Progress, the Idea of

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In broad terms a popular belief in "progress" means the rejection of an attitude that has characterized most human communities throughout history. Normally, people have believed that the future would repeat the past. When they have expected that human life was going to change, they have usually supposed that this change was going to take place suddenly and radically, by supernatural intervention. And if they have permitted themselves to hope for the improvement of the human condition, the hope has commonly been directed toward salvation from the world rather than reform of the world. By and large, historical change, when people have been aware of it at all, has been viewed as a sign of mortality and the proof of a lapse from ideal standards. Indeed, in many societies there has been a popular conviction that humankind's condition has changed in the course of history but for the worse. Characteristically, when people have believed in a golden age, they have put that age in the past rather than the future.

In contrast, in modern Western societies change and innovation have a different place in the popular imagination. Not everyone assumes that all change is necessarily for the better, but it is widely assumed, even by conservatives, that only a society that has a general capacity to change is capable of surviving. And despite wars and depressions a large proportion of the members of Western societies have tended to expect that, short of a cataclysm, their children would live happier and better lives than they. They have supposed that this improvement would be cumulative and continuing and that although temporary setbacks, accidents, and disasters might take place, human knowledge, power, and happiness would increase over the long run.

The emergence of this idea is the product of a variety of circumstances, such as the accumulation of an economic surplus, the increase of social mobility, and the occurrence of major inventions that have dramatically increased human power over nature. Over and above these, however, the idea of progress is peculiarly a response to the emergence of the unique social institution of organized scientific inquiry.

History of the Idea

Seeds of the faith in progress can be found in the works of the two great spokesmen for the new science, Francis Bacon and René Descartes. The fundamental elements of the idea itself were developed in the course of the so-called quarrel of the ancients and the moderns, which occupied writers and critics in the last part of the seventeenth century. At the heart of this controversy was a dispute over the authority that should be attributed to the opinions and examples left by the ancient writers. Was it the task of scholars to stand as sentinels at the gate, guarding against innovation and protecting established styles and beliefs? The controversy implicitly raised not only literary questions but the larger question of what attitude toward the past should govern the intellectual life.

In developing their position, the moderns argued that the partisans of the ancients were misled by a false analogy. They looked upon the ancients as their forefathers and therefore thought of the ancients as older and, in consequence, wiser than themselves. But just as the individual grows older and presumably wiser as time goes by, so does humanity. The so-called ancients were really the young men of humanity, and those alive today were the true ancients. They stood on the shoulders of their predecessors and could see farther; their wisdom and authority was greater than the wisdom and authority of their predecessors. This argument was developed with particular force by Bernard de Fontenelle in his Digression sur les anciens et les modernes (published in 1683).

The analogy between the history of humankind and the life of an individual had already been developed, however, by a number of writers. Blaise Pascal, for example, used it in drawing a belief in intellectual progress from an examination of the nature of scientific inquiry. In 1647, Pascal had published a study, Nouvelles expériences touchant le vide, which encountered immediate objections from many scientists and philosophers, including Descartes, on the ground that it denied the time-honored truth that nature abhorred a vacuum. Pascal replied to one of his critics, Father Noel, that an appeal to inherited authority had no force where the study of physics was concerned. And in a longer essay, Fragment d'un traité du vide, he went on to give general reasons for moderating the respect for received authority. "The experiments which give us an understanding of nature multiply continually," he pointed out, "from whence it follows that not only each man advances in the sciences day by day, but that all men together make continual progress in them as the universe grows older." Pascal believed, however, that such progress took place only where the experimental methods of the sciences were relevant. In theology received authority set the final limits to inquiry, for there the object was not to add to the knowledge provided by ancient authority but only to understand as fully as possible what that authority revealed.

