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The Idea of Progress

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Both the Greek hopes for improvement and the Christian attempt at salvation differ in important ways from modern conceptions of progress. In the former, improvement rests on piecemeal developments in the arts and sciences and, to some extent, politics. It does not reflect an overall plan or purpose and lacks a discernible direction. Christian sacred history involves a planned movement toward a specific destination. But the plan is God's rather than man's, and depends on His will rather than human effort.

The understanding of time that influences these views also distinguishes them from modern theories of progress as a linear movement. Greek thinkers developed cyclical conceptions of time that excluded continuous development. Although they recognized and praised the tendency toward improvements within a given epoch, they also believed in periodic catastrophes that would return the human race to its origins. On this view, progress has a Sisyphean aspect, in that whatever advances mankind may enjoy are subject to inevitable reversals.

Christian theologians, particularly after Augustine, regarded time as a movement away from the Garden of Eden. Reinterpreting biblical prophecies of redemption and divine wrath, they pushed the apocalypse into the future in response to Jesus' failure to return during the early years of the Church. Even so, Augustinian thought orients human history toward the End of Time, when God himself will reassert control of human affairs. Its temporal horizon is effectively closed.

The influence of these tendencies helps explain the relative absence of ideas of improvement or progress from medieval thought. With some prominent exceptions—such as Joachim of Fiore, who argued that the Golden Age of mankind is yet to come—medieval Christians rejected the idea of indefinite improvement as an affront to the plan of salvation laid out by the Church Fathers. As Ernst Kantorowicz shows, the idea that time is continuous and indefinite was associated with rationalistic challenges to Augustinianism inspired by Averroes.[27] Another counterweight against ideas of progress was a sense of inferiority to classic authorities. In a classic image attributed to John of Salisbury, medieval thinkers saw themselves as dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. If the successors are to maintain their vision, it is only by remaining firmly planted on the foundation of ancient wisdom.

Bacon, Descartes, and the Invention of the Method

Francis Bacon rejects the finite conception of time and deference to antiquity that characterized medieval thought. As he puts in “The Great Instauration”:

Men seem to me to have a poor knowledge both of their resources and of their strengths, but in fact to overate the one and underrate the other, with the result that they either put a senselessly high value on the arts they already possess, and do not seek to enlarge them, or else unfairly disparage themselves and spend their powers on trivial things, making no attempt at those things that bear on the heart of the matter. These [failing] are like pillars of fate in the path of the sciences …[28]

For Bacon, the task of reason is essentially critical—to remove the stumbling blocks in the path of inquiry. He goes on to explain that the purpose of sciences is not so much knowledge as it is the power to overcome nature to the relief of man's estate. Power is to be developed through the systematic accumulation of knowledge through time.

Bacon is sometimes characterized as the source for modern concepts of progress. This is somewhat of an exaggeration. Bacon argues that man is the master of his own fate, that time is continuous, and that the authority of the ancients must be rejected if improvements in knowledge and power are to be realized. But he does not articulate a theory of progress that identifies its causes, measures, and goals. In this respect, Bacon may be seen as an enabler but not the author of the more elaborate ideas of progress that emerged in the 18th century.

The enabling aspects of Bacon's thought are most evident in his critique of the “idols” that inhibit learning. According to Bacon, assumptions derived from habit, personal sentiment, surrounding culture, and intellectual authority all prevent men from pursuing the road to understanding—and through understanding, control. Bacon described these prejudices as Idols of the Tribe, Idols of the Cave, Idols of the Marketplace, and Idols of the Theatre, respectively.

Without openly attacking religion, Bacon makes it clear that he regards bad theology as one of the prejudices that interfere with the development of the sciences. As “idols,” the prejudices are false gods, worship of which is inconsistent with the acquisition of the truth. For Bacon, whose inclinations are more scholastic than some commentators acknowledge, the truth is indeed divine. The search for truth or science therefore culminates in authentic piety and Christian love.

How is man to advance in knowledge once the obstacles to learning are removed? Bacon answers: by means of a method. Previous improvements in the sciences were haphazard and easily forgotten. In order to make consistent progress, they have to be grounded in a common procedure and rigorous recording. On the one hand, the Baconian method reduces the obstacles to discovery since it relieves the scientist of the need to develop his own procedures for inquiry. On the other hand, the method makes it easier to build upon previous achievements, rooting the progress of knowledge on the accumulation of evidence rather than the personal stature of the giants of antiquity.

