Skip to main content
Select Source:

Progress

PROGRESS

PROGRESS. The idea of progress, the view that human beings and civilization are improving and advancing toward a better goal, is a very old one. Over the centuries numerous individuals and groups have believed in some form of progress.

In the centuries between 1400 and 1800 many Europeans developed a view of secular progress somewhat different from previous views. This was a secular view of progress divorced from religious, eschatological, and teleological concerns. Intellectuals developed the idea that human civilization had improved intellectually, socially, politically, and in scientific accomplishments. They believed that their own age had made considerable progress in comparison with past epochs and would continue to improve in the future. But there was no definite future point to be reached. Appreciation for the contribution that science had already made and confidence in the future contributions of science and technology played a role. Confidence in what humanity can learn was important, but Europeans had less respect for the achievements of the past. This new, secular, and somewhat different notion of progress was first tentatively formulated in the late Renaissance. It took on greater meaning in the seventeenth century and reached fruition in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. At the same time, a number of intellectuals strongly denied that their age marked an era of progress.

ANCIENT AND MEDIEVAL BACKGROUND

The Greeks and Romans saw their civilization as better than that of other peoples, whom they characterized as "barbarians," because they lacked Greco-Roman achievements. They sought to spread their civilization to the rest of the world, and this could serve as justification for conquest. Ideas of eschatological religious progress were strong in the Judeo-Christian religious world. The Old Testament chronicled the words and deeds of Jewish prophets who looked forward to the coming of a Messiah, but what would happen then is unclear. One of the most influential expressions of teleological historical progress is found in the Book of Daniel 2:3645, an historical prophesy of five successive kingdoms. In the view of medieval exegetes and historians, Daniel's interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar's dream indicated that the Kingdom of Babylonia would be followed by that of the Medes and Persians, then that of Alexander the Great (the bronze kingdom), the Roman Empire (called the kingdom of iron), and finally the kingdom of God. In like manner, a fundamental view of medieval Christianity was that history moved in a linear fashion from the birth of Christ to the end of the world. Another manifestation of the idea of religious progress was the New Testament command to teach all nations, which spurred Christians to spread God's word throughout the world.

RENAISSANCE VIEWS

In contrast to medieval teleological ideas of progress, Renaissance intellectuals, especially humanists, had enormous respect for the ancient world. They greatly respected the achievements of ancient philosophers like Plato (c. 429347 b.c.e.) and Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.), ancient scientists like the medical scholar Galen (c. 130c. 200), and ancient writers such as Cicero (10643 b.c.e.) and Virgil (7019 b.c.e.). The humanists were convinced that scholars and even statesmen could achieve great things by carefully studying classical authorities and incorporating their teachings into their own activities. Of course, they knew that fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Europe was not ancient Greece and Rome. But they believed that they could make their own era better by borrowing from and emulating the ancients. In so doing, they held an implicit if incomplete idea of progress because they believed that they were making their own world better than that of the Middle Ages, which they often scorned. They believed that they were creating and entering a new age, a "Renaissance," after the culturally dark Middle Ages. This idea was found in religion as well. The humanist and religious scholar Desiderius Erasmus (c. 1466?1536) believed that contemporaries who studied the New Testament and the early church fathers such as Jerome and ignored the medieval Scholastic writers would become better Christians and would cleanse the Christian Church of its worldliness. Thus, many Renaissance intellectuals had a limited understanding of human progress, especially cultural and religious progress.

Some Renaissance thinkers went further. After assimilating classical learning in a way medieval scholars were unable to do, they realized that ancient authorities were not always correct. For example, the medical scholar and distinguished anatomist Andreas Vesalius (15141564) began as a fervent follower of Galen. But then his own anatomical research led Vesalius to criticize Galen on some points and to assert his own views. He did so, however, in the spirit of correcting with regret, not rejecting, a revered authority. In similar fashion, Nicolaus Copernicus (14731543) and Galileo Galilei (15641642) concluded that the ancient Greek astronomer Ptolemy (c. 100170) wrongly stated that the sun revolved around the earth and proposed heliocentric alternatives. But none of these practical men of science formulated theories of progress.

