The Idea of Progress

Charles Van Doren

[Excerpts from the book, The Idea of Progress, published by Frederick A. Praeger, 1967]


The first of the four main groups of theories of progress includes theories whose authors see progress as resulting from the fact that man has a collective or social memory. Progress occurs, according to this view, because later generations of men remember, or otherwise retain, the knowledge and skill of earlier generations, and add to this what they know or learn themselves. The means of this retention is, of course, language, usually written language; authors who hold this position often distinguish between man, who is progressive because he has language, and animals, which are not progressive because they do not.

A number of different expressions of this position are found in the literature. Some writers maintain that progress occurs simply through the "transmission of acquired assets"; others hold that man not only inherits knowledge and skill from his forebears, and adds to it for the benefit of generations to come, but also applies or otherwise makes use of his inheritance in a superior way. For the authors in the first group, progress occurs without any change in man whatsoever. Progress, for them, is simply a result of the fact that human beings have a collective memory. For the authors in the second group, there are usually changes in man himself as well as in what he knows. For the first group, progress is on the whole a piling up of knowledge and skill. For the second group, it consists in qualitative as well as quantitative changes.

Listed below is a representative sample of authors who hold that die basic source of progress is man's collective memory.

Pascal * Turgot * Condorcet * Godwin * Madame de Stael * Saint-Simon * Comte * J.S. Mill * Henry George * Piaget * Ortega * E.H. Carr

Of the above authors, those in the following list hold that progress occurs through the superior use of assets acquired or inherited from the past.

Turgot * Saint-Simon * Comte * J.S. Mill * Piaget

pp. 26-27

The theory was proposed in the seventeenth century, by Pascal and others, in a simple form. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the notion was added that man progresses not only because he "stands on the shoulders of all past ages" but that later generations make a superior use of their intellectual and artistic inheritance. Comte is perhaps the leading author here.

Modern times have seen a revival of this traditional position, in both its simple and its more sophisticated form, in the work of such writers as Ortega and E. H. Can.

The authors below hold that progress occurs because mankind has a social or collective memory.

Hobbes * Pascal * Perrault * Fontenelle * Turgot * Robertson * Condorcet * Volney * Madame de Stael * Godwin * Saint-Simon * Enfantin * Comte * J.S. Mill * Henry George * Piaget * Freud * Inge * Ortega * Casson * E.H. Carr * Whyte


The following authors maintain that progress is simply the result of the fact that men of later generations inherit intellectual "assets" from earlier generations.

Hobbes * Pascal * Perrault * Fontenelle * Robertson * Volney * Madame de Stael * Godwin * Henry George * Inge * Ortega * E.H. Carr


Nature possesses a kind of paste which is always the same, which she ceaselessly moulds and remoulds in a thousand ways, and of which she forms men, animals, and plants; and certainly she did not form Plato, Demosthenes, or Homer of a finer or better kneaded clay than our philosophers, our orators, and our poets of today.

Fontenelle emphasizes this point, with which he begins his essay, for reasons that are probably obvious enough. For, if men are not claimed to be the same at all times and places, then the simple theory of cumulative progress that he puts forward, and that is here being discussed, could be invalidated by the assertion that mankind has undergone a sudden, or even a gradual, degeneration in its nature. Most later proponents of this sort of progress accept Fontenelle's contention.

Widespread support for the Pascal-Fontenelle position is to be found in the literature. What is the law of human progress -- the law under which civilization advances? asks Henry George. It is not difficult to discover such a law, he declares. The incentives to progress are the desires inherent in human nature, and its instrument is mind; the law or principle whereby progress occurs he describes as follows:

Though he may not by taking thought add a cubit to his stature, man may by taking thought extend his knowledge of the universe and his power over it, in what, so far as we can see, is an infinite degree. The narrow span of human life allows the individual to go but a short distance, but though each generation may do but little, yet generations, succeeding to the gain of their predecessors, may gradually elevate the status of mankind, as coral polyps, building one generation upon the work of the other, gradually elevate themselves from the bottom of the sea.

Even more modern support is provided by E. H. Carr, who draws a distinction between "biological inheritance, which is the source of evolution, [and] social acquisition, which is the source of progress."

The essence of man as a rational being is that he develops his potential capacities by accumulating die experiences of past generations. Modem man is said to have no larger a brain, and no greater innate capacity of …


Although contingent progress authors discuss many factors on which progress is in their view dependent, all of these actually reduce to one - human freedom. Man is free, according to these authors, to progress or not.

The following authors are those who hold that progress is contingent on man's desire or willingness to bring it about.

Bacon * Descartes * Volaire * Helvetius * Fourier * Bagehot * Henry George * Charles Darwin * T.H. Huxley * Tolstoy * Bryce * Dewey * Broad * Maritain * Simon * Ginsberg * Carrel * Einstein * Hermann J. Muller * Toynbee * Mumford * Rougemont * H. Brown * Calder

The position that progress "plateaus out" suggests important implications (or the remainder of this study. These implications are discussed at the end of the chapter.