While Bacon provided inspiration for the method, no thinker played a greater role in its actual deployment than Descartes. Bacon believed that we could rely on the data of perception in constructing scientific conclusions. Descartes insisted that even the senses were dubious, and demanded rigorous interrogation before they could be admitted to science. In the Discourse on the Method, which Condorcet would describe as literally epochal, Descartes argues that the initial acquisition and continuous accumulation of knowledge requires observation of four rules:

  1. Never to accept anything as true that cannot be known evidently to be so.
  2. To divide any difficulty or question into its logical constituents.
  3. To reason from the simplest matter to the more complex.
  4. To record every step of the reasoning process to prevent oversight and ensure critical review after the fact.

These rules were supposed to serve as a how-to guide for the progress of knowledge that could be applied by any reasonably intelligent reader. This progress would be grounded on the firm foundations of clear and distinct ideas rather than the stabilizing grip of ancient masters. Descartes compares the foundation of the traditional authorities to sand and mud.

Despite his hopes for rapid intellectual progress, Descartes claimed to be a moral and religious conservative. He rejected classical ethics but promised “to obey the laws and customs of my country, holding constantly to the religion in which by God's grace I had been instructed from my childhood, and governing myself in every other thing according to the most moderate opinions … which were commonly accepted in practice by the most sensible of those with whom I would have to live.”[29] For Descartes, “provisional morality” both moderates the subversive implications of intellectual progress and holds out the possibility that human behavior too can eventually be placed on a truly scientific basis. Such a development, Descartes suggests would reflect the fundamental superiority of the moderns to the ancients.

The Battle of the Books and the Defense of Modernity

In the age of Bacon and Descartes, the suggestion that the moderns could render themselves superior to the ancients by establishing a new foundation for knowledge could be dangerous. The great martyr of modern science, Galileo, suffered considerably for his devotion to the new methods. By the end of the 17th century, however, possibility of progress was an item of open debate. Partisans of the moderns argued that knowledge had at last found a sound footing in method. Partisans of the ancients contended that Europeans were still dwarves elevated on the shoulders of giants. The so-called “Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns” concerned literary taste as well as science. The “Ancients” contended for the superiority of classic forms and languages, the Moderns defended the heroic couplet in the vernacular.

Jonathan Swift satirizes this conflict in “The Battle of the Books.” His brilliant humor presents the books themselves as engaged in an epic struggle for domination of the library. As Secretary to Sir William Temple, a leading “Ancient” who popularized John of Salisbury's ancients/dwarfs image, Swift gives due consideration to the merits of antiquity. Nevertheless, he left the outcome of the battle undetermined—inviting readers to decide for themselves which side was stronger.

In France, the greatest names in early 18th century intellectual life declared their allegiance to the moderns. In Voltaire's view, human history since the fall of Rome was straightforward progression from “barbarous rusticity” to the baroque court of Louis XIV. In fact, Voltaire contended, it was better to live in Paris than in the Garden of Eden.[30] Voltaire's hostility to the biblical tradition was reflected in his critique of Bossuet, who had claimed to write a universal history, which centered on the Jews and their successor, the Church. A truly universal history, in Voltaire's opinion, would reveal that the Jews were a savage people whose barbarous ideas retarded the development of the human race. For Voltaire, progress required the elimination of Jerusalem from the cultural matrix of Western civilization.[31]

Turgot and the Three-Stage Theory

Voltaire's writings on progress were occasional, but related ideas were being developed systematically around the same time. In 1750, Turgot, then a student at the Sorbonne, prepared a set of texts dealing with the issue of progress. Taken together, these may be described as the first theory of progress.

For Voltaire, the course of history was essentially accidental. It had worked out well, but could have taken a different course at any time. As a result, the intellectual, artistic, and political achievements of modernity were fragile. Turgot believed that this was too pessimistic. Rather than being contingent, Turgot sees progress as the result of the continuous operation of general causes.

Turgot's argument resembles that of Bossuet, whom Turgot admired more than Voltaire did. Yet it contains a crucial difference. For Bossuet (like Augustine), history was focused on God's chosen peoples, the Jews and the Church, and guided by divine providence. Although Turgot formally acknowledges the influence of Providence, his account is almost entirely naturalistic. Progress is driven by the interactions of human psychology and the physical environment.

On the other hand, while Turgot treasures the advances in science made possible by Bacon and Descartes, he does not think that progress was achieved methodically. Rather, progress is fortuitous—the most progressive discoveries and developments are often unforeseen by their very creators. In this respect, Turgot prefigures Hegel's account of the “cunning of Reason.”