The new understanding of periodization, historical distance, and anachronism of the humanists influenced some Renaissance men to think about progress. Renaissance historians realized better than their medieval predecessors the differences between ancient, medieval, and modern historical eras. Many saw the invention of the printing press as a very positive development of the modern age. Despite these developments, a notion of progress did not develop fully, mostly because of the great respect for the ancient world. The majority of Renaissance historians accepted a cyclical view of history inherited from the ancient world, that is, that history moved in cycles, that bad times followed good times in a regular pattern. This blocked the development of a theory of progress.

SEVENTEENTH CENTURY

A new view began to emerge in the early seventeenth century. Francis Bacon (15611626) in his Advancement of Learning (1605, expanded edition 1623) and in other works rejected practically all forms of previous reasoning in favor of scientific knowledge discovered through observation and experiment. Scientific knowledge acquired in this way promised dominion over nature, which would be useful to human beings. Although he did not subscribe to a full theory of progress, Bacon was the first to link scientific advancement to utility, an important ingredient in the idea of progress. René Descartes (15961650) also enunciated new principles of science and rejected past approaches to science. Philosophy and science were charting a new course, superior to that of the past, according to the followers of Descartes. Admirers of Bacon and Descartes saw the growing number of scientific and technological inventions as signs of progress in civilization. Even more important, they saw the human ability to create inventions as evidence of growing human power over nature, another important theme in the idea of progress.

QUARREL OF THE ANCIENTS AND MODERNS

At the end of the seventeenth century, numerous men and women of letters and arts in France and England (where the quarrel was called "The Battle of the Books") engaged in a spirited debate over the superiority of ancient versus modern authors. In contrast with their predecessors, many argued that modern writers were superior to those of the ancient world. Bernard Le Bovier, Sieur de Fontenelle (16571757) in his Digression sur les anciens et les modernes (1688; Digression on the ancients and the moderns) saw the moderns as mature in culture and history without suffering a decline in quality. Charles Perrault (16281703) in short works of the 1680s and 1690s also argued that the moderns were superior. They did not have more natural talent and intelligence than the ancients. Rather, the moderns were superior because science and the arts depended on the accumulation of knowledge, and the moderns were able to profit from the knowledge acquired over the centuries.

For those who supported the view that the moderns were best, other key arguments were that national vernaculars, especially French, were to be preferred over Latin as the languages for literature and especially for philosophical and scientific communication. Modernist proponents (sometimes lacking knowledge of ancient Greek) attacked Homer for not measuring up to seventeenth-century standards of aesthetic beauty and for his alleged exaggerations and lies. The modernists also pointed out that the ancient world lacked opera, ballet, and the novel. The political and cultural primacy of France under Louis XIV (ruled 16431715), the ascendancy of the French language, and the European-wide prominence of French intellectuals lent support to arguments favoring the moderns.

The widely accepted theories of human psychology and development of John Locke (16321704) further encouraged many to believe in progress. According to Locke, a person's knowledge depended on the sensations received. A child was an unformed being to be molded through sensory experiences imparted through education. With this view of human psychology, philosophes concluded that better social arrangements in education, social institutions, government, and the economy could make individuals and society better. They viewed human nature with optimism. Freed of the shackles of ignorance and superstition, especially those of organized religion, human beings would follow reason and do better for themselves and others.

ENLIGHTENMENT

While most of the elementscriticism of the past, assertion of the superiority of moderns over ancients, belief that science would improve the lot of humanity, viewing knowledge as cumulativefor a complete theory of secular progress had been proposed by 1700, eighteenth-century French philosophes and English economists, historians, and philosophers brought them together. They believed that reason applied to the problems of the world would yield solutions; they believed that progress could be achieved, was even inevitable; and they were convinced that progress would continue into the indefinite future.

Enlightenment philosophes believed that progress extended to all fields. They articulated a strong faith that reason could make humanity better. They offered concrete proposals for achieving progress, that is, through better education; different governmental arrangements; the spread of rational knowledge through such works as the Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences des arts, et des métiers, seventeen volumes of text and eleven volumes of plates, 17511772; and even through the free movement of goods. The Scot Adam Smith (17231790) argued in his Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776) that individuals acting in their own self-interest will contribute to the general welfare of all. The rejection of a Christian afterlife caused Enlightenment thinkers to place their faith in progress in this life rather than in the next.

Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot (17271781), philosophe and government official, sketched the most systematic argument for a secular and naturalistic theory of progress in works of 1750 and 1751. He brought everythingarts, sciences, government, economicsinto his theory of progress. He situated his argument in a universal history, which became a treatise on social evolution. Referring to societies across the globe, he saw humanity's beginnings in barbarism, then steady progress to hunting and pastoralism, then an agricultural era, followed by a commercial-urban stage. Each stage had its own language, learning, and arts. He also charted the progressive development of government, from despotism to greater freedom. He argued that freedom was necessary for all human creativity, including the arts and sciences. Along the way Turgot offered judgments on peoples that had not made as much progress as Europeans, and listed the cultural and social reasons for their failures. Providence played no role in Turgot's progress; everything came from human actions and occurred in this life. In his Réflexions sur la formation et la distribution des richesses (published 1769; Reflections on the formation and distribution of wealth) he argued for an economic system based on individual freedom unchecked by government restrictions.

Turgot had the opportunity to put his theories into practice as intendant of the district of Limoges from 1761 to 1774. He instituted tax reforms, abolished forced labor on the roads by peasants, and made other changes. When he became controller general, the chief financial officer of the monarchy, in 1774, he proposed many more reforms, including abolishing the guilds, liberalizing the grain trade, a system of national education, and assemblies of citizens to advise the government. However, his proposals provoked much opposition, and he was dismissed from government in 1776.

DOUBTS ABOUT PROGRESS

While many believed in progress, some prominent figures expressed doubts. Michel de Montaigne (15331592), always ambivalent and individualistic, hailed new inventions such as printing but doubted the ability of human reason to arrive at complete knowledge. In a famous essay Des cannibales (1579 or 1580; On cannibals) he noted that although Europeans called New World natives "savages," civilized Europeans were much more barbaric in their behavior. He praised the simple, pure lives of uncivilized natives. The Italian philosopher Giovanni Battista Vico (16681744) in his Scienza Nuova (1725, revised edition 1730; New science) revived a cyclical view of history. He argued that all societies rise, mature, decline, and fall, in accordance to immutable laws of social development. Early in his career Voltaire (16941778) accepted the normative Enlightenment belief of continual secular progress. But in his amusing satirical novel Candide ou l'optimisme (published 1759; Candide or optimism) he expressed doubts. The chief characters in Candide very optimistically proclaim that the world is a well-ordered and rational placeeven while suffering appalling calamities and unjust punishments caused by the misdeeds of eighteenth-century Europeans. Voltaire's doubts about whether history really gave evidence that mankind was making civilized progress grew in his last years.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778) was the most important philosophe to question and redefine progress. Rousseau saw civilization's artifacts, including scientific developments and government, as blocking the road to progress, which was the perfection of humanity. Reconstituting society on the basis of equality would lead to human perfection in his view. Rousseau did not advocate a return to a natural state devoid of civilization. But he wanted his readers to accept as a goal a different and freer human nature and to reorganize society in order to achieve this goal.

CORDORCET

Despite the doubts expressed, the majority of Enlightenment figures strongly believed in their conception of secular progress. The most enthusiastic was Marie-Jean Caritat, marquis de Condorcet (sometimes called Jean-Antoine-Nicolas Caritat; 17431794). Cordorcet devoted his life and writings to every cause of the philosophes, from anti-clericalism to the abolition of slavery and a call for public instruction. He proposed a system to help representative governments reach rational decisions. And he suited action to words by becoming a member of the National Assembly in the French Revolution. Cordorcet sketched a complete theory of progress in his Esquisse d'un tableau historique des progrès de l'esprit humain (written 17931794, published 1795; Sketch for a historical picture of the progress of the human mind). Thanks to the growth of reason and scientific advances, humanity was enjoying progressive emancipation from the limits of its physical environment, the superstitions of the past, and ignorance, he wrote. Enlightened laws would eliminate conflicts between individuals and nations. Education would teach individuals their rights and give them the means of improving their lot. Progress would continue indefinitely. "Nature has set no term to the perfection of human faculties . . . the perfectibility of man is truly infinite; . . . the progress of this perfectibility . . . has no other limit than the duration of the globe upon which nature has cast us."

Cordorcet wrote these words while in hiding during the Jacobin Reign of Terror of the French Revolution. Arrested on 27 March 1794, he was found dead in his cell two nights later. Despite what might appear to be evidence contrary to the idea of universal progress during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic period, many European intellectuals of the nineteenth century reaffirmed the idea of inevitable and universal progress. The doubts also persisted. Nineteenth-century Romanticism, which sometimes took the form of nostalgia for the distant past of the Middle Ages, expressed ambivalence about progress. Belief in and pessimism about progress continue to this day.