During the eighteenth century, however, and particularly in France an increasing number of intellectuals came to believe that the methods and spirit of science should be applied to all fields. In consequence, the idea of progress came to include a concept of social and moral progress. The cumulative improvement in human knowledge and power that had been brought about in the physical sciences could also be brought about in the organization of human society and the character of human conduct, it was asserted, if only the barriers that existed against the employment of rational methods in morals, religion, and politics could be removed. The Encyclopedists, chief among whom were Denis Diderot and Jean d'Alembert, led in the dissemination of this point of view. The most complete and moving expression of this faith in progress was the Marquis de Condorcet's Esquisse d'un tableau historique des progrès de l'esprit humain, written in 1793.

In the nineteenth century a new kind of historicist philosophy emerged that rejected the eighteenth-century conception of reason and the sharp dichotomy between the present and the past that had been made by believers in progress. This philosophy, best represented by G. W. F. Hegel, substituted the view that history followed its own inherent course of development and that this course of development embodied rational principles higher than those of merely human reason. Since this form of historicist philosophy identifies all conceivable changes as elements in an unfolding rational purpose, it deprives the idea of progress of definite meaning.

The more definite and combative eighteenth-century conception of progress, however, also continued to be a central theme in the thought of the nineteenth century. In one form or another, major figures of the century, such as Karl Marx, Auguste Comte, and John Stuart Mill, all propounded the doctrine. Although Marx, Comte, and Mill were influenced, each in his own way, by historicist ideas, each retained the characteristic eighteenth-century emphasis on the struggle between reason and superstition, on the movement of humankind away from theological and metaphysical modes of thought to positive or empirical habits of mind, and on the importance of extending the standards and methods of the sciences to all domains.

In the twentieth century the idea of progress continued to have adherents, particularly among American pragmatists, Marxists, and logical empiricists. For obvious historical reasons, however, advocates of the belief in progress have become steadily more modest in their claims since World War I, and since the turn of the twentieth century the idea of progress has been seized on by an increasing number of philosophers, theologians, and social critics as the prime fallacy of the tradition of liberalism and rationalism.

Analysis of the Idea

In tracing the history of the idea of progress, it is useful to distinguish between two motifs. Generally speaking, the belief in progress has been supported by an appeal to the progress of the sciences. In many cases, however, this appeal has consisted in showing that the sciencesusually some particular sciencehad uncovered fundamental truths that had been previously unknown and that progress would now take place if only these truths were accepted as guides to practice. Thus, progress has been said to be guaranteed if people lived by the fundamental principles disclosed by the science of economics, if they accepted the laws of historical development revealed by a scientific approach to history, or if they extended to the government of human society the Darwinian doctrine of evolution by natural selection. Progress has also been thought to be guaranteed if people could only come to recognize certain rational moral principles, such as universal natural rights. Such universal principles, though antecedent to any particular science, were nevertheless closely identified with science, for it was assumed that their validity would be apparent to anyone who could disencumber himself from the superstitions and prejudices of the past and that this process of disengagement was immensely accelerated by the advent of science. This conception of the nature and conditions of progress lends itself to Utopian and Messianic interpretations of progress when understood as an ideal but to the reduction of the idea, in G. M. Young's phrase, "from an aspiration to a schedule" when associated with rigid, a priori approaches to the problem of improving the human condition.

A second motif in the theory of progress, however, has associated progress not with any particular discoveries of science or reason but with the unique, self-corrective methods of science. From this point of view the essential conditions for progress are the rejection of absolutes and fidelity to the principles of free, fallibilistic, experimental inquiry in all domains of thought and action. Even if we assume that it is valid to assert that the methods of science are universally applicable, this approach obviously imposes practical conditions for progress that are immensely difficult and perhaps impossible to realize. Accordingly, those who adopt this approach to the idea of progress can be taken to be saying only that there is a possibility of progress or, at best, a slow and uneven historical tendency that is characteristic only of societies possessing an appropriate ethic and social order and whose continuation is by no means ensured. In the past many proponents of the idea of progress undoubtedly underestimated the difficulties of domesticating within society at large the attitudes and habits of mind exemplified in scientific investigation. Nevertheless, insofar as their concept of progress depended simply on an appeal to the character of scientific procedure, they cannot be said merely to have offered a secularized version of older religious beliefs in a heavenly city, and criticisms of them for having done so, which are standard in much of the literature related to the history of the idea of progress, are a source of considerable confusion.

