views updated May 29 2018


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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 .


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


views updated May 21 2018


The idea of progress is unique to the cultural tradition of Western Europe and from its birth has had a strong association with ethical issues raised by new knowledge and technological innovation. Although there are allusions to it in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the concept first appeared in its modern sense in the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. The idea was introduced by the early humanists in the context of their invention of the division of history into three periods: a classical age, encompassing the cultures of Greece and Rome from about 600 b.c.e. to 400 c.e.; a culturally dark "middle age" from about 400 to 1300; and their own age, self-proclaimed as a renaissance, or rebirth, of cultural excellence that began in the fourteenth century. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, progress was explicitly coupled to the primacy of objective reason in human affairs and the promise of technological progress became an explicit dogma of the eighteenth century Enlightenment. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, progress became the mantra of industrial capitalism, proclaiming the blessing it conferred on society even as the reality of progress came under attack, first by the Romantics, then by philosophers and intellectuals more broadly, and finally by social and political activists.

Defining Progress

What the word progress means has thus changed significantly since the mid-fourteenth century. Common to all definitions, however, is the claim that something is better than it had been and promises to get better still in the future. What that something is, is what has changed over time. For the humanists, the something was high culture—literature, poetry, painting, sculpture, and architecture—and, perhaps surprisingly for humanists to be proud of, technology. All of these, they argued, were better in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries than they had been and they promised to keep getting better. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the definition of progress, though it looked to the growing power of modern science as evidence, widened to an identification of progress with intellectual and social reform, and thus with the claim that the subject of progress was the human condition itself, which not only could be, but in fact was being improved by the efforts of human beings themselves. Through initiative, courage, reason, and inventiveness, it was argued, individuals were improving the world in which they found themselves and in the process making people better as people.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the idea of progress became increasingly complex and controversial. For one thing, the claim that art and literature were progressing fell out of favor. They changed, of course, but many dismissed any judgment that impressionism was better than Renaissance painting or that Yeats was a better poet than Milton. Cultural forms change but do not move toward an ultimate perfection, nor do there exist objective criteria for judging across these forms. Meanwhile contemporary science and technology in effect co-opted the idea of progress, claiming improvement as self-evident. And even as the ideal of human progress shaped nineteenth- and twentieth-century social and political reform movements—liberalism, socialism, and communism—increasingly strident challenges were raised against the claim that the human condition and human beings had improved in any essential way.

The bitterness of the criticism of progress in the late-twentieth century was in part the legacy of two murderous world wars, in part the failure of many social and political reform movements to effect lasting improvements in the quality of life when they achieved power, and in part a response to the emergence of environmental, social, and personal problems linked to applications of increasingly powerful scientific theories and technological innovations. Relevant, too, was the historicism and relativism of much twentieth-century social science and philosophy, according to which there were no universal, objective, and hence value-neutral criteria for judging whether a change of any sort was an unqualified improvement. In the realm of technology, there are objective criteria for comparing and evaluating changes because artifacts are means to ends defined by their makers. Given the intended purpose of a camera, for example, one model can be said to be better or worse than another. But because the notion of purpose or end in relation to nature was abandoned in modern science, there is no basis in science or in technology for judging the value of the ends to be served by technologies and therefore no basis for judging that changes to natural entities are improvements. This isolation of ends from means creates an ethical gulf between technical knowledge and its applications that was only fully appreciated in the second half of the twentieth century, a gulf that further undermined claims of progress even in science and technology.

Progress as Threat and Ideal

From its introduction by the humanists, progress was a profoundly new and a profoundly secular idea, and the claim of real and promised improvement that it made was extraordinarily bold. The idea of progress challenged what had been a deeply rooted belief in pre-modern Western culture, inherited from antiquity, that the golden age of humankind lay in the past and that the aging of the Earth entailed decay for it and its inhabitants, analogous to the aging of individual living organisms. Furthermore the idea of progress implies a directionality to history and to time that contrasts sharply with the cyclical conceptions of time and of history dominant in antiquity. Finally the idea of progress implies an activist role for humans in defining their well-being and in causing it, in the present and for the future.

Judaism and Christianity, through their respective messianic and salvational doctrines, had already introduced an anticlassical directionality to history and time, but this directionality was the culmination of a divine plan and in the hands of God; it was not open to calculated, self-interested human intervention. Attributing value to improving the human cultural or material condition in a Christian context posed a direct challenge to transcendent religious values, and the claim that humans could by their own efforts make themselves better posed an even greater threat. The broad public appeal of and occasional resistance to the ideology of progress, first in Europe and then globally, thus reveals a great deal about these societies and their deepest values.

