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									Idea of Progress
In historiography, the Idea of Progress is the theory that advances in technology,
science, and social organization inevitably produce an improvement in the human
condition. That is, people can become happier in terms of quality of life (social progress)
through economic development (modernization), and the application of science and
technology (scientific progress). The assumption is that the process will happen once
people apply their reason and skills, for it is not divinely foreordained. The role of the
expert is to identify hindrances that slow or neutralize progress.

Historian J. B. Bury wrote in 1920:

         "To the minds of most people the desirable outcome of human
         development would be a condition of society in which all the inhabitants
         of the planet would enjoy a perfectly happy existence....It cannot be
         proved that the unknown destination towards which man is advancing is
         desirable. The movement may be Progress, or it may be in an undesirable
         direction and therefore not Progress..... The Progress of humanity belongs
         to the same order of ideas as Providence or personal immortality. It is true
         or it is false, and like them it cannot be proved either true or false. Belief
         in it is an act of faith.                                                        ”
Sociologist Robert Nisbet finds that "No single idea has been more important than...the
Idea of Progress in Western civilization for three thousand years.",and defines five
"crucial premises" of Idea of Progress:

    1.   value of the past
    2.   nobility of Western civilization
    3.   worth of economic/technological growth
    4.   faith in reason and scientific/scholarly knowledge obtained through reason
    5.   intrinsic importance and worth of life on earth.

The Idea of Progress emerged primarily in the Enlightenment in the 18th century.
Significant movements in this period were Diderot's Encyclopedia, which carried on the
campaign against authority and superstition, and the French Revolution.

Some scholars consider the idea of progress that was affirmed with the Enlightenment, as
a secularization of ideas from early Christianity, and a rework of ideas from ancient
Greece. The theory of evolution in the nineteenth century made progress a necessary law
of nature and gave the doctrine its first conscious scientific form. The idea was
challenged by the 20th century realization that destruction, as in the two world wars,
could grow out of technical progress.

Historian J. B. Bury argued that thought in ancient Greece was dominated by the theory
of world-cycles or the doctrine of eternal return, and was steeped in a belief parallel to
the Judaic "fall of man," but rather from a preceding "Golden Age" of innocence and
simplicity. Time was generally regarded as the enemy of humanity which depreciates the
value of the world. He credits the Epicureans with having had a potential for leading to
the foundation of a theory of Progress through their materialistic acceptance of the
atomism of Democritus as the explanation for a world without an intervening Deity. "For
them, the earliest condition of men resembled that of the beasts, and from this primitive
and miserable condition they laboriously reached the existing state of civilisation, not by
external guidance or as a consequence of some initial design, but simply by the exercise
of human intelligence throughout a long period."

Robert Nisbet and Gertrude Himmelfarb have attributed a notion of progress to other
Greeks. Xenophanes said "The gods did not reveal to men all things in the beginning, but
men through their own search find in the course of time that which is better." Plato's
Book III of The Laws depicts humanity's progress from a state of nature to the higher
levels of culture, economy, and polity. Plato's The Statesman also outlines a historical
account of the progress of mankind. The Roman philosopher Seneca[disambiguation needed ]
recognized the progress of knowledge, but he did not expect from it any improvement in
the world, because any advance in the arts and inventions promotes deterioration by
ministering to luxury and vice. Nisbet notes that the Christian idea of progress is a fusing
of Greek and Jewish concepts and that "nothing in the entire history of the idea of
progress is more important" than the Christian incorporation of Jewish millenarianism,
resulting in an understanding of time which is optimistic and progressive.,


The scientific advances of the 16th and 17th centuries provided a basis for the optimistic
outlook of Bacon's 'New Atlantis. In the 17th century Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle
argued in favor of progress with respect to arts and the sciences, saying that each age has
the advantage of not having to rediscover what was accomplished in preceding ages. The
epistemology of John Locke provided further support and was popularized by the
Encyclopedists Diderot, Holbach, and Condorcet. Locke had a powerful influence on the
American Founding Fathers.[8]

In the Enlightenment, French historian and philosopher Voltaire (1694–1778) was a
major proponent. At first Voltaire's thought was informed by the Idea of Progress
coupled with rationalism. His subsequent notion of the historical Idea of Progress saw
science and reason as the driving forces behind societal advancement. The first complete
statement of progress is that of Turgot, in his "A Philosophical Review of the Successive
Advances of the Human Mind" (1750). For Turgot progress covers not simply the arts
and sciences but, on their base, the whole of culture—manner, mores, institutions, legal
codes, economy, and society. Condorcet predicted the disappearance of slavery, the rise
of literacy, the lessening of inequalities between the sexes, reforms of harsh prisons and
the decline of poverty.