See also Ancients and Moderns ; Bacon, Francis ; Condorcet, Marie-Jean Caritat, marquis de ; Copernicus, Nicolaus ; Descartes, René ; Enlightenment ; Galileo Galilei ; Locke, John ; Montaigne, Michel de ; Perrault, Charles ; Philosophes ; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques ; Smith, Adam ; Vesalius, Andreas ; Vico, Giovanni Battista ; Voltaire .

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Primary Sources

Condorcet, Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat. Condorcet: Selected Writings. Edited by Keith Michael Baker. Indianapolis, 1976. Introduction and selections from his works.

Turgot, Anne-Robert-Jacques. Turgot on Progress, Sociology and Economics. Translated, edited and with an introduction by Ronald L. Meek. Cambridge, U.K., 1973. Good introduction and selections from A Philosophical Review of the Successive Advances of the Human Mind, On Universal History, and Reflections on the Formation and the Distribution of Wealth.

Secondary Sources

Baker, Keith Michael. Condorcet: From Natural Philosophy to Social Mathematics. Chicago, 1975.

Bury, J. B. The Idea of Progress: An Inquiry into its Origin and Growth. Introduction by Charles A. Beard. New York, 1932. First published in 1920. Although highly opinionated and lacking adequate documentation, this pioneering work remains stimulating.

DeJean, Joan. Ancients against Moderns: Culture Wars and the Making of a Fin de Siècle. Chicago, 1997. Studies Perrault and others.

Levine, Joseph M. The Battle of the Books: History and Literature in the Augustan Age. Ithaca, N.Y., 1991

Manuel, Frank E. The Prophets of Paris. Cambridge, Mass., 1962. Has good chapters on Turgot and Condorcet.

Nisbet, Robert. History of the Idea of Progress. New York, 1980. Readable and comprehensive survey but lacking references.

Pollard, Sidney. The Idea of Progress: History and Society. London, 1968. Survey, with a long chapter on the Enlightenment.

Paul F. Grendler

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Progress." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Sep. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Progress." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/progress

"Progress." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Retrieved September 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/progress

Progress

Progress

CONCLUSION: WHAT WENT WRONG WITH PROGRESS?

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Social scientists have historically concerned themselves with identifying patterns in the way people interact with their environment in order to account for factors that enhance both stability and change in society. This concern with the conditions that underlie the preservation and improvement of the human condition made the concept of progress from the Latin progredior, meaning a going-forward or advancean attractive analytical construct to the nascent social sciences in the nineteenth century.

While some scholars have traced progress back to classical Greece and Rome, most agree that, as an organizing concept in the social sciences, the concept derives its full meaning from specific developments in modern Europe. These included the growth of the physical sciences and theories of knowledge since the seventeenth century; the concern of eighteenth-century social philosophers with political, economic, and social reforms; and the influence of the biological model of evolution and a secular philosophy of history in the nineteenth century.

As early as the eighteenth century, the idea of progress marked a growing confidence in what many then believed to be the unlimited potential of science and human reason to create favorable conditions for improved human life. Following Auguste Comtes positivism, which sought to extend the empirical method of the natural sciences to the study of social processes, progress came to epitomize the conviction that, as in nature, developments in society were regulated by innate laws. Through a scientific study of society, these laws could be deduced and their interactions with other social phenomena could be modified to ensure a desired social outcome. On the one hand, this meant that civilization was moving through cumulative stages of improvement so that even catastrophes like wars, epidemics, and earthquakes came to be viewed as temporary reversals, even necessary evils, in a movement to a happy ending. On the other hand, it implied that human beings, equipped with scientific knowledge, could alter this movement to influence the quality or quantity of the end product. Social institutions such as schools, prisons, and hospitals serve this purpose of complimenting natural laws to enhance the knowledge, morality, and health of members of society. In his The Idea of Progress: An Inquiry into Its Origin and Growth, Irish historian John Bagnell Bury (1861-1927) famously captured the optimism of this view by defining progress as the belief that civilization has moved, is moving, and will move in a desirable direction (1920, p. 2).

