The Chimera of Progress?

Posted by:

The Chimera of Progress ? 

Allan Irving


“All you have to do is to think about Samuel Beckett : a mind so dark that it makes you wonder if the Renaissance really took place”  ….poet John Berryman

“And then a plank in Reason, broke…”   Emily Dickinson

In 1933-34 Chicago hosted a world’s fair with the title A Century of Progress International Exposition, with the theme of technological innovation.  Its motto was Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Adapts.  There were close to forty million visitors.  There were ominous signs however that if there was such a thing as progress, it was about to grind to a halt. A virulent outbreak of amoebic dysentery  that sickened over a thousand including ninety-eight deaths paid a visit to the fair. Foreshadowing true evil though was the October 1933 stopover to the fair of the German airship Graf Zappelin a disturbing reminder of Hitler’s ascendancy to power earlier that year.  In 1935 Nelson Algren foregrounded the world’s fair in his novel Somebody in Boots, the century of progress being described as “the brief city sprung out of the prairie and falling again into dust.”  Dust a symbol of anything but progress. 

There is no such thing as progress.  How do I know this? I do not except within myself there exists a set of private and public experiences, thoughts, illuminations and reflections that that tell me this and have made up my life.  And there is the Kantian NOUS – intellectual intuition. And perhaps I have been influenced by Wittgenstein’s sentiment, “I must plunge into the water of doubt again and again.” Even historian J.B. Bury’s embrace of the idea of progress, The Idea of Progress (1920) contains unsettling doubts. He writes, that the idea of progress would be without value “if there were good cause for believing that the earth would be uninhabitable in 2000 or 2100 then the doctrine of Progress would lose its meaning and would automatically disappear.”   I think we are there. Modernity’s troubled embrace of the idea of progress framed by Western humanism, a belief in a world continually made and confirmed by an objective observing subject is brought into question when we imagine the dispersal of this particular arrangement and voices from elsewhere. Can we be a social worker and not believe in progress? Does social work have to exist within an obliged optimism? The question was also raised:  can we live in a perpetual present?

 Every October for the past nineteen years a small international gathering of academics, students and practitioners (most in social work but not exclusively) known as the Global Partnership for Transforming Social Work (see website) have met in Burlington Vermont at the Bishop Booth Conference Center on the shore of Lake Champlain. The overall theme over the years has been to discuss and perform challenges to the valorization of modernity’s “protocols of knowing,” as philosopher Richard Eldridge calls them, “that were developed principally within the epistemology of the natural sciences”  that has cast other ways of knowing and thinking to the margins as deficient or at best as decorative. What occurs at the gathering lies aslant mainstream social work, instead cleaving to postmodern, posthumanistic, social constructionist orientations and positionings. One of the exciting and invigorating aspects of the four days is the vast range of contemporary intellectual thought that is introduced each year: continental philosophy, cultural studies, women’s studies, postcolonial studies, literary theory, history, political thought, indigenous studies, spirituality, art, music…all of which supply our guiding theme well expressed by novelist Salman Rushdie in 1992, “it is clear that re-describing a world is the necessary first step towards changing it.”  Pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty shares the same view. 

At the gathering (we do not call it a conference) formal papers are not given;  rather, each year a number of topics are suggested and decided upon that form the basis for small group discussions over the days we meet.  This past fall (2018) one of the topics was: Progress: WTF or a Road to Nowhere.  Since the 18th century Enlightenment and even before, the idea of progress in Western thought, the belief that we are capable of making lasting improvements for social and personal betterment, has been a central trope governing every field of endeavor including social work as it emerged as a field in the late 19th century.  In the discussion group we considered the possibility that long-term, continued linear progress might be more chimera than reality; should we abandon the idea of progress and if we do where does it leave social work? Of the six in the group, two were doubtful or convinced that progress was an illusion, the other four were not ready to give up the idea, although many nuances were proffered.  At the 2018 gathering I suggested I write an occasional essay on a topic that might be of interest to those who are attracted to postmodernism and social constructionism as formations for creating a new kind of social work. This first one is a speculative critique of the idea of progress. We encourage readers to respond in the interest of creating dialogue. 

