Progress, Idea of

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The idea of progressthe idea that human society can be made ever better by conscious effort, or that society is becoming ever better by spontaneous laws of historyis relatively new. The idea was virtually unknown in classical antiquity. In each of the three greatest books of that period, what we think of as progress is explicitly denied. In Plato's Republic, even the best possible political regime, based on the rule of the philosopher-king, is subject to inevitable decay and descent into tyranny. In the Politics, Aristotle argues that while frequent change is good in the arts and sciences it is not good in matters of politics and law. And Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War begins with the famous "archaeology" meant to remind the reader of the oblivion into which even the mightiest human empires must inevitably fall. In the classical mind, the prevailing view was that the courses of time and the motions of the universe consist of endless cycles of rise and fallcreation is always followed by dissolution. It took the coming of the Bible for the courses of time to be understood as a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. But with the Christian doctrine of sin and redemption in the heavens and not on this earth, it was many centuries before the biblical understanding of history was reinterpreted in the direction of human redemption on this earth and by secular means.

The First Prophet of Progress

Not even the coming of the Renaissance in Europe paved the way for the idea of progress. One could argue, in fact, that Renaissance humanism, with its focus on and reverence for classical antiquity, made it harder to conceive of progress, since the rebirth of learning in the Renaissance required looking backward from a condition of contemporary decay. This was certainly the view espoused by the first great thinker to broach the idea of progress as we know it: Francis Bacon (15611626). Bacon was, according to the biologist E. O. Wilson, the "grand architect" of the Enlightenment, the intellectual movement of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that gave birth to the idea of progress. According to Bacon, classical thought had infected Christian learningespecially in the form of Scholasticismand had thus long retarded real progress of knowledge. The much revered "ancients" (in particular Plato and Aristotle) had, in Bacon's view, confused theology and natural science and as a result had spun out a teleological and speculative natural science that took nature to be a kind of God and revealed nothing of what nature really is. The humble and anonymous invention of the compass, said Bacon, did more to advance the human race than all the contemplative philosophy of the ancients, who prided themselves on respecting "theory" over mere "practice." Until the debilitating yoke of classical thought was removed from the human mind the real lesson of the Christian faith could not be followed up: the world is not a God and is but the object of divine art, wisdom, and powerand, ultimately, the object also of human art, wisdom, and power. Once the human mind was freed from the spell of the ancients, and once metaphysical speculation was replaced by knowledge based on experience and induction and organized by clear and regular methods, the real courses of nature could be revealed and nature could be conquered "for the relief of man's estate." In Bacon's view, when the harsh constraints of nature were removed from the human body, so too would be removed the vain illusions that disturb the soul and roil political life. On the foundation of modern science would rise the rational and secular state, whose business is progress.

The discovery of the humble compass, as Bacon pointed out, doubtless expanded massively the horizon of navigation, and advancements in shipbuilding must soon have followed. But there is an important difference between such facts of technical progress and the idea of progressthe idea that such inventions will necessarily lead to greater human happiness and justice, or the idea that society can be ordered so as to produce such inventions and such happiness with ever increasing speed and to ever increasing good effects. The idea of progress as an organized and benevolent project was first broached by Bacon, who was revered by the figures of the later Enlightenment of the eighteenth century.

Although ideas may be the real queens of the world, they do not work their effects in immediate or in smooth and direct ways. So for a hundred years after Bacon's death in 1626 a literary and philosophical dispute called the quarrel between the ancients and moderns was waged in France and England over the issue of whether human thought and knowledge had degenerated from its height in classical antiquity, or whether modern times were more intellectually advanced, if only because of the accumulated wisdom of longer historical experience. In his 1688 pamphlet entitled Digression on the Ancients and the Moderns, the French philosopher Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle argued that indeed progress in the arts and sciences is both open-ended and necessary and proceeds according to laws of its own, having nothing to do with the efforts of particular thinkers. Fontenelle's argument added a significant new dimension to the idea of progress. Bacon's conception was voluntaristic, in the sense that a conscious reformation of the mind would produce the deliberate establishment of scientific and political institutions to produce material and moral progress. With Fontenelle we see the first appearance of the idea that progress is an historical process that moves as a force on its own, independently of human will, and that it can be traced in the record of human history and seen in one's own time.