In the fourteenth century, long before the first hints of modern science or modern philosophy, the idea of progress had already emerged in Western Europe, tentatively in the context of the twelfth- and thirteenth-century university movement, but clearly in the writings of the poet Petrarch, heir to Dante and father of humanism. The humanists are inaccurately depicted as worshipping Greek and Roman literary culture and seeking to reconstruct it imitatively. Petrarch's conception of a Renaissance was not the rebirth of antique ways of living and writing in the manner of a Williamsburg, Virginia. It was a rebirth of the style standard set in antiquity, after a long dark age during which this standard, especially in literature, art, and manners, was debased. As a start, then, but only as a start, the humanists sought by emulation first to recover, then to master, and ultimately to improve upon, what the Ancients had achieved—to use ancient texts as stepping-stones to still greater accomplishment. Bees, Petrarch noted, take pollen from flowers but transform it into honey, which is better than pollen. This is the humanist conception of progress: to take the pollen of stylistic excellence from ancient art and transform it into the honey of still greater art.

The idea of progress is expressed clearly enough here for it to have become an issue by the end of the fifteenth century. With the invention of increasingly powerful gunpowder-based weaponry; of printing by movable metal type followed by the rapid growth of a vigorous international printed book industry; of central vanishing point perspective and the flowering of Renaissance art and sculpture; of new, more complex forms of musical harmony and composition; of new, more powerful types of machinery; and with the voyages of discovery east to India and west to the Americas, culminating in Magellan's circumnavigation of the globe in 1525, all enabled by new techniques of mapmaking and navigation, defenders of progress argued that the ancients had been far surpassed by the moderns. There followed, throughout the sixteenth century and into the seventeenth, set piece entertainments, popular in courts across Western Europe and in many books and essays, called the Battle of the Ancients and the Moderns in which the claim that we were superior to ancient predecessors was defended against the argument that the ancients were superior in quality, as human beings, in spite of subsequent superficial technological superiority.

By the 1660s, the idea of progress was no longer open for debate. Joseph Glanville's Plus Ultra (1668) was a paean to the new experimental philosophy, enabling humankind to go further, to exceed all limitations previously set by ignorance and superstition (and religion!) on what people can know and achieve. While the engine of progress in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries had been identified with inventiveness or creativity, especially in art and technology, with the seventeenth-century rise of modern science and philosophy, the engine of progress became reason, especially as exemplified in science and mathematics. This identification of progress with reason became a central dogma of modernism: that through the exercise of reason human beings can improve life on Earth without limit. In both modern philosophy, whether rationalist or empiricist, and in modern science, reason subsumes inventiveness and shifts the focus of progress from art and technology to understanding, with technological innovation merely a fruit or byproduct of understanding.

It is this version of the idea of progress that is at the heart of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and expressed in Thomas Paine's Age of Reason (1795). It is the justification for the republican experiment that created the United States and inspired the French revolution; that without kings, history, or God, the exercise of reason alone can create better societies than have ever existed, societies in which people will be happier, healthier, more prosperous, longer-lived, and more productive, for themselves and for others. The clear expectation that basing action on reason would produce better people is articulated in the Marquis de Condorcet's 1793 "Sketch for a Historical Depiction of the Progress of the Human Mind" (L'esprit humaine), written, ironically and tragically, on the eve of Condorcet's imprisonment by agents of the very Revolution whose ideals he proclaimed.

Progress Under Attack

The case for the rationalist interpretation of progress was based on the manifest superiority of modern science over ancient, medieval, and Renaissance science, of modern philosophy—René Descartes, Benedict de Spinoza, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, John Locke, and Immanuel Kant—over ancient, medieval, and Renaissance philosophy, and on the continually increasing power of technology, especially after the invention in the late-eighteenth century of mass production machinery and the steam engine. But the Romantic poets, novelists, and playwrights—among them Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Blake, and William Wordsworth in England, and Novalis and Heinrich Wilhelm Kleist in Germany—rejected the hegemony of reason in human affairs, the capacity of reason to serve as an engine of truly human progress, and even the possibility of a happy ending to human history by creating an earthly, secular version of Paradise. With the spread of the Industrial Revolution and the dark Satanic mills (as Blake called them) that were its progeny, of the railroads with their noise and pollution, with the growing, poverty-ridden urban proletariat, the case for social progress weakened.

Progress within science and in technology, however, could hardly be gainsaid. Scientific theories clearly kept getting better in terms of explanatory power, prediction, control, and revelation of hitherto unknown aspects of reality. New inventions—steam-powered factories, ships, and railroads; the telegraph; synthetic dyes; electricity; the telephone; the automobile; and flight—gave people unprecedented capabilities and poured out in seemingly endless profusion. But the note that had been sounded in the sixteenth-century Battle of the Ancient and the Moderns was sounded again: Does any of this scientific and technological progress mean social or human progress? Does it make people better? Is the human condition in fact better than it was before, or is it merely different? Again every improvement entails a change, but not every change entails an improvement!