Most importantly, progress provided the social sciences with a rational solution to the old problem concerning the causes, mechanisms, and ends of social change. Where in earlier times change was generally dreaded and attributed to chance or supernatural intervention, it would thenceforth be viewed positively as the outcome of processes that could both be predicted and objectively verified. There were ideological differences among social scientists concerning the mechanisms of social change. For social conservatives like Auguste Comte (1798-1857), change proceeded in an orderly manner through rational interventions by an elite class of social engineers, while for radicals like Karl Marx (18181883), change was attributed to class conflicts. This general understanding of progress as both law-governed and subject to human manipulation remained central in the social sciences up to the twentieth century.

Contrary to the atmosphere of optimism that attended the birth of modern social institutions, however, world events in the twentieth century gave rise to strong doubts about the desirability of the direction of human civilization. Two world wars, particularly the atrocities in Nazi Germany, and a succession of liberation wars in European colonies led to such intellectual and political criticism of progress that by the middle of the century the concept had lost its earlier luster. Thus, while in the 1930s sociology textbook series in the United States still included a volume on progress, by the late 1940s the historian Sidney Fay (18761967), in his article The Idea of Progress, would declare the concept logically meaningless (1947, p. 231). Even the first edition of the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (1968) did not include progress as a separate entry.

Ironically, reconstruction efforts in the wake of the very events that led to the decline of progress invested a new set of concepts with some of the basic assumptions that the obsolescent progress had generated. The decolonization movements in the 1960s and 1970s fuelled internal hopes for economic growth, self-determination, and social justice in the former European colonies. In this context, progress meant catching up with former colonizing countries by improving conditions of living through mass education and expanded social service. The economic plight that soon besieged these newly independent countries led to increasing interventions by international financial institutions like the World Bank, with the goal of encouraging growth-focused economic policies. New concepts like development, modernization, and structural adjustment moved in to fill the conceptual space vacated by progress.

CONCLUSION: WHAT WENT WRONG WITH PROGRESS?

Criticisms of progress both predated and outlived the calamities of the twentieth century mentioned above. They ranged from theoretical challenges of its analytical purchase to political denunciation of the social implications of some of the assumptions it had generated. One of these assumptions was aptly expressed by the Marquis de Condorcet (17431794), who declared in his Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind that the perfectibility of man is truly indefinite (1793, p. 211). In itself, the notion that human beings can improve is not controversial. It is the idea behind educational institutions. However, the uncritical extension of scientific methods to the study of social life effectively reduced the diffuse and fluid interactions of everyday life to patterned behavior. If human behavior follows a determinant blueprint whose laws can be identified, does this mean we can socially engineer people to behave in certain ways and not others? In the context of fascist regimes and other forms of dictatorships in the twentieth century, the question was more than merely rhetorical.

Some philosophers and historians of science have also pointed out that science and reason are themselves not disinterested tools of knowledge but they can be used to perpetrate prejudice and domination. In the wake of Nazi theories of racial superiority, for instance, the earlier suggestion by the eugenicist Francis Galton (18221911) that social conditions could be created to ensure improved racial characteristics in future generations created fears of racial genetic profiling and contributed to the decline of eugenics as a science.

Cultural evolution, or the idea that whole cultures develop along a line of progressive improvement from barbarism to modern civilization generated the assumption that European cultures were at the apex of this cultural progress. On the basis of this assumption, European colonization of other people was often justified as a humanitarian mission to accelerate or guide their civilization. The idea, central to progress, of a universal history or of history as driven by a single universal norm also generated the assumption that people in other parts of the world existed outside history until the arrival of Europeans on their shores.

Another important aspect of progress was the emphasis on rationality and scientific thought, which put human beings at the center of social progress as its rational movers. Earlier critics of this humanist assumption had attributed social progress to nonhuman forces, such as the structured relations of social classes for Marx and the social division of labor for Émile Durkheim (18581917). In art, literature, philosophy, and social sciences, other critics have portrayed the human being as alienated, insecure, fragile, brutal, emotional, and as just one part of a complexly structured reality. Progress as an analytical concept developed in an environment in which men were generally assumed to be the standard bearers of the human species. Feminist critics have highlighted the fact that ideas about the unity of humankind and perfectibility of human beings were held contemporaneously with practices and beliefs that denied political rights to women.