To get the discussion going this past October two art works were considered as a framing mechanism: John Gast’s 1872 painting American Progress (google) interpreted usually as a representation of the doctrine of Manifest Destiny; and a contemporary critical multi-piece installation work by Liz Glynn at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art that questions the idea of linear progress entitled The Archeology of Another Possible Future (Google).   I would like to mention two other artworks that we did not discuss:  one by the 19th century American landscape painter Thomas Cole; the other by contemporary artist, Ed Ruscha.  Both entitled their works, The Course of Empire (Google).  Cole’s 1836 work in the Romantic tradition consisted of five separate scenes taking us on a journey from the early state of mankind up through the establishment of civilization to a steady decline into destruction and desolation.  Ruscha’s 2005 work of six paintings represent the growing intensity of his interest in the themes of decay and destruction. He describes his Course of Empire paintings as “airing my doubts about progress in the world.”  

There are many ways of thinking about progress.  Romantic poetry for philosopher and poet Friedrich Schlegel (1772-1829) represents a kind of progress but one that is not the material and scientific type typical of Enlightenment and positivist philosophy but rather a notion of progress that brings art and life together. Nietzsche captured this well in his aphorism, “we have art lest we perish of the truth.”  The superintending logic and metanarrative of progress as a unifying idea may psychologically free us from the terrifying notion that we are adrift in a sea of chance and contingency.  Holding to some idea or belief in progress may be one way to render our often tragic earthly transit comprehensible even bearable.    

The language of progress is its own reality, not a means of representing reality; a metaphor more than a concept. Swift’s parody of a scientific society Gulliver’s Travels (1726) portrays a society where an obsession with progress results in confusion and chaos and alienation from the human world. Leo Tolstoy rejected the idea of historical progress.  In his novel Anna Karenina (1878) Anna, having pursued an adulterous relationship, ends her life by hurling herself into the path of a train.  For most in the 19th century the train meant progress but for Tolstoy the train represented a dismissal of the Western dream of progress, writing that railroads “increase the temptations; they destroy the forests; they take away laborers; they raise the price of bread.”

Although the idea of progress originates, it is usually assumed, in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, the sociologist Robert Nisbet in History of the Idea of Progress (1980) makes the persuasive case that notions of progress flourished in the classical world.   Robert Faulkner’s Francis Bacon and the Project of Progress (1993) argues that Bacon’s Novum Organum(1620) with its emphasis on experimental method is the UrText for Enlightenment thought and belief in progress.  Critical theorists Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno called Bacon the herald of the Enlightenment.  One of the editors of the Enlighgtenment’s magisterial Encyclopedie (1751) the philosophe Denis Diderot was an admirer of Bacon and avidly consumed his works.  He fully supported Bacon’s research method based on observation and experiment and the inductive method of reasoning.  Bacon and then Diderot and other Enlightenment thinkers fervently believed in independent thinking, the accumulation of knowledge and the notion of progress achieved by Bacon’s scientific experimentalism. During the late Renaissance, when Bacon was formulating his ideas and writing his major works, a new realization was gathering that a strong commitment to the idea of progress and improvement in human affairs was essential.  All Bacon’s work is shot through with ideas of progress – moral, intellectual, material. J.G. Crowther in his 1960 analysis Francis Bacon: The First Statesman of Science maintains that Bacon “was the first to propose the continual improvement of human life by the systematic development of science as…a practical policy.”  Progress.

Bacon was the first philosopher to craft a treatise on a universal method for seeking truth through experimental science.  The idea and application of right method was getting a firm grip on the discourse as an essential ingredient for progress to take place.  Adding to the concept and significance of method was the rationalist philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1651) whose Discourse on Method (1637) advanced the possibility for knowing through the rational process of systematic doubt and his famous cogito ergo sum.  The eighteenth century Enlightenment, the age of reason, brought together Cartesian rationalism and Baconian science both consolidating the understanding that method would be the disinfectant that would rid society of irrationalism, superstition, darkness, myths, banish everything unscientific and open the doors of rationalism to allow the only true form of universal knowing – scientific – to assume the form of progress and lead to unqualified positive results for humanity.  Progress was quickly becoming one of the metanarratives of modernity. 

