In intellectual history, the Idea of Progress is the idea that advances in technology, science, and social organization can produce an improvement in the human condition. That is, people can become better 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.
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 reworking of ideas from ancient Greece.
In the nineteenth century, the idea of progress was united by Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer to their theories of evolution. The Spencerian version of it, called Social Darwinism, was very widely influential among intellectuals in many fields in the late nineteenth century. By the 1920s, however, Social Darwinism had generally lost favor with intellectuals, especially because World War I had shown that modern technology could cause horrible negative impacts on human affairs.
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", declining 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 3 of the Laws depicts humanity's progress from a state of nature to the higher levels of culture, economy, and polity. Plato's Statesman also outlines a historical account of the progress of mankind. The Roman philosopher Seneca 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 argues 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 millennarianism, 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 Francis Bacon's book the 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.
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.
The intellectual leaders of the American Revolution—such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas 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 Progress.
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.
"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 (1806–1873) 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 an increasing role of 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 Piedmontese Prime Minister Camillo Cavour envisaged the railways as a major factor in the modernization and unification of the Italian peninsula. The new Kingdom of Italy, formed in 1861, worked to speed up the processes of modernization and industrialization that had begun in the north, but were slow to arrive in the Papal States 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 work 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 (Russian intelligentsia) 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.
Juan Bautista Alberdi (1810–1884) was one of the most influential political theorists in Argentina. Economic liberalism 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 a 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 of 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 Taoism, that both search for an ideal past, the Judeo-Christian-Islamic 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. According to Thompson, the late Qing dynasty reformer, Kang Youwei, believed he had found a model for reform and "modernisation" in the Ancient Chinese Classics. In the 20th century the KMT or Nationalist party, which ruled from the 1920s to the 1940s, advocated progress. The Communists under Mao Zedong adopted western models and their ruinous projects caused mass famines. After Mao's death, however, the new regime led by Deng Xiaoping (1904–1997) and his successors aggressively promoted modernization of the economy using capitalist models and imported western technology.
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.
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 (1721–1793) and Edmund Burke (1729–1797), 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 progress.
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 (state) 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 (b. 1948), 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.
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 underestimated 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.
In 1946 psychoanalyst Charles Baudouin claims modernity has retained the "corollary" of the progress myth, the idea that the present is superior to the past, while at the same time insisting that it is free of the myth:
The last two centuries were familiar with the myth of progress. Our own century has adopted the myth of modernity. The one myth has replaced the other. ...
Men ceased to believe in progress; but only to pin their faith to more tangible realities, whose sole original significance had been that they were the instruments of progress. ..
This exaltation of the present ... is a corollary of that very faith in progress which people claim to have discarded. The present is superior to the past, by definition, only in a mythology of progress. Thus one retains the corollary while rejecting the principle. There is only one way of retaining a position of whose instability one is conscious. One must simply refrain from thinking.
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 a pending environmental doomsday for everyone. An example is the philosophy of Deep Ecology.
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:
Recently the idea of progress has been generalized to psychology, being related with the concept of a goal, that is, progress is understood as "what counts as a means of advancing towards the end result of a given defined goal."