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) argued that progress is neither automatic nor continuous
and does not measure knowledge or wealth, but is a painful and largely inadvertent
passage from barbarism through civilization toward enlightened culture and the abolition
of war. Kant called for education, with the education of humankind seen as a slow
process whereby world history propels mankind toward peace through war, international
commerce, and enlightened self-interest.

Scottish theorist Adam Ferguson (1723–1816) defined human progress as the working
out of a divine plan, though he rejected predestination. The difficulties and dangers of life
provided the necessary stimuli for human development, while the uniquely human ability
to evaluate led to ambition and the conscious striving for excellence. But he never
adequately analyzed the competitive and aggressive consequences stemming from his
emphasis on ambition even though he envisioned man's lot as a perpetual striving with no
earthly culmination. Man found his happiness only in effort.

[edit] American Revolution

The intellectual leaders of the American Revolution—such as Benjamin Franklin, Tom
Paine, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, were immersed in Enlightenment thought and
believed the Idea of Progress meant that they could reorganize the political system to the
benefit of the human condition—for Americans and also, as Jefferson put it, for an
"Empire of Liberty" that would benefit all mankind. Thus was born the idea of inevitable
American future progress. What gave the American Revolution its widespread appeal and
linked it to all subsequent political revolutions was its association with the Idea of

The most original 'New World' contribution to historical thought was the idea that history
is not exhausted but that man may begin again in a new world. Besides rejecting the
lessons of the past, the Jeffersonians Americanized the Idea of Progress by democratizing
and vulgarizing it to include the welfare of the common man as a form of republicanism.
As Romantics deeply concerned with the past, collecting source materials and founding
historical societies, the Founding Fathers were animated by clear principles. They saw
man in control of his destiny, saw virtue as a distinguishing characteristic of a republic,
and were concerned with happiness, progress, and prosperity. Thomas Paine, combining
the spirit of rationalism and romanticism, pictured a time when America's innocence
would sound like a romance, and concluded that the fall of America could mark the end
of 'the noblest work of human wisdom.

That human liberty was put on the agenda of fundamental concerns of the modern world
was recognized by the revolutionaries as well as by many British commentators. Yet,
within two years after the adoption of the Constitution, the American Revolution had to
share the spotlight with the French Revolution. The American Revolution was eclipsed,
and, in the 20th century, lost its appeal even for subject peoples involved in similar
movements for self-determination. Thus, its life as a model for political revolutions was
relatively short. The reason for this development lies in the fact that its concerns and
preoccupations were overwhelmingly political; economic demands and social unrest
remained largely peripheral. After the middle of the 19th century, all political revolutions
would ultimately have to involve themselves with social questions and become
revolutions of modernization. But the American Colonies in the 1770s, in contrast to all
other colonies, had been modern from the beginning. The American patriots were
protecting the modernity and liberty they had already achieved, while later revolutions
were fighting to obtain liberty for the first time. However, since so few modern
revolutions have evinced much concern for the preservation and extension of human
freedom, the American model may still come to provide a lesson for the future.

The notion that America is a highly favorable place for people seeking progress in their
own lives comprises the American Dream.


"Modernity" or "modernization" was a key form of the Idea of progress as promoted by
classical liberals in the 19th and 20th centuries, who called for the rapid modernization of
the economy and society to remove the traditional hindrances to free markets and free
movements of people.

John Stuart Mill's (1806–73) ethical and political thought assumed a great faith in the
power of ideas and of intellectual education for improving human nature or behavior. For
those who do not share this faith the very Idea of Progress becomes questionable.

The influential English philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) in The Principles of
Sociology (1876) and The Principles of Ethics (1879) proclaimed a universal law of
socio-political development: societies moved from a military organization to a base in
industrial production. As society evolved, he argued, there would be greater
individualism, greater altruism, greater co-operation, and a more equal freedom for
everyone. The laws of human society would produce the changes, and he said the only
role for government was military police, and enforcement of civil contracts in courts.
Many libertarians adopted his perspective.

Iggers (1965) argues there was general agreement in the late 19th century that the steady
accumulation of knowledge and the progressive replacement of conjectural, that is,
theological or metaphysical, notions by scientific ones was what created progress. Most
scholars concluded this growth of scientific knowledge and methods led to the growth of
industry and the transformation of warlike societies into an industrial and pacific one.
They agreed as well that there had been a systematic decline of coercion in government
and the increasing role liberty and of rule by consent. There was more emphasis on
impersonal social and historical forces; progress was increasingly seen as the result of an
inner logic of society.