To be sure, the theories of progress that were developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are often based on a combination of these two motifs. In Condorcet's thought, for example, there can be found Utopian as well as realistic formulations of the idea of progress. Nevertheless, it is a mistake, on the whole, to associate the ideaparticularly as it arose in eighteenth-century Francewith the naive hope that human beings and human society could be made perfect. If we study the specific predictions that Condorcet made with regard to the future of humanity, for example, we find that he pointed ahead, with extraordinary prescience, to what are now such commonplace facts as the lengthening of life expectancy, social insurance, and the guarantee of equal legal rights to all citizens. Although none of these has brought the happiness and general reasonableness that Condorcet assumed they would, it was historical realism on his part, not juvenile innocence, to make such predictions. An inability to imagine the wretchedness of the past, not a cold, unillusioned understanding of the present, lies behind the failure to appreciate why reasonable men in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries should have been rhapsodic about the possibility of changes in the human condition that, in the light of contemporary heightened expectations, may tend to appear fairly modest.

scientific progress

What can be said with regard to the validity of the idea of progress? We must first ask what meaning can be assigned to the notion of scientific progress.

One frequent argument against the validity of the belief in scientific progress is that it contains a self-contradiction. The belief that there is scientific progress is usually attached to the argument that science is continually self-corrective. But if science never does anything but correct itself, is there any sense in speaking of scientific progress? Does not the concept of progress presuppose a fixed end or standard, and does not science, at any rate as interpreted by those who emphasize its fallibilism, deny that there can be fixed ends or standards? Progress, in short, appears to be a term without meaning, according to this view, unless it can be attached to metaphysical standards, such as absolute truth, whose status is antecedent to science.

This view fails, however, once it is recognized that progress can also refer to the solution of particular problems, not only to the movement toward a general and abstract goal. For example, meaning can obviously be assigned to the statement that science has made progress in determining the causes of malaria or in describing the characteristics of the other side of the moon. Such statements mean that there are now answers to questions to which there were no answers before and that these answers are in accord with the procedures of inquiry in force among competent scientific investigators. Once scientific progress is defined in terms of the solutions to particular problems, sense can also be given to the notion of cumulative scientific progress, for the general scientific capacity to solve problems has also tended to grow.

Some doubt has been thrown on these conclusions, however, by recent philosophers of science. Karl Popper, for example, argued that scientific theories and hypotheses are never genuinely confirmed but at best succeed only in resisting successive efforts to falsify them. Since the capacity of a scientific conclusion to survive a series of such efforts does not prove that it will always be able to do so, it would seem to make no sense to speak of successful or true solutions of scientific problems. Popper's view, however, seems to involve an unnecessarily paradoxical way of stating the truism that all scientific conclusions are subject to correction in the future. The survival of a scientific conclusion despite successive efforts to overthrow it adds to the degree of reliability that may reasonably be ascribed to it. It is just as possible to describe the critical position of scientists toward accepted conclusions as efforts to extend the range and reliability of these conclusions as it is to describe it as the expression of a compulsion to destroy what has been inherited. The accumulation of increasingly well-tested and continuously powerful ideas by the sciences is an obvious fact of their history, but as seen by Popper, it seems almost an accidental by-product.

Doubt has also been thrown on the belief in scientific progress by the view that the history of science is the record of revolutions in scientific theory so radical in character that it is impossible to establish the continuity between the ideas of one generation and the ideas of a later one. If this were true, it would be impossible a fortiori to establish a concept of progress, since such a concept presupposes a measure of continuity in the sequence of events under examination. Underlying this view is the thesis that the confirmation by experiment of particular hypotheses always entails the use of a specific theoretical framework. When this theoretical framework changes, observations are simply run through a different set of conceptual categories. Accordingly, it makes little sense, it is argued, to say that the sciences have improved or extended their knowledge, for all that has happened is that one body of beliefs has been substituted for another. This point of view raises epistemological and methodological questions of great complexity, and there is no room to discuss them sufficiently here. It appears to leave out of account, however, the consideration that, for example, fundamental principles of Newtonian physics can, with appropriate modifications, be absorbed into modern physical theories. It also appears to underestimate the implications of the fact that these principles, without substantial modification, continue to provide reliable instruments for the explanation and prediction of events in large sectors of macrophysics.

