The Roots of Progress

What is a “philosophy of progress?”

I’ve been using the term “philosophy of progress” a lot lately (such as calling for a new one, or critiquing the old ones). What does this term mean?

I use the term analogously to philosophy of science, philosophy of law, or philosophy of education. There are certain foundational questions relevant to the study of progress that border on or overlap with philosophy.

In outline, here are some of the main questions that I see as making up the philosophy of progress, grouped into four top-level topic areas: definition, evaluation, causation, and prescription.





In any “philosophy of X,” people pursuing X usually aren’t (explicitly) thinking about foundational questions. Biologists spend most of their time thinking about things like assays, not what fundamentally constitutes evidence or whether scientific facts are knowable; teachers spend most of their time thinking about curriculum or classroom size rather than about the purpose and social value of education; and engineers spend most of their time thinking about efficiencies and tolerances rather than why the Industrial Revolution began in Britain.

But in every case, a philosophy of X, implicit or explicit, affects the way that practitioners go about their pursuits. Whether progress is desirable, whether continued progress is possible, and what its main causal factors are will influence whether people attempt to make progress (or attempt to stop it), and what means they choose to do so. The answers to these questions will also affect the work of journalists, policymakers, educators, artists, etc.

Does a philosophy of progress really matter? You could take the position that the people who matter for progress mostly ignore all of this abstract talk and just respond to incentives, or even that technology has a will of its own which unfolds regardless of human choices. But those positions, too, are part of the philosophy of progress. So let’s get to figuring it out.

Comment: LessWrong, Reddit

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