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Retrieved from Archives for Thanksgiving: The Idea of Progress

Nov 17th, 2014 | By | Category: Features, Front Page

Nov. 27, 2009


After a recent trip to the grocery store, it became apparent that the time was right to resurrect this piece from Thanksgiving 2009.

Although an issue of philosophical interest for many centuries, the Idea of Progress in its modern formulation can be attributed in large measure to Sir Francis Bacon.  The Idea of Progress is a world view which assumes that history proceeds in the direction of improved material conditions and a better life for people on the planet. In Bacon’s view, the role of technological innovation, practical knowledge, and the material tools of existence are a major contributor to the intractability of progress. Since Bacon professed this view in the 17th century, it has become a widespread view in modern thought.  Certainly, this is not without empirical validity, as the industrial revolution improved the material conditions of existence for many.

This brings us to the closing days of 2009.  Recently a troubling development has cast a cloud over the Idea of Progress.  Specifically, I refer to the invention of the squeeze bottle for sweet (pickle) relish.  What’s up with that?  It is virtually impossible to get any relish through the portal and when, after considerable prodding, relish does emerge, it does so in prodigious quantities, reminiscent of an explosive bowel movement. This is of particular significance at this time of year, as many of us struggle to identify methods to consume leftover turkey from our Thanksgiving meal.  Cold turkey sandwiches with relish and turkey barbecue with relish are ideal choices.  Unfortunately these choices are not without their technological pitfalls.  Progress, I think not.  If the emergence of this technology is not sufficient to cast a pallor over the Idea of Progress, what about the zippered bags  in which pre-shredded cheese is packaged.  “Tear here”.  Tear where?  Once one succeeds in achieving a ragged tear (scissors are not an option), it is virtually impossible to reseal the bag in a reasonable amount of time.  In fact, it takes so long, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 100,000 person-days of work are lost annually as a consequence.

Do these significant developments require us to reassess the Idea of Progress?  Only time will tell.  In the spirit of Bacon’s empiricist epistemology and contribution to scientific inquiry, the issue requires more study.

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  1. I applaud Myron Schwartz’s brave stance on condiments. Some might see him as standing in the way of progress. They might call him a Luddite.

    But not me. (Mainly because I am afraid he might run me over with his bicycle.)

    But on the subject of technological progress, let’s not forget the sheer joy a traveler feels when he lands in an American airport after a seven-hour flight from London. Is it the smiling faces of the immigration officials that fill him with joy? Or the words of welcome that greet him as he pushes his passport toward the official behind the counter?


    It is in fact the availability of something mankind needs for survival. No, not an iPhone 3GS. Water.

    Water, you say? Surely airports in London have water? Yes, Heathrow Airport does have water, but you have to buy it. There are no water fountains. So you shell out a fortune (what with the dollar-pound exchange rate these days) to get bottled water.

    And then you arrive in JFK, and as you walk toward the immigration counters, what do you see? A water fountain. Wordsworth wrote that his heart “leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky,” but surely the weary trans-Atlantic traveler’s heart leaps up when he beholds a water fountain in the airport.

    Water fountains. The very embodiment of civilization. An ineluctable mark of Progress.

  2. I agree with the author, all that comes out is the juice!

  3. This article is oh so true and funny as I can relate to the author’s commentary. I particularly, like the author’s description of the sweet pickle relish purging process. I have much of the same difficulty with spicy mustard in those supposedly convenient squeeze bottles. You work hard to get the product down to its threshold and all that comes out is a big spatter of water and mustard (if you’re lucky) all over your clothes! I think they need to refine this idea of progress – maybe another progressive gadget or container to hold them? Or better yet, let’s get back to basics! I think we can learn from our ancestors.

  4. keep the articles coming Myron.

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