Inevitable Progress

This new dimension introduced by Fontenelle was to become very important later on, but was often based more on faith than on clear evidence of the superiority of contemporary life. This dependence on faith sprang from a reason revealed by Fontenelle himself: the progress of knowledge and science, even if necessary and unending, did not in Fontenelle's mind lead necessarily to the amelioration of society and to increased human happiness. At the very least, it is not always obvious that progress in the arts and sciences leads to moral progress or to greater justice in society. Along with the compass, Bacon had mentioned the invention of gunpowder as among the most important discoveries in the practical arts. It is by no means clear that the invention of gunpowder was an unmitigated blessing. All the more reason, then, to see progress as inevitable but visible only retrospectively. It takes such faith to think that technological and social change, which are often violent and unsettling as we experience them, are necessarily for the better. At any rate, it was still some time before the Baconian theme of social transformation by science and reason became an active public project, enshrined in the famous Encyclopédie, published in France between 1751 and 1772. The Encyclopédie was edited by Denis Diderot and contained work by the dazzling group of thinkers called the philosophes, a group that included the likes of Voltaire, Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jean Le Rond d'Alembert, Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, and François Quesnay. Its purpose was to present a compendium of existing knowledge in popular form, and it was meant as well to disclose the irrationality and defects of existing society and to trumpet the crucial-for-progress doctrine that human nature is sufficiently malleable to be reformed. With the publication of the Encyclopédie, the Enlightenment project for progress became a clarion call.

It was not long after that France and the whole of the West was convulsed by the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror, and the Napoleonic aftermath. In one of the great ironies of modern history, the first full-fledged work to broach explicitly the doctrine of progress was written by a victim of the revolution he supported. Marie-Jean Caritat, marquis de Condorcetone of the brilliant minds of the French Enlightenment and a contributor to the Encyclopédie wrote his famous Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind while in desperate flight from the Jacobin radicals. Condorcet died in prison after having been discovered and beaten by an angry mob. Even so, Condorcet was convinced that the American Revolution and the spreading opposition to slavery were signs of moral progress visible in his time, and from this perspective he argued that the whole of human history is a connected series of stages in which the human mind has progressed, and as the mind progresses so too do the possibilities of material progress and moral and political reform. Human history is not a jumble of meaningless accidents, but moves and changes slowly for the better according to knowable laws. With Condorcet, the Baconian project, which linked scientific and moral progress, was derived from inexorable laws of history as much as from conscious human action and invention. Absent his "demonstration" of these laws, it might have been difficult for the suffering Condorcet to retain his optimistic spirit.

In the four or so decades after the publication of Condorcet's Sketch in 1795, the idea of progress was developed by two French thinkers into a school of thought known as positivism. The first, Claude-Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de Saint-Simon (17601825), was a founder of French socialism and a writer, pamphleteer, and journalist who worked out a theory that claimed to unearth the necessary laws of historical and social change. According to Saint-Simon, human history is characterized by alternating and advancing periods. Social and intellectual forms are first built and made to cohere, and this is followed by revolutionary criticism and change. Not the least of the critical periods was the Enlightenment and the subsequent French Revolution. For Saint-Simon, the alternating historical periods were stages of mental development. As the mind progresses to the present time, it becomes possible to grasp both the physical and social worlds in terms of scientific knowledge involving no speculation or metaphysical assumptions, and hence both nature and society can be illuminated by "positive" knowledge. Those who have such knowledge will organize those who do not, and in particular the wise in positive science will organize a socialist society that will benefit the working classes. Indeed, the wise in the positive sciences will become a new clergy for a new, positive age.

Saint-Simon's theory received its full exposition at the hands of Auguste Comte (17981857), the self-professed founder of positive sociology. Again, the history of the human race is occasioned by transformations in ideas, progressing from the theological to the metaphysical, and then to the positive and scientific. With this conceptual scheme in mind, it is possible to divide human history into more specific periods marked by different religions and movements against them. In the present age the social world will be organized by sociologists according to the positive laws of sociology, and the eventual result will be a rational world without war and injustice.