While progress generated some questionable assumptions, it also highlighted our collective capacity to improve the conditions of our lives. Among its advocates were people like the American philosopher and educator John Dewey (18591952), who emphasized that progress meant improving the efficiency of social institutions that are set up to meet the needs of all members of society.

SEE ALSO Development; Modernization; Positivism

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bury, John Bagnell. 1920. The Idea of Progress: An Inquiry into Its Origin and Growth. London: Macmillan.

Comte, Auguste. 1974. The Essential Comte: Selected from Cours de Philosophie Positive. Ed. Stanislav Andreski. Tran. Margaret Clarke. New York: Barnes and Noble.

Fay, Sidney. 1947. The Idea of Progress. American Historical Review 52 (2): 231246.

Lasch, Christopher. 1991. The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics. New York: Norton.

Zolani Ngwane

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Progress." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Sep. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Progress." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/progress

"Progress." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved September 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/progress

Progress

Progress


The idea of progress is an invention of the eighteenth century, fueled by discoveries in science and technology. Although it took different forms in different countries, the underlying theme was that, through human effort, it is possible to improve human understanding of the nature of reality. This in turn leads to improvement in the standard of living and of education and health and general wellbeing. More a metaphysical aspiration than a matter of empirical fact, progress was seen as (and intended to be) a secular alternative to traditional religious views, especially inasmuch as it challenged the notion of a providential God, one who controls completely the future fate of humans according to God's desires and unmerited grace.

Many early progressionists were deists rather than theists, believing in an unmoved mover, who lets the universe run according to unbroken law, rather than subjecting it to God's extra-natural intervention. It was almost to be expected, therefore, that many progressionists were favorable to some form of biological developmentalism, or evolution. Notable were Erasmus Darwin (17311802, the grandfather of Charles) and Jean Baptiste de Lamarck (17441829). They took the idea of progress in the social and cultural world, read it into the biological world, seeing life's history as an upward movement from the simple (the monad) to the complex (the human being), and then in circular fashion read evolution back into the cultural world as confirmation of their social beliefs about the possibility of intellectual and cultural improvement. It is not surprising that many of the early critics of evolution, notably the French comparative anatomist Georges Cuvier (17691832), were as critical of the philosophy of progress as they were of the lack of evidential support for transmutation. Although Cuvier was a Protestant, he was more disturbed by the denial of providence than he was by the challenge to literal interpretation of Genesis.

Charles Darwin (18091882), the author of On the Origin of Species (1859), in which he put forward his theory of evolution by natural selection, had a somewhat complex relationship with the idea of progress. Socially and intellectually he believed in it absolutely. It is also to be found in his biology, for he clearly regarded humans as the outcome and triumph of evolution. But he realized that his mechanism for change was relativistic. Natural selection means that some will survive and reproduce and others will not, and those that are successful in one situation will not necessarily be successful in other circumstances. Darwin had to invoke the idea of what today's evolutionists call an arms race, where there is competition between lines and eventual change and progressthe predator gets faster, and then the prey gets faster. Overall, Darwin thought that this would lead to intelligence and ultimately to humans.

After Darwin, socially and biologically, progress reigned supreme. It was the philosophy of the industrialist and educator alike. In biology, the leading spokesman for evolution was Herbert Spencer (18201903), who argued that it is a general law of nature that homogeneity tends towards heterogeneity, and this means that humans are superior to animals, and the English to all other peoples. Many Christian thinkers also started to suggest that perhaps progress and religion are not as opposed as traditionally supposed. If God creates through developmental law, who is to say that God is against the worth and success of human effort? Such particularly were the themes of liberal American protestant preachers like Henry Ward Beecher (18131887), as well as of the future Archbishop of Canterbury, Frederick Temple (18211902).

The twentieth century saw a major decline in support for cultural and social notions of progress. How could one think in terms of improvement in the face of two world wars, the horrors of Stalinist Russia, Auschwitz, the atomic bomb, global warming, and more? Religious thinkers again increasingly invoked the distinction between progress and providence, arguing that the latter is incompatible with the former. In the between-war years, the Anglican poet T. S. Eliot (18881965) explored this theme in depth, and the Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim (1916) made this point repeatedly after World War II. To believe in progress was not simply wrong but immoral.