In addition to placing progress on the foundation of general causes rather than chance or individual initiative, Turgot offers two observations about the tendency of progress that encouraged its transformation from a mere idea into a central concept of social thought.

To begin with, Turgot contends that progress is constantly accelerating. As it gathers speed, the fruits of social development accumulate faster and faster. For Turgot, this explains the enormous gains since the 17th century after so many centuries of medieval darkness.

Second, Turgot discerns general stages of progress that repeat themselves in every society, and include parallel economic, social, and religious developments. At first, society is nomadic and based on hunting and gathering. This stage corresponds to the ignorance of natural causes—leading men to tell fabulous stories about the gods to explain their experiences. Next, the domestication of animals leads to a pastoral stage. At this point, religion is subject to partial rationalization, as the multiplicity of spirits and deities are consolidated into an orderly pantheon. Finally, the development of agriculture enables urban life. In the city, philosophers begin to challenge myths in the name of reason—implicitly prefiguring enlightened critiques of revealed religion in modern times.

Turgot's “three stage” theory of progress has a counterpart in the work of Adam Ferguson, among others. For these thinkers, progress is not only linear, but subject to a pattern that can be discerned by a rational observer. But what would follow the achievement of modern civilization? Although they are more optimistic than the Greeks about the possibility of sustaining progress, Turgot and Ferguson do not envision a radically different future. In their view, the improved world to be expected will be much like the present, if stripped of some of its more objectionable features.

Condorcet, Kant, and the French Revolution

In the wake of the French Revolution, Condorcet offers a more transformative vision. Following Voltaire's critique of religion, Condorcet argues that in the future, the nations of the earth might be governed on relations of perfect equality by reason alone. While Turgot offers a gesture toward Augustine, Condorcet dismisses revealed religion as prejudice and superstition. For Turgot, the Middle Ages were merely a fallow period of human culture. For Condorcet, they were dark ages, altogether unilluminated by the torch of reason.

Condorcet places more emphasis on the political aspects of progress than Turgot did. For Condorcet, both the American and French Revolutions were reflections of the general progress of the human race. The latter, however, was far greater and more important than the former:

The revolution in France was more far-reaching than that in America, and therefore more violent: for the Americans … were content with the civil and criminal code that they had received from England … In France, on the contrary, the revolution was to embrace the entire economy of society, change every social relations and find its way down to the furthest links of the political chain …[32]

Condorcet thus justifies violence as a progressive act. Condorcet was not only committed to the principle that society can be transformed—by force if necessary—but he also believed that man could perfect himself in ways that are as yet difficult for us to imagine.

Condorcet borrows the concept of perfectibility from Rousseau but blunts its critical edge. When Rousseau describes man's faculty of perfectibility in the Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, he does not mean that mankind is continually or inevitably getting better. Rather, he argues that human nature is open to endless revision as man constructs social relations and then molds himself to those constraints. In Rousseau's view, the results of this process have on the whole been bad. Although the modern man enjoys remarkable achievements in the arts and sciences, his morals and politics are worse than those of savages.

Rousseau appears, then, to be one of the great critics of progress—particularly as the French Enlightenment understood it. Immanuel Kant believed that Rousseau's moral and political insight could be salvaged from his pessimism. According to Kant, just as “Newton was the first to discern order and regularity in combination with great simplicity … Rousseau was the first who discovered underneath the manifoldness of the forms assumed by man his deeply hidden nature and the concealed law.”[33]

This concealed law, in Kant's view, is a moral law: the set of rules that could be applied without exception or contradiction to every rational being. The moral law is autonomously determined by reason itself—and thus lay within every human being. The challenge is realizing the moral law—that is, putting it into practice on earth We cannot wait for a messiah to establish the kingdom of heaven; man has to bring about the reign of justice through his own action.

Kant places his hopes for this realization on the faculty of “unsocial sociability.”[34] Modifying Rousseau's analysis of corruption, Kant argues that the pursuit of selfish ends actually makes human beings better. As they learn from painful experience the necessity of rightful order, they can be expected to make incremental progress toward that goal. Like Turgot, Kant does not see progress as the result of an intentional project: social relations will be brought increasingly into line with reason as a result of the pursuit of utility, not morality.

This indirect mode of progression underlies Kant's ambiguous evaluation of the French Revolution. While Condorcet justifies revolutionary violence as progressive, Kant denies that revolution as such can ever be morally justified. At the same time, Kant contends that we can learn from the French Revolution the necessity of peaceful reform. The lesson is that it is preferable to adapt political institutions so that they better meet the requirements of reason than it is to fight for social transformation.