On what grounds can people judge which changes are improvements? How can they tell which capabilities provided by technological innovations are worth adopting? To whom or to what do people turn to learn how to apply knowledge or implement innovations and set goals, for which particular technologies can provide helpful means? In the absence of goals, means become ends in themselves. Neither technology nor science can help to identify which ends to pursue with their aid: technology because it is purely a means, and science because value-neutrality is central to the methodology of modern science.

The equation of progress with the application of value-neutral reason became increasingly problematic in the course of the nineteenth century. Echoing the earlier Romantic poets, philosophers from Arthur Schopenhauer and Søren Kierkegaard to Friedrich Nietzsche and Henri-Louis Bergson formulated criticisms of reason that undermined its capacity to serve as the engine of human or social progress. By the end of World War I, the claim that through science and reason Western societies and their inhabitants had improved rang hollow. This feeling was intensified by the global slaughter of World War II, a war in which the most advanced forms of value-neutral rationality, science, and technology were proudly allied to the value-laden nonrationality of politics.

The Price of Progress

In the course of the twentieth century, then, it became clear that the price of modern science and science-based technology was that the ties between knowledge and action were sundered. Even as the rate of development of theories in the sciences and the pace of technological innovation accelerated, driven by massive public and corporate funding and by the creation of reinforcing social institutions, even as science and technology became the dominant agents of social change and became inextricably entangled with personal and social life and values, the ethical divide separating knowledge and action widened. It seemed that progress could be defined unequivocally with respect to scientific theory change and technological innovation, but claims that social and personal life style changes were progressive were highly equivocal. Suddenly the ethical implications of science and technology became central issues for society, but there existed no conceptual tools, comparable in power to those available to scientists and engineers, for grappling with these issues, nor did the average person have the political and economic power to challenge the institutions that exploited science and technology.

In fact even the confidence that progress could be defined objectively with respect to scientific theory change and technological action was severely shaken in the 1960s. Technological change can be evaluated objectively but only with respect to parameters that incorporate arbitrary value judgments: A high speed Internet connection is better than a slower speed connection if the values of speed and of being connected to the Internet at all are accepted as givens. These values, of course, cannot be judged objectively. An analogous challenge was raised with respect to science, because from its beginning modern science had as its primary objectives discovering the nature of things, revealing the hidden causes of why things happen, and disclosing reality. In the nineteenth century, questions were raised about the relation between increasingly abstract mathematical physical models of nature and what was really out there, but the prevailing view remained that scientific theories changed because newer theories were truer to reality than older ones. To be sure, quantum theory raised more serious questions about the relation between physics and reality than had been asked in the nineteenth century; and the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics invented by Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg argued that physics could not provide a picture of reality, only an empirically satisfactory account of experience.

It was only in the 1960s, however, that a broad consensus grew among intellectuals, challenging the progressive and objective character of scientific knowledge. People had no real access to the new realities that scientists claimed to be encountering and thus no way to know whether such advances truly constituted progress. This consensus was precipitated by the debate over Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), which led to a broad historical, philosophical, and social scientific critique of the concept of objectivity and for many scholars a rejection of the possibility of objective knowledge. This in turn triggered the so-called Science Wars of the 1980s and 1990s in which the objectivity of scientific knowledge and the progressive character of scientific theory change were defended by physical and life scientists. But even if the objectivity of scientific knowledge were conceded, bridging the ethical gulf between value-neutral knowledge and its applications remains an issue in the early-twenty-first century.


SEE ALSO Change and Development;Development Ethics;Theodicy;Wells, H. G.;Wittgenstein, Ludwig.


Becker, Carl. (1993). The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers. New Haven, CT: Yale. An important early twentieth century historian's analysis of the goals of enlightenment social and political reformers. Very well written.

Burtt, Edwin A. (2003). The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science. New York: Dover. A classic pre-1960s study of the ideas and values underlying the seventeenth century scientific revolution.

Goldman, Steven L., ed. (1989). Science, Technology and Social Progress. Bethlehem, PA: Lehigh University Press. A collection of thought-provoking essays by scientists, historians and philosophers on the question of whether modern science and technology have improved the quality of human life.

Hacking, Ian. (2000). The Social Construction of What? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. A clearly written, balanced, and insightful account of the "science wars" of the late twentieth century.

Kelly, Donald R. (1991). Renaissance Humanism. Boston: Twayne. Excellent introduction to the distinctive ideas and values of key humanist thinkers and why they are important to understanding the riser of modernity.

Kitcher, Philip. (2001). Science, Truth and Democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Excellent, deeply thought-provoking discussion of bridging the gap between technical knowledge and its applications in a democratic society.

Kuhn, Thomas. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press. This is the book—short, sharply focused and clear—that precipitated the challenge to the claims that scientific knowledge was truly objective.


views updated May 17 2018




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.


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


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


views updated Jun 27 2018


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


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


views updated Jun 08 2018

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.


views updated May 23 2018

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.


views updated May 09 2018

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.

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