In biology also the notion of progress became much less prominent. After the coming of Mendelian genetics (which emphasizes the randomness of variation), and the development of what was known as neo-Darwinism or the synthetic theory of evolution, there were far fewer scenarios painting a general sweep upward from the blob to humankind. But one might query whether this decline in visible claims of progress was more a function of a general lack of enthusiasm for the overall idea, or more a realization that the intrusion of social ideas into supposedly straight science is not acceptable. Certainly, the most prominent Christian believer who was also a practicing evolutionist, the French Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (18811955), was an ardent progressionist, following the philosopher Henri Bergson (18591941). Among those adopting and endorsing Teilhard's progressivist ideas were such prominent neo-Darwinians as the Englishman Julian Huxley (18871975) and the Russian-born American Theodosius Dobzhansky (19001975).

The Harvard entomologist and sociobiologist Edward O Wilson (1929) also endorses biological progressionism. Standing in a tradition that goes back to Spencer, Wilson argues that the evolutionary process gives human beings a backbone on which to build a fully secular substitute for traditional religions like Christianity. For Wilson, progress tells humans where they came from, what status they have in the overall scheme of things (namely the place at the top), and what moral injunctions are laid upon themto strive to prevent decline and to preserve the human species and, if possible, to send it on to still higher regions of evolution. There have been many critics of this kind of thinkingnotably, in biology, Julian Huxley's grandfather Thomas Henry Huxley (18251895) and, in philosophy, the early twentieth-century philosopher G. E. Moore (18731958)but in biological circles, if not in general society, belief in progress seems set for the time being. And this probably means that even though such practices may not be in general favor among theologians and Christian believers, there will continue to be those with religious sympathies who attempt to blend progress into their overall world picture.


See also Complexity; Evolution


Bibliography

richards, robert j. the meaning of evolution: the morphological construction and ideological reconstruction of darwin's theory. chicago, ill.: university of chicago press, 1992.

ruse, michael. "evolution and progress." trends in ecology and evolution 8, no. 2 (1993): 55-59.

ruse, michael. monad to man: the concept of progress in evolutionary biology. cambridge, mass.: harvard university press, 1996.

wagar, w. warren. good tidings: the belief in progress from darwin to marcuse. bloomington, ind.: indiana university press, 1972.

wilson, edward o. the diversity of life, cambridge, mass.: harvard university press, 1992.

michael ruse

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Progress." Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Sep. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Progress." Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/progress

"Progress." Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. . Retrieved September 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/progress

progress

progress The idea of progress, conceived as the increasing sophistication of knowledge and the improving quality of life, has been the driving force of Western civilization for at least three hundred years. During the twentieth century, the same idea has been adopted, with variations, by virtually every culture on earth. In the Third World, development and modernization are taken to be synonymous with progress.

The history of the idea of progress is complex, and even the meaning of the word is fundamentally disputed. Contemporary scholars disagree over whether the philosophers of classical antiquity had any expectation of progress in its modern sense. Robert Nisbet in The History of Progress (1980) finds some evidence that they did. But cyclical theories of civilization's rise and decline were far more common in the ancient world, and continued to be supported into the modern age by such distinguished scholars as Montesquieu, Helvetius, Gibbon, and Spengler. Another tradition of thought about human history is entirely pessimistic, seeing nothing but decline from an earlier golden age.

The idea of a universal history of human progress was developed during the eighteenth century, in the works of Voltaire, Turgot, Herder, and Kant, among others. With Kant we arrive at the fully developed idea of a unified human race moving towards the ideal of a ‘universal civil society’ founded on justice and based on the maximum individual freedom for all.

It is no exaggeration to say that philosophers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries became obsessed with the idea of progress. As hopes of a spiritual heaven faded, people's thoughts turned to the dream of heaven on earth, achieved through progress. The eighteenth century idea had five elements: the continuing Deistic belief in Benevolent Providence, an essential optimism about the meaning of human life and destiny; the belief that history was not a chaos, but moved through predictable stages according to knowable laws; the belief in posterity, fulfilling the promise of progress and honouring the forerunners who had made it possible; the centrality of knowledge as the driving force of progress; the belief in the ultimate perfectibility of humankind. There was a powerful element of religious nostalgia in all this, and many historians have argued that the whole progressive ideology down to the present day is a mirror-image of Christianity, with the secular utopia substituting for the promise of paradise (see, for example, C. L. Becker , The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers, 1932
).