Along with the rise of French positivism and sociology, the idea of progress grew as well, and in a different vein, in Germany. Even before Condorcet's Sketch, the philosopher Immanuel Kant published (in 1784) an essay entitled "Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose." A year later he published another essay entitled "Perpetual Peace." According to Kant, our practical reason impels us to postulate historical progress toward a point where happiness and morality coincide, and to look for signs that such progress has in fact occurred. Moreover, the means by which that progress takes place is antagonism and the "unsocial sociability" of men. Without the discordance between the selfish individual and society, humankind would have remained in an Arcadian sleep. The human powers and talents unleashed by antagonism are the means used by history to develop, over time, a form of civil society and a peaceful world order that will make universal justice possible. With Kant, we see an important new dimension of the idea of progress: the notion that history or nature uses human conflict for ultimately good ends. This notion came later to be expressed as the cunning of reason in the thought of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831), one of the most important figures in the history of the idea of progress.

According to Hegel, the history of the human race is produced by the dialectical contention among conflicting ideas of freedom and recognition. The movement is dialectical because each stage of history contains the conditions for its own demise and replacement by the next. Human history concerns the dialectical development of mind, and its stages proceed from the world in which it is thought that one man is free and all others are not, to one where it is thought that a few are free and all others are not, to a world where it is thought that all are free. In each case, what is thought is what is embodied in concrete institutions and social practices. The last stage has, in Hegel's mind, been reached and is embodied in the modern state characterized by equal rights, the rule of law, and the harmony among the separate spheres of expert political administration, economic and private life, and religion. With Hegel, we see another important dimension of the idea of progress: the end of history. For Hegel, human history is the story of progress, but that progressand so history as we know itnot only comes to an end but has come to an end in his time. There will, therefore, be no new struggles between forms of moral, political, and social life.

Hegel is important in his own right, but also because his thinking influenced perhaps the single most important theorist of progress: Karl Marx (18181883). Hegel's followers divided between the Old Hegelians and the Young Hegelians. The issue concerned the extent to which Hegel's system did or did not reconcile reason and religion. Marx was influenced by the Young Hegelians, who thought that the system required further critique of religion, but Marx rejected the idea of a dialectic of mind and replaced it with dialectical materialism. (And he accordingly derided the French socialism of Saint-Simon as utopian. Marx's associate Friedrich Engels, too, criticized Saint-Simon for trying to "evolve the solution to human problems out of the brain" rather than from material conditions.) According to Marx, the course of history is determined by the internal contradictions and class conflicts embedded in succeeding arrangements of the means of material production. As capitalism and the bourgeois monopoly of the means of production advance, traditional and rural forms of life are swept away. But as the productive power of revolutionary capitalism advances, so too does the impoverishment of the industrial proletariat, and inevitable crises of overproduction combine with that impoverishment to produce a revolution by the Communist Party that acts politically for the proletariat. With the coming of the revolution, the means of production are socialized, and with this oppression and inequality disappear, as does the coercive political state that will in time "wither away." Needless to say, Marxism was the most powerful political embodiment of the idea of inevitable progress in the twentieth century. Critics of the idea of progress might point out that more human beings perished at the hands of communism, which failed, than from any other idea or cause in the entire course of human history.

The Idea of Progress in the Anglo-American World

While the idea of progress was first announced by Francis Bacon in England, and while English philosophers (including Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, and especially John Locke) played an important role in the French and German Enlightenments, the idea of progress developed in more moderate and practical forms in England and America. There were English utopian thinkers in the nineteenth century, such as William Godwin (17561836) and Robert Owen (17711858), who broached theories of progress, human perfectibility, and socialism (Owen formed unsuccessful utopian communities in the United States). And in England by the end of the nineteenth century a strong socialist movement was in place. But socialism in England was far less revolutionary and utopian than its European counterparts, and in general the grand theories of historical progress were imported into England from the Continent. There is no doubt, however, that the idea of progress was important in the American political founding. Benjamin Franklin (17061790) and Thomas Jefferson (17431826) were zealous Baconians and, as is often noted, the Declaration of Independence owed much to the second treatise of Locke's optimistic Two Treatises of Civil Government (1690). But in America the idea of progress grew more from the Baconian idea that, given the right intellectual and political conditions, nature could be conquered "for the relief of man's estate." Progress was understood more as a real opportunity and fact of life than as some deep force at work in world history since the dawn of civilization. America represented a new world and a new hope and as such could stand as a light unto other less fortunate nations. Indeed, as Abraham Lincoln said in 1863 in the Gettysburg Address, and as he believed, the issue in the American Civil War was not just slavery, but whether democratic government would be a real possibility in the world. For the most part, however, the new world was thought to have left the old one behind, mired in misery and oppression, and on its own and with little help to be expected from progress.