social and moral progress

Assuming that both meaning and truth can be assigned to the idea of progress in science, what is the status of the belief in social and moral progress? Obviously, the answer to this question depends in part on the standards employed as the touchstones of progress. However, some of the difficulties involved in stating and defending such standards can be circumvented if in this sphere we also define progress in terms of the successful solution of specific problems. Thus, there has been striking progress in the control of disease, in methods of farming, in material productivity, in the reduction of backbreaking labor, in the techniques of rapid mass communication, in the spread of literacy, and probably in the reduction of the amount of violence in everyday life.

Of course, it is theoretically possible to hold a moral code from whose standpoint one or more of these historical trends would be regarded as retrogressive rather than progressive. In fact, however, even though members of different contemporary cultures (and members of the same culture) hold widely disparate moral outlooks, there are few informed and disinterested observers, whatever their moral outlooks, who regard any of these trends, considered in themselves, as movements in the wrong direction. And most would also look upon many other historical trends that have characterized the modern worldfor example, the development of more humane attitudes in penology, the abolition of slavery and serfdom, the spread of the doctrine of basic human rightsin a similarly favorable light. To this extent it is possible to speak with a measure of precision and truth of social and moral progress.

But this answer, of course, goes only part of the way. On at least two scores it is incomplete. First, it is reasonable to ask whether the gains that have been mentioned have not been bought at a cost that more than cancels them out; second, it is possible to ask how we are to vindicate the moral principles in terms of which we assess these gains as gains.

The cost of progress.

It is not possible, of course, to give a wholly unequivocal answer to the question of the cost of progress. The notion that large-scale historical trends can be neatly categorized as good or bad belongs to eschatology, not to mature historical analysis. If the reduction of civil violence, considered in itself, is a progressive trend, contemporary mass warfare and genocide must be considered retrogressive; if rapid mass communication is a benefit to humankind, the use of the facilities of communication for totalitarian thought control is a calamity. Moreover, the successful solution of many problems often creates new and more difficult ones. The control of disease, for example, has created a serious threat of overpopulation. And by what calculus can one measure the gains brought about, for example, by industrial innovations against the losses brought about by mass warfare or cyclical unemployment? A moral accounting system for judging even much simpler matters than these does not exist.

Nevertheless, if the span of time we measure is sufficiently long, it remains true that on the whole the physical lot of most ordinary people has considerably improved in modern societies and that this has largely been due to the application of rational techniques to the economy. The cost has been grievous, and many of the sacrifices this progress has entailed could probably have been avoided if people had employed reasonable forethought and had shown reasonable respect for the equities. Admittedly, too, it is difficult to say whether this physical progress has made individuals "happier"; indeed, it is doubly difficult to say this, for "happiness" is in part a function of what people expect, and physical progress has meant an enormous expansion of their expectations. Nevertheless, it is doubtful that most of those who put forward the view that the costs of material progress outweigh the benefits would willingly exchange places with any but the most privileged members of past societies if they actually had the chance.

Nor must we confine ourselves to a belief in purely physical or material progress. The role of fantasy, ignorance, superstition, and fanaticism in determining the world's affairs continues to be enormous. It is doubtful, however, whether so many members of human societies, from housewives to statesmen, have ever before thought it reasonable to make decisions on the basis of carefully acquired and sifted information, and never before have societies possessed as much knowledge about themselves and their workings as they do now, shaky and scattered though that knowledge is. Only if one thinks it morally dangerous to seek reliable information before making decisions or thinks it mistaken to try to employ rational methods in the study of human affairs can he declare such long-range social trends to be anything but progressive. Indeed, the very reason that the members of an educated modern society bear a particularly heavy burden of responsibility for the emergence of doctrines such as Nazism is that they have opportunities to be informed and judicious which members of other societies did not have. In sum, although it is not possible to say in wholesale terms that there has been moral progress, it is possible to assert that the context of human behavior has changed and that the collective capacity to achieve human purposes, whether good or ill, has enormously increased. The expectations that it is reasonable to impose on modern social arrangements are therefore justifiably higher than those that may have been reasonable in the past. In this modified but important sense it is fair to speak of moral progress.

