Economic recessions have at least one virtue: They compel us to reassess what we mean by ''progress.'' During the recent recession, for example, economists kept talking about ''consumer spending.'' When that begins to show an upturn, we were told, the economy will mend. Consumer spending will prompt increased factory orders - which, creating jobs, will put more money in circulation. And that will be progress.
I recall wondering, at the time, whether I was really playing my part. Shouldn't I be hastening out to spend? Yet the more I looked around our home, the more I realized that we had already accumulated far more things than we really needed.
But there, relentlessly, were the hawkers of progress. They were busy measuring America's prosperity by counting such things as the number of telephones (175.5 million in 1979, and still growing), or television sets (78 million households had them in 1981, up from 60 million in 1970), or automobiles (544 per 1,000 people in 1980, compared with 438 per 1,000 in 1970). Progress, apparently, was to be measured by the accumulation of material goods.
Is that progress? Are there other measures a society might establish with which to measure its advancement?
That's the issue anthropologist Laura Nader addressed recently at Wellesley College, where she is a visiting professor. An authority on law and energy, Dr. Nader also writes on the history of ideas. Her message was suitably broad: that a driving force behind any society is its concept of progress, that Americans tend to equate ''change'' with ''progress,'' and that the false concept or ''myth'' of progress ''moves, seduces, and deludes us all at once.''
Strong stuff, that; but more studiously composed, and less tendentious and polemical, than might have been expected from someone whose brother is consumer advocate Ralph Nader. Among her examples:
* The place of women. American women, she says, typically believe that their status is both better than it
was and better than it is elsewhere in the world. The evidence, however, hardly bears out that assumption. True, women's life expectancy is increasing, as is their particiation in the political process. But individual women, lacking the extended-family support of mothers and maiden aunts from a century ago, spend as much time as ever on housework, she says. And, tending to be more isolated in their work than men, they appear to be more subject to tranquilizing drugs. Why don't they move to improve themselves? Because ''the belief that things are getting better all the time promotes an apathetic response.'' They are victims, in other words, of a myth of progress.
* The use of energy. It is now popularly held, Dr. Nader says, that between 1935 and 1955 ''both energy use and quality of life increased.'' Between 1955 and 1975, however, ''energy use generally increased, while quality of life generally declined.'' Until recently, however, policymakers continued to assume that increasing energy use would increase the quality of life and lead to further progress. Only after the mid-1970s, says Dr. Nader, did energy specialists recognize the mythical nature of this ''progress.''
* International development. Returning to the Zapotec village in southern Mexico where she had first done fieldwork, Dr. Nader recalls finding yet another example of the myth of progress. Twenty years ago, she says, coffee had just been introduced as a cash crop. The plants were small enough that the Indians grew their corn and beans right around them. But as the coffee plants grew, they shaded the fields until the subsistence crops would no longer grow. Returning recently, she found that ''the money that they needed for food now exceeded the money that they got for selling their coffee beans. And so for the first time in thousands of years of Mexican history, people could not afford corn and beans. This was progress.''
To her credit, Dr. Nader seeks less to finger the culprit in these instances than to generalize toward broad lessons. What's the foremost lesson? Her insistence on a simple distinction - between the apparent progress of a material universe and the real progress of ideas, a progress in thought. The need of the hour, she feels, is for a concept of progress measured not by things but by such goals as social development, educational improvements, and judicial advances. ''In an era where abundance is being reduced worldwide,'' she says, ''the only way you can maintain a concept of progression and progress if it's a driving force is to talk about it socially, in terms of ideas.''
How do you do it? Dr. Nader recalls her work for the National Academy of Sciences on the future of energy policy - a future that was evidently ''going to have less things in it because of energy shortages and material shortages.'' What was her approach? ''We tried to imagine all the exciting things you could do with ideas,'' she says.
It's a refreshing lesson, coming as it does on the heels of a recession. For the goal, clearly, is not to eschew progress, without which there is little to motivate society. The goal, rather, is to shift the entire debate into the realm of thought. It would seem to be a lesson worth following.