In America's first century, the dominant intellectual focus was, for the most part, on limited government and the expansion of liberty, more than it was concerned with social transformation and equality of conditions. By the 1890s, however, immigration and industrialization and the practice of laissez-faire economics gave birth to a movement that unabashedly adopted the idea of progress as its name: "progressivism." The Progressive Era spanned the period roughly between 1890 and 1914, but it made a lasting mark on American politics (including the New Deal and beyond) and American political thought. One of the most influential exponents of progressivism was Herbert Croly, a thinker and journalist (and cofounder and editor of the New Republic ), whose two books, The Promise of American Life (1909) and Progressive Democracy (1914) were widely read and especially appreciated by Theodore Roosevelt. Croly was influenced by Hegel and by the American pragmatist thinkers, especially the American philosopher and educator John Dewey (who also appreciated Hegel). Croly's view of progress focused on the need to reform political institutions to cope with modern conditionsconditions that in his view were radically different from the world of the American constitutional framers. For Croly, the U.S.. Constitution reflected a now outdated and "reactionary" legalism that stood in the way of social reform and the moral development of the American community. While the constraints of constitutional legalism were appropriate to the nation's childhoodwhen moral immaturity and impulsiveness require legal restraintit is not appropriate for a more mature national community. As a consequence of this view, Croly and progressives in general disapproved of the Constitution and favored more direct forms of democracy tied to a more powerful and centralized government. And they favored as well the strong role of administrative and intellectual elites, including social scientists, in the formation of national policy and the fashioning of national character. In this they harked back to the views of the French positivists. The progressives' distinction between "progressive" and "conservative" is still acknowledged in the twenty-first centuryas is the essential difference between them. The progressive position sees more democracy as the cure to problems of democracy, likes change for its own sake, and favors state action to promote increased equality. Progressives tend to think that the march of history is on their side. The conservative position is distrustful of direct democracy, fears change for its unintended consequences, and sees the increasing power of the state as a danger to liberty. Thus conservatives have little faith in the healing power of history.

Whither the Idea of Progress

The twentieth century was not kind to believers in the idea of inevitable progress. One could say without exaggeration that between World War I and the collapse of the Soviet Union and communism, the West, bosom of the Enlightenment and the idea of progress, was convulsed by sanguinary madness unparalleled in the whole of human experience. Baconian progress produced the rifled barrel and the machine gun, and the latter were used by the Western "isms"nationalism, colonialism, communism, and fascismto transform Europe, Russia, and much of Asia into a charnel house. It is thus not surprising that in the twentieth century, intellectual currents began to challenge the idea of progress. The most fashionable of these currents included some forms of radical feminism and postmodernism. The two great thinkers of postmodernism were Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900) and Martin Heidegger (18891976), although their influence in America came more indirectly by way of the French thinkers, especially Jacques Derrida, influenced by Heidegger. According to postmodernism, the idea of the necessary progress of reason is incoherent because reasonespecially modern positive sciencecannot rationally justify the rule of reason over life. This fundamental limit of reason is itself a discovery made by reason. Reason learns that reason is itself but a way of life and projection of the will, and as such reason is one such projection (and a patriarchal one in the eyes of radical feminism) among many possibilities.

There is absolutely no doubt that science and technology now progress at geometrical speed. One need think only of genetic engineering and the computer to realize that the material world will be quite different very soon. As Benjamin Franklin predicted, some day humans will live three or four hundred years and old age will become a curable disease. But as the advent of postmodernism suggests, it will not be easy to predict what moral forms these long lives will adopt, or whether, if we could see into the future, we would see them as evidence of moral progress. In the United States, postmodernism is generally allied, perhaps paradoxically, with progressive or liberal movements such as multiculturalism and feminism. But postmodernism could just as easily be allied (as indeed it was in the case of Heidegger and the literary theorist Paul de Mann) with illiberal political irrationalism, or even with a new age of faith. As Nietzsche argued, the demise of reason as an ideal takes place at the hands of reason. If Nietzsche is correct, then the terminus of progress is the end of the "idea" of progress.

See also Cycles ; Enlightenment ; Hegelianism ; History, Idea of ; Marxism ; Postmodernism .


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Jerry Weinberger

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Progress, Idea of

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