Justification of moral standards.

All the preceding reflections, however, obviously presuppose the validity of a secular, liberal, and rationalistic moral code. In the end, as must be obvious, objections to the idea of progress usually turn on fundamental differences in values. Whether the validity of one fundamental moral outlook as against another can be demonstratively proved is an issue that falls beyond the scope of the present article. If we assume, however, that we cannot resolve these differences in a way that will satisfy traditional standards of demonstrative certainty, there is no so-called ultimate answer to the question of whether modern society has been the scene of genuine progress.

It is possible, however, to show that a relativistic moral philosophy is perfectly compatible with a belief in progress, for it is not true that a relativistic philosophy cannot make any meaningful statements about progress because it has to grant that there are different moral standards and that all are equally valid. First, even if there is no way of proving the absolute validity of a moral outlook, there is still a way of intelligently and objectively assessing its credentials. The moral ideals that underlie the indictment of modern civilization for its excessive individualism and egalitarianism made by T. S. Eliot, for example, would require, if they were to be seriously employed as positive programs for action, the dismantling of large segments of industrial society. Since we may assume that those who put forward such criticisms would wish medical science to continue its work, for example, and would accept a world population at something like its present size, we must conclude that their announced preferences are both unrealistic and incoherent because they are incompatible with other values that they also hold. An examination of available resources, of the costs of maintaining or instituting alternative systems of values, and of the utility of these systems as guides to the resolution of definite historical problems provides a way of choosing among competing moral outlooks and makes the choice something more than a matter of personal whim or social convention.

Second, although the philosophical relativist may believe that apart from the specification of definite problems in determinate historical contexts, there is no way of showing that a moral code is valid, this does not mean that he does not himself hold any moral standards or that he is any less attached to them than an absolutist would be. A twenty-first-century American looking at slavery in ancient Rome, for example, will regard it as a change for the better that slavery is now illegal in Western society, and he will do so whether or not he is a relativist. And to say that he might feel different if he were a Roman is irrelevant, for he is a twenty-first-century American, not a Roman, and it would be a different person with a different identity, not he, who felt different in the hypothetical circumstances. Similarly, if the standards of people in the future change, they may well disagree with us in regard to what has been progressive in history. But if these future judgments reverse present judgments, that does not bind a relativist living here and now to accept them. Nothing in his position requires him to say that progress is any historical trend that comes to be thought desirable.

Progress as a moral standard.

As a final consideration, it is important to recognize that the idea of progress in its most important aspect is itself a regulative moral ideal, not simply a belief about history. It represents a directing principle of intellectual and social action, instructing human beings to regard all social arrangements with a critical eye and to reject any claim that any human problem has been finally solved or must be left finally unsolved. To the extent that this idea of progress is embodied in moral codes and social systems, these codes and systems will contain deliberate provision for self-reform. The idea of progress thus represents the social application of the principle that inquiry should be kept open and that no bounds can legitimately be set to the authority of such free inquiry. As such, it would appear to be an indispensable belief for a fully liberal civilization.

See also Alembert, Jean Le Rond d'; Bacon, Francis; Comte, Auguste; Condorcet, Marquis de; Conservatism; Descartes, René; Diderot, Denis; Eliot, Thomas Stearns; Encyclopédie; Fontenelle, Bernard Le Bovier de; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Liberalism; Logical Positivism; Marx, Karl; Marxist Philosophy; Mill, John Stuart; Pascal, Blaise; Popper, Karl Raimund; Pragmatism; Rationalism; Scientific Revolutions; Utopias and Utopianism.


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