While the French Revolution dealt a severe set-back to this optimistic eighteenth-century philosophy, two of the most secular elements were carried forward into the nineteenth century, with earth-shaking results: the centrality of knowledge and the search for laws of history. Saint-Simon, and more especially Comte, combined these two elements with Kant's vision of a universal human history to produce an enormously influential theory of progress. Comte proposed that humanity evolved as the human mind evolved, and that human history could be divided into three distinct stages based on the level of human understanding. The Theological Stage was characterized by primitive, animist religious beliefs. The Metaphysical Stage (just ending, Comte believed, in his own time) produced more sophisticated and abstract religions. The emerging Positive Stage would be an era completely defined by science and rationality, which would produce an earthly utopia. Although criticized then and later, Comte's grand theory entered into Western consciousness. Its rational, scientific utopia was the very model of modernity.

Karl Marx came to his theory of progress by way of a different philosophical tradition, but there seems little doubt that Comte and Saint-Simon were influences. Hegel's highly abstract theory of history envisaged the progress of the human spirit towards perfect apprehension of itself and the world. Marx grounded this vision in reality by relating progress to economic struggles. His theory of historical materialism predicts that the final utopian state (communism) will be brought about through the inexorable workings of economic laws.

Spencer's theory of Social Darwinism is another example of the nineteenthcentury fascination with progress. Social Darwinism was more fashionable in the United States than in Europe. It linked progress to the growth and increasing complexity of societies, and especially to the natural mechanism of the survival of the fittest, which Spencer believed would create the best possible society, if allowed to do so.

For most of the twentieth century, theories of progress followed the pattern of the nineteenth—optimistic, rationalistic, and increasingly materialistic. Sociology contributed its share in the form of early functional and post-industrial theories which predicated a future society of harmony and prosperity based on science. At the century's end, however, the idea of progress seems to be in eclipse. The great utopian ideologies have self-destructed at enormous cost. Science has not produced a moral utopia for most of humanity, and the future is clouded by environmental doubts. See also ENVIRONMENT; POST-MODERNISM.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"progress." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Sep. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"progress." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/progress

"progress." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Retrieved September 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/progress

progress

pro·gress • n. / ˈprägrəs; ˈprägˌres; ˈprōˌgres/ forward or onward movement toward a destination: the darkness did not stop my progress they failed to make any progress up the narrow estuary. ∎  advance or development toward a better, more complete, or more modern condition: we are making progress toward equal rights. • v. / prəˈgres/ [intr.] move forward or onward in space or time: as the century progressed, the quality of telescopes improved. ∎  advance or develop toward a better, more complete, or more modern state: work on the pond is progressing. ∎  [tr.] [usu. as adj.] (progressed) Astrol. calculate the position of (a planet) or of all the planets and coordinates of (a chart) according to the technique of progression. PHRASES: in progress in the course of being done or carried out: a meeting was in progress.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"progress." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Sep. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"progress." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/progress-0

"progress." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved September 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/progress-0

progress

progress onward march; visit of state XV; forward movement XVI. — L. prōgressus, f. pp. stem of prōgredī go forward, f. PRO-1 + gradī step, walk, go, f. gradus step.
Hence progress vb. XVI; became obs. in England in XVII, but retained or formed afresh in America, whence it was readopted in England c.1800. So progression XIV. — F. or L. progressive XVII. — F.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"progress." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Sep. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"progress." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/progress-1

"progress." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Retrieved September 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/progress-1

progress

progressacquiesce, address, assess, Bess, bless, bouillabaisse, caress, cess, chess, coalesce, compress, confess, convalesce, cress, deliquesce, digress, dress, duchesse, duress, effervesce, effloresce, evanesce, excess, express, fess, finesse, fluoresce, guess, Hesse, impress, incandesce, intumesce, jess, largesse, less, manageress, mess, ness, noblesse, obsess, oppress, outguess, phosphoresce, politesse, possess, press, priestess, princess, process, profess, progress, prophetess, regress, retrogress, stress, success, suppress, tendresse, top-dress, transgress, tress, tristesse, underdress, vicomtesse, yes •Jewess • shepherdess • Borges •battledress • Mudéjares • headdress •protectress • egress • ingress •minidress • nightdress • congress •sundress • procuress • murderess •letterpress • watercress • shirtdress •access

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"progress." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Sep. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"progress." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/progress

"progress." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved September 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/progress