It should be observed here that the question at issue is not whether progress will actually continue indefinitely - that assertion can only be made by an author who holds that progress is necessary - but whether there is anything in the nature of progress itself that implies that it will either continue indefinitely or "plateau out." Thus it is possible for an author who holds that progress is contingent to assert that if progress occurs in the future then it will go on and on without stopping. There is no reason to suppose, in other words, that progress will ever cease unless man does something to stop it, such as destroying the earth in a nuclear war.

The following authors maintain that progress will continue as long as man endures on earth.

Pascal * Leibniz * Fontenelle * Adam Smith * Kant * Herder * Condercet * Godwin * Malthus * Madame de Stael * Guizot * Comte * Buckle * J.S. Mill * Henry George * Spencer * Dewey * Broad * Maritain * Simon * Ortega * Teilhard de Chardin * Mumford * C.G. Darwin * E.H. Carr * A. C. Clarke


The third group includes the writers who concede that the nature of man can change, and who concede also that it may change in the future, but who maintain that the changes are reversible and thus do not constitute permanent improvements in human nature.

The progress authors who hold that there is no progress in human nature are listed below.

Pascal * Fontenelle * Mandeville * Leibniz * Voltaire * Adam Smith * Kant * Turgot * Helvetius * Herder * Chateaubriand * Malthus * Hegel * Buckle * J.S. Mill * Charles Darwin * Henry George * Bellamy * Tolstoy * Sumner * Henry Adams * Dewey * Broad * Inge * Ortega * Maritain * Simon * DeRougemont * Ginsberg * Childe * C.G. Darwin * E.H. Carr


A number of eighteenth-century writers assert that men are the same at all times and places. Turgot, for example, writes:

The resources of nature and the prolific seeds of science are found wherever there are men. The loftiest heights of knowledge are and can be nothing but developments or combinations of the first ideas given us by the senses, just as the edifice whose height most astonishes our eyes rests of necessity upon the same earth we press beneath our feet. And the same senses, the same organs, the spectacle of the same Universe have everywhere given men the same…


Tocqueville is saying that the advance toward equality, which is the primary fact of history, is not necessarily progress. He declares that it is impossible to say that the change is for the better in the most general sense. "No man on the earth can as yet affirm," he asserts, "absolutely and generally, that the new state of the world is better than its former one; but it is already easy to perceive that this state is different." The advance of man toward greater equality is necessary: "the nations of our time cannot prevent the conditions of men from becoming equal."28 But there is much that men can do, in the way of knowing and of acting, to insure that this development is real progress, and not regress, for the human race. "It depends upon themselves whether the principle of equality is to lead them to servitude or freedom, to knowledge or barbarism, to prosperity or wretchedness."

Like Condorcet, Tocqueville holds that education can be an aid in averting the possible ill effects of increasing equality. "The first of the duties that are at this time imposed upon those who direct our affairs," he writes, "is to educate democracy, to reawaken, if possible, its religious beliefs; to purify its morals; to mold its actions; to substitute a knowledge of statecraft for its inexperience, and an awareness of its true interest for its blind instincts, to adapt its government to time and place, and to modify it according to men and to conditions. A new science of politics is needed for a new world" Condorcet would agree with most of this, probably, but he would not concur in holding that religious beliefs ought to be reawakened.

Condorcet and Tocqueville hold that advance toward equality is a characteristic of man's history, and that this advance is allied with progress.. Others concur on the second point, but not on the first. According to J. B. Bury, Proudhon held that progress depends on the energy of individuals, that liberty is a condition of its advance, "and that the end to be kept in view is the establishment of justice, which means equality." Bury quotes Proudhon as saying: "What dominates in all my studies, what forms their beginning and end, their summit and their base, their reason, what makes my originality as a thinker (if I have any), is that I affirm Progress resolutely, irrevocably, and everywhere, and deny the Absolute. All that I have ever written, all I have denied or affirmed, I have written, denied ot affirmed in the name of one unique idea, Progress. My adversaries, on the other hand, are all partisans of the Absolute, in omni genere, casu, et numero, to use the phrase of Sganarelle. Bury also analyzes the views of Leroux, a French Socialist who seems to affirm progress toward equality.

This is to say that progress depends upon, and to some extent consists in, the increase of equality among men, but it is not to say that equality will necessarily increase.

A similar point is made by Henry George, who compares society to a boat.

Her progress through the water will not depend upon the exertion of crew, but upon the exertion devoted to propelling her. This will be lessened by any expenditure of force required for bailing, or any expenditure force in fighting among themselves, or in pulling in different directions.

What, then, are the conditions under which men may pull together advance the social boat, which is to say, progress? They are, says two: association and equality.

Improvement becomes possible as men come together in peaceful association, and the wider and closer the association, the greater the possibilities improvement. And as the wasteful expenditure of mental power in conflict becomes greater or less as the moral law which accords to each an equality of rights is ignored or is recognized, equality (or justice) is the second essential of progress.
"Thus association in equality is the law of progress," George goes on to declare. "Association frees mental power for expenditure in improvement and equality, or justice, or freedom - for the terms here signify the same thing, the recognition of the moral law - prevents the dissipation of this power in fruitless struggles." And he adds that inequality of conditions or of power tends to lessen the tendency toward progress, and can even reverse it."

pp. 399-400