For Kant, the arena of reform is as much intellectual as it is political. He places his hopes on “popular enlightenment”: the simultaneous education of the people in their rights and of rulers in their duty. If only enlightenment were allowed to proceed naturally, Kant argues in “The Contest of the Faculties,” progress would be virtually inevitable.

Hegel and the Philosophy of History

Hegel learned much from his predecessors but he rejected what he saw as the abstraction of Enlightenment theories of progress, particularly Kant's. In Hegel's view, progress cannot simply be an “idea,” at least if that means a vague goal that we cannot hope to reach ourselves. Rather, it must be conceived as an historical accomplishment that we encounter in our lives. For previous thinkers, reflection on progress produced an orientation toward the future: a confident hope, if not a certainty, of the good things to come. For Hegel, the idea of progress leads us to focus our attention on the past, as we seek to understand how we got to where we are—and why we should be grateful for it.

This retrospective orientation gives Hegel's account of progress its character as a “theodicy.” In Hegel's view, we can justify the horrors of history if we see them as necessary to achieve the conditions under which we now live. The task of the philosophy of history, in Hegel's conception, is to articulate this necessity. As he puts it in a famous passage:

But as we contemplate history as this slaughter-bench, upon which the happiness of nations, the wisdom of states, and the virtues of individuals were sacrificed, the question necessarily comes to mind: What was the ultimate goal for which these monstrous sacrifices were made? … in this [philosophical] perspective the events that present such a grim picture for our troubled feeling and thoughtful reflection have to be seen as the means for what we claim is the substantial definition, the absolute end-goal or, equally, the true result of world history (Hegel, 24).

Hegel does not leave God out of the picture. Taken in retrospect, history follows a plan of rational necessity. But this necessity is not a constraint on the deity. Instead, it is the highest expression of the divine nature as it actualizes itself through human interactions. According to Hegel:

The insight to which philosophy ought to lead, therefore … is that the real world is as it ought to be, that the truly good, the universal divine Reason is also the power capable of actualizing itself. This good, this Reason, in its most concrete representation, is God. God governs the world: the content of His governance, the fulfillment of His plan, is world history. Philosophy seeks to understand this plan: for only what is fulfilled according to that plan has reality … In the pure light of this divine Idea (which is no mere ideal) the illusion that the world is a mad or foolish happening disappears (Hegel, 39).

Hegel's association of progress with divine governance recalls Augustine and Bossuet's invocations of providence. But Hegel's God or “Spirit” is not a transcendent creator who stands apart from the world and human reality, and to whom we have access only through revelation. Rather, his God is in and around us, and can be known by means of philosophy. It is in this sense that Hegel sees himself, with considerable justification, as the first thinker to synthesize Athens and Jerusalem, ancient and modern thought.

Yet Hegel's reading of God's justice in history chafes with another theoretical commitment inherited from Kant: human freedom. Like Kant and Rousseau, he believes that actions are morally significant only when they are freely chosen: the behavior of an animal or robot may be salutary or dangerous, but not right or wrong. At the same time that Hegel interprets history as subject to rational necessity, he must explain how this necessity can be reconciled with human freedom.

Hegel solves the riddle with the so-called “cunning of reason.” Like Kant and Turgot, he denies that progress is achieved through the intentional pursuit of progressive goals. Rather, it emerges as the accidental byproduct of voluntary interactions among self-interested individuals. In particular, Hegel argues that human beings learn gradually that they cannot meet their needs or satisfy their wants unless they participate in a civil society subject to stable laws and institutions. The divine course of progress thus becomes a history of political development:

There are two elements that enter our topic: the first is the Idea [of reason in history], the other is human passion; the first is the warp, the other the woof of the great tapestry of world history that is spread out before us. The concrete meeting point and union of the two is in ethical freedom in the state. … a state is well constituted and internally strong if the private interest of the citizen is united with the universal goal of the state so that each finds its fulfillment and realization in the other … (Hegel, 26–7).

Hegel contends that this unity of private interests and universal goals is realized specifically in the modern state. The despotic regimes of antiquity acknowledged that only the ruler was free and the classical republics empowered a small elite of citizens against an enslaved mass. Only the modern state presumes that its citizens have the right to pursue their personal interest in a manner consistent with the interest of the whole.

As recent scholarship has emphasized, Hegel was an eclectic synthesizer rather than a wholly original thinker. His theory of progress thus contains elements drawn from nearly all his predecessors. He remains decidedly modern, however, in his commitment to the principle that the present is better than the past, that man knows more of God's ways than he used to, and that improvements achieved by human struggle are permanent rather than subject to reversal. Yet Hegel's commitment to progress as an idea encourages doubts as to whether his theory is more speculation than science. His successors attempted to resolve such doubts by focusing on natural laws of progress.