In the nineteenth century philosophers Hegel and Marx placed progress at the center of their thought.  Marx argued that progress would occur through iron clad laws of history, historical materialism, moving society to an ultimate state of perfection.  While Marx’s driving force of progress was economic Hegel’s lay in the realm of what he called Spirit. In his Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) Hegel fully incorporated the metanarrative of progress; there is very little in his philosophy that is not concerned with becoming, growth and progress. Contemporary philosopher Jurgen Habermas picks up on this sense of progress in Hegel and maintains that he is “the first philosopher to develop a clear concept of modernity.”  Hegel also absorbs another Enlightenment metanarrative: Reason. Spirit and reason combine and generate progress towards “the Absolute” which is the reconciliation of conflict and contradiction in a state which is free and just. All contradictions, passions, desires, thoughts and actions of every subject are continuously brought together by Spirit which moves progress along through what Hegel calls the “cunning of reason.” For Hegel this meant that even the worst atrocities, a “slaughter bench” or even an “altar on which individuals and entire nations are immolated” will ultimately result in a better rational world.  There is definitely a steep price to be paid for progress: a profound darkness rooted in the way catastrophic results and destructive consequences are justified such as capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy, racism by the ‘cunning of reason.’  

Auguste Comte along with many other 19th century thinkers saw progress towards perfection through the use of science: Positivism.  The mirror like surface of the Enlightenment and its 19th century exponents was shattered to some extent by the Romantic movement (1770-1830) which I’ll more fully discuss in a subsequent article.  Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (1818) with its ironic subtitle – or the Modern Prometheus – is a Romantic gothic tale of the hubris of the Enlightenment, reason and science.  The Italian Romantic poet Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) although he lived in an age that valorized reason as the instrument of progress  agonized that an overabundance of reason and rationality will only lead to forms of inhumane violence writing that “reason is often the source of barbarism (indeed is barbarous itself) and an excess of reason always is.”  This is the same argument elaborated in Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s searing critique The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947).  The more we supposedly progress through reason and knowledge Leopardi thought, the more the imagination becomes barren the greater is the emptiness of things.  For Leopardi poetry was thought itself, no progress needed. Political philosopher Hannah Arendt proffers in her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism that the relentless progress of science and technology and the belief in human perfectibility lead to the accumulation of power by nations who could globally enforce economic dominance.  Imperialism depended on racism as its method of dominance. 

Returning to the question can social work exist without believing in progress?  My answer is yes if we think about the concept progress from the perspective of philosophical nominalism and Jean-Francois Lyotard’s critique of modernist metanarratives – “I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.”  Progress is one such metanarrative seducing us into teleologically driven and technologically deterministic visions of the future.    Foucault saw his notion of power through a nominalistic lens, making the point that “power is not an institution and not a structure; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society.”   

The philosophical doctrine of nominalistic epistemology has its origins in 11th and  12th-century scholarly disputes at the University of Paris.  Up to that point epistemology had been dominated by Platonic idealism which argued that universals were the only true reality; by the 12th- century philosophers and theologians such as John Roscelin and later William of Ockham said that universals are only verbal expressions, mere voces (“voiced air), or nomina mere names that had no existing reality.  Postmodern scholars in their repudiation of metanarrative universals such as progress revived medieval nominalism in 20th-century thought.  Two fine examples in literature of a nominalist/postmodern approach are Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1980) and Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods (2007). 

Social work does not need a universal notion of progress to do its work; a pragmatic engagement in the everyday work of the community, in human suffering is sufficient. Perhaps I’ll end with a quote from a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti:

They are the same people

only further from home

on freeways fifty lanes wide

on a concrete continent

spaced with bland billboards

illustrating imbecile illusions of



Add a Comment