The Roots of Progress

Why do we need a NEW philosophy of progress?

Why the 19th-century philosophy of progress failed, and what challenges the progress movement needs to answer

I’ve said that we need a new philosophy of progress for the 21st century. But why a new philosophy? Why can’t we just return to the 19th-century attitude towards progress, which was pretty enthusiastic?

In short, the view of progress that persisted especially through the late 19th century and up until 1914 was naive. It fell apart because, in the 20th century, it met challenges it could not answer. We need to answer those challenges today.

What follows is a hypothesis that needs a lot more research and substantiation, but I’m putting it forward as my current working model of the relevant intellectual history.

The 19th-century worldview

Here are a few key elements of the Enlightenment-era worldview:

(I’m basing this mostly on writings from the time, such as Macaulay or Alfred Russel Wallace; contemporary newspaper editorials; popular speeches given, e.g., at celebrations; poetry of the era; etc. For future research: what were the historians, philosophers, etc. of the time saying about progress? I’m familiar with some of the thought from previous centuries such as Bacon and Condorcet, but less so with that from 19th-century figures such as Mill or Comte.)

On the face of it, at least, these seem very much in sympathy with the core ideas of the progress movement as I have outlined them. So what did the 19th century get wrong?

Mistakes

Here are just some examples of things that many people believed in the late 19th century, which would later be proved quite wrong:

20th-century challenges to the idea of progress

The idea of progress was never without detractors. As early as 1750, Rousseau declared that “the progress of the sciences and the arts has added nothing to our true happiness,” adding that “our souls have become corrupted to the extent that our sciences and our arts have advanced towards perfection” and that “luxury, dissolution, and slavery have in every age been the punishment for the arrogant efforts we have made in order to emerge from the happy ignorance where Eternal Wisdom had placed us.” But through the 19th century, voices like this could barely be heard above the cheering of the crowds in celebration of the railroad, the light bulb, or the airplane.

What changed in the 20th century? Here are several factors:

The world wars. With World War I, it became clear that technology had not led to an end to war; it had made war all the more horrible and destructive. Progress was not inevitable, certainly not moral and social progress. By the end of World War 2, the atomic bomb in particular made it clear that science, technology and industry had unleashed a new and very deadly threat on the world.

The wars, I think, were the main catalyst for the change. But they were not the only challenge to the idea of progress. There were other concerns that had existed at least since the 19th century:

Poverty and inequality. Many people were still living in dilapidated conditions, without even toilets or clean water, at the same time as others were getting rich from new industrial ventures.

Job loss and economic upheaval. As technology wrought its “creative destruction” in a capitalist economy, entire professions from blacksmiths to longshoremen became obsolete. As early as the 1700s, groups led by “Ned Ludd” and “Captain Swing” smashed and burned textile machinery in protest.

Harms, risks, and accountability in a complex economy. As the economy grew more complex and people were living more interconnected lives, increasingly in dense urban spaces, they had the ability to affect each other—and harm each other—in many more ways, many of which were subtle and hard to detect. To take one example, households that once were largely self-sufficient farms began buying more and more of their food as commercial products, from increasingly farther distances via rail. Meat packing plants were filthy; milk was transported warm in open containers; many foods became contaminated. In the US, these concerns led in 1906 to the Pure Food & Drug Act and ultimately to the creation of the FDA.

Concentration of wealth and power. The new industrial economy was creating a new elite: Rockefeller, Morgan, Carnegie. Their wealth came from business, not inheritance, and their power was more economic than political, but to many people they looked like a new aristocracy, little different than the old. In America especially, the people—who just a few generations ago had fought a war to throw off monarchical rule—were suspicious of this new elite, even as they celebrated rags-to-riches stories and praised the “self-made man.” It was a deep conflict that persists to this day.

Resource consumption. Long before Peak Oil, William Stanley Jevons was warning of Peak Coal. Others predicted the end of silver or other precious metals. Sir William Crookes (more accurately) sounded the alarm that the world was running out of fertilizer. Even as people celebrated growth, they worried that the bounty of nature would not last forever.

Pollution. Coal use was blackening not only the skies but the houses, streets, and lungs of cities such as London or Pittsburgh, both of which were likened to hell on Earth because of the clouds of smoke. Raw sewage dumped into the Thames in London led to the Great Stink and to cholera epidemics. Pesticides based on toxic substances such as arsenic, dumped in copious quantities over crops, sickened people and animals and poisoned the soil.

And there was at least one major new concern coming to the fore:

The environment, as such. The 19th century may have worried about pollution and resources, but in the 20th century these concerns were united into a larger concept of “the environment” considered as a systematic whole, which led to new fears of large-scale, long-term unintended consequences of industrial activity.

New explanations

Historical events can be a catalyst for change, but they do not explain themselves. It is up to historians, philosophers, and other commentators to offer explanations and solutions. Thus history is shaped by events, but not determined by them: it is partly determined by how we choose to interpret and respond to those events.

Those who stepped forward in the 20th century to explain what went wrong—especially (although not exclusively) environmentalists such as William Vogt or Paul Ehrlich—emphasized the concerns above, and added a layer of deeper criticism:

Underlying this analysis were some basic philosophical premises:

(If the above seems singularly focused on environmentalism, it reflects the incomplete state of my research. As I’ve noted elsewhere, progress is criticized from the right as well as from the left, for its “materialism” and “decadence.” Open questions for me here include the role of religion in this period, and the reaction of the liberal world to the rise of socialism and fascism.)

This new worldview did not take over immediately; it slowly grew in influence during the generation after the World Wars. But by the time the world was cheering the Moon landing and greeting the astronauts on a triumphant world tour, this philosophy had spawned the New Left and the radical environmentalist movement. The oil shocks hit a few years later; as Americans lined up for gas rations and donned sweaters, many people thought that perhaps the “limits to growth” were real after all.

Regrouping in the 21st century

The 21st-century progress movement must directly address the challenges that created skepticism and distrust of progress in the 20th century. Those challenges have not gone away; many have intensified: in addition to nuclear war, pollution, and overpopulation, we are now worried about climate change, pandemics, and threats to democracy.

Here are some difficult questions the new progress movement needs to answer:

Without answers to these questions, any new philosophy of progress will fail—and probably deserves to.

I don’t have all the answers yet—and I’m not sure that anyone does. I think we need new answers.


This is why we can’t simply return to the 19th-century philosophy of progress. First, it was mistaken. Second, there is a reason it failed: it foundered on the shoals of the 20th century. If it were revived, it would immediately run into the same problems, the same challenges it could not answer. In any case, there would be something odd and deeply incongruous about a movement dedicated to building an ambitious technological future that was stuck in a philosophic past.

Instead, we have to find a new way forward. We have to acknowledge the problems and concerns of the modern world, and we have to find solutions. Not the regressive proposals offered in the 20th century, but ones based on a humanistic standard of value, a belief in human agency, and an understanding of the reality and desirability of progress.


Thanks to Tyler Cowen, Greg Salmieri, Clara Collier, Marian Tupy, and Michael Goff for comments on a draft of this essay.

Comment: LessWrong, Reddit

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