Supplemental Materials for Unit 2

Note on Translations

The following are the most accessible editions of the works in translation for Unit 2 (in order of appearance on the syllabus):

  • Descartes, Discourse on Method, trans. Donald Cress (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998).
  • Voltaire, Political Writings, trans. David Williams (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 130–4.
  • Turgot, On Progress, Sociology, and Economics, trans. Ronald Meek (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1973).
  • Rousseau, The Basic Political Writings, trans. Donald Cress (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2011).
  • Condorcet, Outlines of an Historical View of the Progress of the Human Mind (public domain, available at oll.libertyfund.com).
  • Kant, Political Writings, ed. H.S. Reiss (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
  • Hegel, Introduction to the Philosophy of History, trans. Leo Rauch (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1988).

Suggested Questions for Discussion

  • What are Bacon's “idols”? How do they inhibit the progress of knowledge?
  • What causes does Swift indicate for the “Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns”? Does he indicate a preference for either party?
  • What aspects of experience or society does Descartes subject to systematic doubt? Which does he rule off limits?
  • Why does Voltaire believe that modern Europe is superior to ancient Europe? What role does religion play in this judgment?
  • How does Turgot believe that unintentional actions encourage progress? What sort of progress does each action or behavior encourage?
  • What role does the status of women play in Turgot's distinctions between the various stages of progress?
  • What is at stake in the giants/dwarves metaphor? How is it used by the various writers?
  • What does Kant mean by “unsocial sociability”? How does it promote progress or improvement?
  • What does Hegel mean when he speaks of the “spirit of the age” [Zeitgeist]? How do we know what this spirit is?
  • What is the relation between reason and God in Hegel's account of progress? What are the implications for Hegel's view of the respective roles of philosophy and religion? Suggested Writing Assignments
  • Compare the role of religion in Turgot and Condorcet? How do they characterize the relation between religion and progress? Does progress require the rejection of religion, in their view? Or can religion be modified/reformed in a manner consistent with progress?
  • In what respects does Rousseau understand human nature to be perfectible? If it is perfectible, why does he think improvement in the arts and sciences led to moral decline? How does Condorcet challenge this assessment?
  • What kind of society does Condorcet envision in the future (the “10th Epoch”)? How do the lessons of the French and American Revolutions contribute to this society? What about Kant?
  • In what way does Hegel see the state as the culmination of progress? What is distinctive about the modern state—consider its political, ethical, and religious dimensions? How does Hegel's vision of the state compare with Condorcet's?
  • What is the role of the world-historical individual in Hegel's theory of progress? How does the “passion” of such individual promote progressive goals?

Further Reading

Bacon and Descartes are both the subjects of enormous specialist literatures. For Bacon, see Stephen Gaukroger, Francis Bacon and the Transformation of Early-Modern Philosophy, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001). On Descartes, consider Stephen Gaukroger, Descartes: An Intellectual Biography, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995). The Cambridge Companion to Eighteenth Century Political Thought, ed. Mark Goldie and Robert Wokler (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006) provides context and analysis of several of the figures discussed here, particularly Condorcet and Turgot. Jonathan Israel's vast series on the philosophy and political thought in the Enlightenment around Europe may also be helpful. On the German side, Frederick Beiser, The Fate of Reason (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993) is the undisputed classic. For a general introduction to Hegel, see Charles Taylor, Hegel (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997). Beiser's Hegel (London: Routledge, 2005) includes a useful comparison of interpretive strategies.

Unit II: Illustrations

Syllabus | Introduction | Secondary Literature | Unit I | Unit II | Unit III | Unit IV

[27] Ernst Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), Ch. VI, Sec. 1.

[28] Francis Bacon, Novum Organum (Chicago: Open Court, 1994), 7.

[29] Descartes, Discourse on the Method, Part III, Sec. 2.

[30] Voltaire, “That Modern Europe Is Better than Ancient Europe” in Political Writings, trans. David Williams (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 130–4.

[31] See Bury, The Idea of Progress, 99–100.

[32] Condorcet, Sketch of the Historical Progress of the Human Mind (New York: Hyperion, 1979), 146.

[33] Quoted in John Silber, Kant's Ethics: The Good, Freedom, and the Will (Boston: De Gruyter, 2012), 221.

[34] Immanuel Kant, Political Writings (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 44.