involves progress has created a crack, a “fissure” between human “origin”, our deepest nature, and the beliefs that progress has been forging on this nature. A crack that has been expanding as progress has progressed, because the definition of human reality offered by public discourses based on this progress was increasingly farther from the more “animal” reality, that is, the biological base, which has not changed.
The proposal of Pániker happens to turn the view towards this “origin”, to return to him. But not to stay, because it would be to pursue another myth, that of the lost Arcadia. Which, by the way, is what Rousseau proposed at the time with his “good savage”, precisely – and significantly – in full Enlightenment. Quite the contrary: what Pániker proposes to us is to combine this return with the same progress.
The ambivalence margin
Uniting them, Pániker tells us, opens a margin of “ambivalence” that avoids the worship of these concepts as myths. This allows us to critically exploit the potential of the two, with “origin” as a reference to never lose sight of and progress as an engine of change. The result is an extension of consciousness, which would be the true human freedom.
This expanded awareness allows us to understand that the “disorder” we perceive in the world around us – injustices, mismatches, poor organization, etc. – is perhaps not disorder, but “an order different from what we expected.” And also that efforts to “order” everything better according to the conceptual tools and known patterns, perfecting them and bringing them to the last consequences, often leads to more disorder, not more order.
Taking it further, we can realize that these ancient patterns – the main one of which is the same ideal of progress – have made us believe that we can come to understand in an absolute and total way the reality that surrounds us, and that we can control it through this understanding. And, ultimately, we see that the origin of this enormous misunderstanding is the very nature of language, because basically it only allows us an illusion of understanding.
If this is difficult to assume, it is only necessary to compare what we believe now with what we know people believed from, for example, 200, or 1,000 or 3,000 years ago. And consider later if we think that 200, 1,000 or 3,000 years from now -if the species manages to arrive there, of course- what we believe will now be sustained and will be in force for humans living then.
That is to say, the extended consciousness facilitates us to understand and to admit that our current mental schemes are not universally valid, but only products of human history and valid only in our context.
The retroprogress already exists
Seen from this prism, the retroprogress becomes a process of construction and improvement of models of reality that serve as a guide, and also assume that, when it is demonstrated that the current models do not work, they need to be changed. Like when the scientific evidence questioned Newton’s mechanics: it went into crisis and ended up being replaced by Einstein’s.
Pániker states that precisely this is the retro-progressive model. And he adds that it is not a pending project to implement, but already exists: it is the critical process that, more or less, is underway in open democratic societies, following the definition of Karl Popper.
This happens when in these societies social and political action is really based on a public debate that tests the projects before, during and after putting them into practice. According to Pániker, in these cases it is customary to find complex solutions to complex problems and mitigates the influence of simplistic discourses, which are those that dominate in deficient democracies and dictatorships, where there is no authentic public debate, only a simulacrum.
At this point, we can ask ourselves if Pániker’s proposal is a philosophical-political program that seeks to replace the myth of progress with a better one, or if it is only a description of how authentic progress works once stripped of its mythical content. Because the retro-progressive model does not advocate a concrete belief, but a paradigm shift that implies abandoning mythological beliefs.
This new paradigm requires admitting that there are no magic solutions that allow “order” the world following a simple ideological scheme, which is the promise made by socialism, communism, anarchism, capitalism, fascism, liberalism and all other existing -isms. All of them, by the way, with the ideal of progress as the ultimate reference.
Quite the contrary: the solution is in the same problem, that is, in the debate between these proposals, a debate that Pániker calls “pluralism.” That is to say, none of these ideologies has the solution, but the combination, the dialectical combat between them is the one that allows to find pragmatic and viable solutions in every moment.
We will always need a myth
But the solution is not so “simple”: it seems that we humans have the need to believe in something, in some absolute ideal -even if it is a myth and we know it- that serves as a guide and reference to make sense of our world . This explains that, despite being so questioned, progress continues to be such a current myth. Therefore, once it has been confirmed that it is no longer useful, it must be exchanged for another. And this other one could very well be the same retroprogress.
Salvador Pániker defended this need and proposed his philosophical model whenever he had occasion. But he was not very successful, he was not paid much attention. Now that he is gone, maybe we can do it on his behalf.
Josep Maria Camps
This article was published originally in catalan in this link: https://bit.ly/2DPR90L