In Italy the idea that progress in science and technology would lead to solutions for
human ills was connected to the nationalism that united the country in 1860. The new
Kingdom of Italy, formed in 1861, worked to speed up the processes of modernization
and industrialization that had begun in northern, but were slow to arrive in the Papal
States in and central Italy, and were nowhere in sight in the "Mezzogiorno" (that is,
Southern Italy, Sicily and Sardinia). The government sought to combat the backwardness
of the poorer regions in the south and towards augmenting the size and quality of the
newly created Italian army so that it could compete on an equal footing with the powerful
nations of Europe. In the same period, the government was legislating in favour of public
education to fight the great problem of illiteracy, upgrade the teaching classes, improve
existing schools and procure the funds needed for social hygiene and care of the body as
factors in the physical and moral regeneration of the race.


In Russia the notion of progress was first imported from the West by Peter the Great
(1672–1725). An absolute ruler, he used the concept to transform backward Russia and to
legitimize his monarchy (quite unlike its usage in Western Europe, where it was primarily
associated with political opposition). By the early 19th century the notion of progress was
being taken up by intellectuals in Russia and was no longer accepted as legitimate by the
tsars. Four schools of thought on progress emerged in 19th-century Russia: conservative
(reactionary), religious, liberal, and socialist - the latter winning out in the form of
Bolshevist materialism.

Latin America

Juan Bautista Alberdi (1810–1884) was one of the most influential political theorists in
Argentina. Economic liberalism which was the key to his Idea of Progress. He promoted
faith in progress, while chiding fellow Latin Americans for blind copying of American
and European models. He hoped for progress through promotion of immigration,
education, and a moderate type of federalism and republicanism that might serve as
transition in Argentina to true democracy.In Mexico, Jose Mora (1795–1856) was a
leader of classical liberalism in the first generation after independence, leading the battle
against the conservative trinity, the army, the church, and the 'hacendados.' He envisioned
progress as both a process of human development by the search for philosophical truth
and as the introduction of an era of material prosperity by technological advancement.
His plan for Mexican reform demanded a republican government bolstered by
widespread popular education free of clerical control, confiscation and sale of
ecclesiastical lands as a means of redistributing income and clearing government debts,
and effective control of a reduced military force by the government. Mora also demanded
the establishment of legal equality between native Mexicans and foreign residents. His
program, untried in his lifetime, became the key element in the Constitution of 1857 and
remains the basic aim of the Mexican government to this day.

Unlike Confucianism and to a certain extent Daoism, that both search for an ideal past,
the Judeo-Christian tradition believes in the fulfillment of history, which was translated
into the Idea of Progress in the modern age. Therefore Chinese proponents of
modernization have looked to western models. In the 20th century the KMT or
Nationalist party, which ruled from the 1920s to the 1940s, advocated progress. The
Communists under Mao Zedong rejected western models and their ruinous projects
caused mass famines. After Mao's death, however, the new regime led by Deng Xiaoping
(1904–97) and his successors aggressively promoted modernization of the economy using
capitalist models and imported western technology.

Economic development
Alfred Marshall (1842–1924) was the most influential British economist of the early 20th
century, and a proponent of classical liberalism. In his highly influential Principles of
Economics (1890), he was deeply interested in human progress and in what is now called
sustainable development. For Marshall, the importance of wealth lay in its ability to
promote the physical, mental, and moral health of the general population. After World
War II, the modernization and development programs undertaken in the Third World
were typically based on the Idea of Progress.

Status of women
How progress improved the degraded status of women in traditional society was a major
theme of historians starting in the Enlightenment and continuing to today. British
theorists William Robertson (1721–93) and Edmund Burke (1729–97), along with many
of their contemporaries, remained committed to Christian- and republican-based
conceptions of virtue, while working within a new Enlightenment paradigm. The political
agenda related beauty, taste, and morality to the imperatives and needs of modern
societies of a high level of sophistication and differentiation. Two themes in the work of
Robertson and Burke - the nature of women in 'savage' and 'civilized' societies and
'beauty in distress' - reveals how long-held convictions about the character of women,
especially with regard to their capacity and right to appear in the public domain, were
modified and adjusted to the Idea of Progress and became central to an enlightened
affirmation of modern European civilization.

