a negativistic theory of progress


A distinctive characteristic of modernity is its belief in its special progressive trajectory. It was during the period of Enlightenment that this belief gained its most confident and theoretical articulations. The idea of progress was certainly no ancillary dimension of the Enlightenment. As, for example, Kant’s essays on the philosophy of history make clear, the essence of the self-understanding of the Enlightenment was progress, a distinctive historical period consciously reaching beyond what had gone before. What today might be considered the lasting legacies of the Enlightenment, such as the critique of superstition, the improvement of scientific method, or the rejection of irrational authority, were contributions to rather than the core of this process. The efforts of Condorcet – who was not alone in this – to develop a science of progress tell us how real the phenomenon of progress appeared to the intellectuals of the Enlightenment. In his Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind he proposed that if “there is to be a science for predicting the progress of the human race, for directing and hastening it, the history of the progress already achieved must be its foundation.” This indeed was a quite unique form of science in that the science of progress might stimulate further progress, its apparently non-paradoxical aim being to promote the very thing it set out to verify. And with regard to historical advancement, Condorcet noted, the “present state of enlightenment assures us that this revolution will have a favourable result,” delivering eventually “the abolition of inequality between nations, the progress of equality within each nation, and the true perfection of mankind.”

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