Classics experts have examined the status of women in the ancient world, concluding that
in the Roman Empire, with its superior social organization, internal peace, and rule of
law, allowed women to enjoy a somewhat better standing than in ancient Greece, where
women were distinctly inferior. The inferior status of women in traditional China has
raised the issue of whether the Idea of Progress requires a thoroughgoing reject of
traditionalism—a belief held by many Chinese reformers in the early 20th century.
Historians Leo Marx and Bruce Mazlish asking, "Should we in fact abandon the idea of
progress as a view of the past," answer that there is no doubt "that the status of women
has improved markedly" in cultures that have adopted the Enlightenment idea of

In the 19th century Romantic critics charged that progress did not automatically better the
human condition, and indeed in some ways it may make it worse.

Thomas Malthus (1766–1834) reacted against the concept of progress as set forth by
William Godwin and Condorcet because he believed that inequality of conditions is 'the
best calculated to develop the energies and faculties of man.' He said, 'Had population
and food increased in the same ratio, it is probable that man might never have emerged
from the savage state.' He argued that man's capacity for improvement has been
demonstrated by the growth of his intellect, a form of progress which offsets the
distresses engendered by the law of population.

A fierce opponent of the Idea of Progress was German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche
(1844–1900), who became the prophet of decadence, scorning the 'weakling's doctrines
of optimism,' and in his diagnoses of the times undermining the pillars of modernism,
including faith in progress, to allow the strong individual to stand with his radical value
system above the plebeian masses. An important part of his radically critical thinking
consists of the attempt to use the classical model of 'eternal recurrence of the same' to
dislodge the Idea of Progress.

A cyclical theory of history was adopted by Oswald Spengler (1880–1936), a German
historian who wrote a very influential pessimistic study of the end of progress called The
Decline of the West (1920). The horrors of World War I challenged the unblinking
optimism of the modernizers. Clearly progress would not be automatic, and the rise of
totalitarianism in the 20th century undercut the idea that technological improvement
guaranteed democracy and moral advancement. Spengler was challenged by the
optimism of British historian Arnold J. Toynbee (1889–1975), who felt that Christianity
would help modern civilization overcome its challenges.

The strongest critics of the Idea of Progress complain that it remains a dominant idea in
the 21st century, and shows no sign of diminished influence. As one fierce critic, British
historian John Gray, concludes:

       "Faith in the liberating power of knowledge is encrypted into modern life.
       Drawing on some of Europe's most ancient traditions, and daily reinforced by the
       quickening advance of science, it cannot be given up by an act of will. The
       interaction of quickening scientific advance with unchanging human needs is a
       fate that we may perhaps temper, but cannot overcome....Those who hold to the
       possibility of progress need not fear. The illusion that through science humans can
       remake the world is an integral part of the modern condition. Renewing the
       eschatological hopes of the past, progress is an illusion with a future."

Myth of Progress

Some 20th century authors refer to the "Myth of Progress" to challenge the Idea of
Progress, especially the assumption that the human condition will inevitably improve. In
1932 English physician Montague David Eder wrote: "The myth of progress states that
civilization has moved, is moving, and will move in a desirable direction. Progress is
inevitable..... Philosophers, men of science and politicians have accepted the idea of the
inevitability of progress."Eder argues that the advancement of civilization is leading to
greater unhappiness and loss of control in the environment.

Sociologist P. A. Sorokin argued, "The ancient Chinese, Babylonian, Hindu, Greek,
Roman and most of the medieval thinkers supporting theories of rhythmical, cyclical or
trendless movements of social processes were much nearer to reality than the present
proponents of the linear view."

Philosopher Karl Popper emphasized the inadequacies of the Idea of Progress as a
scientific explanation of social phenomena. More recently, Kirkpatrick Sale, a self-
proclaimed neo-luddite author, wrote exclusively about progress as a myth, in an essay
entitled "Five Facets of a Myth".

Iggers (1965) says the great failing of the prophets of progress was that they underesti-
mated the extent of man's destructiveness and irrationality. The failing of the critics of the
Idea of Progress, he adds, came in misunderstanding the role of rationality and morality
in human behavior.


Among environmentalists, there is a continuum between two opposing poles. The one
pole is optimistic, progressive, and business-oriented, and endorses the classic Idea of
Progress. For example Bright Green environmentalism endorses the idea that new
designs, social innovations and green technologies can solve critical environmental
challenges. The other is pessimistic in respect of technological solutions, warning of
impending global crisis (through climate change or peak oil, for example) and tends to
reject the very idea of modernity and the myth of progress that is so central to
modernization thinking. Similarly, Kirkpatrick Sale, wrote about progress as a myth
benefiting the few and pending environmental doomsday for everyone. An example is the
philosophy of Deep Ecology.

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