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Idea of Progress

Whither The Idea Of Progress

The twentieth century was not kind to believers in the idea of inevitable progress. One could say without exaggeration that between World War I and the collapse of the Soviet Union and communism, the West, bosom of the Enlightenment and the idea of progress, was convulsed by sanguinary madness unparalleled in the whole of human experience. Baconian progress produced the rifled barrel and the machine gun, and the latter were used by the Western "isms"—nationalism, colonialism, communism, and fascism—to transform Europe, Russia, and much of Asia into a charnel house. It is thus not surprising that in the twentieth century, intellectual currents began to challenge the idea of progress. The most fashionable of these currents included some forms of radical feminism and postmodernism. The two great thinkers of postmodernism were Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) and Martin Heidegger (1889–1976), although their influence in America came more indirectly by way of the French thinkers, especially Jacques Derrida, influenced by Heidegger. According to postmodernism, the idea of the necessary progress of reason is incoherent because reason—especially modern positive science—cannot rationally justify the rule of reason over life. This fundamental limit of reason is itself a discovery made by reason. Reason learns that reason is itself but a way of life and projection of the will, and as such reason is one such projection (and a patriarchal one in the eyes of radical feminism) among many possibilities.

There is absolutely no doubt that science and technology now progress at geometrical speed. One need think only of genetic engineering and the computer to realize that the material world will be quite different very soon. As Benjamin Franklin predicted, some day humans will live three or four hundred years and old age will become a curable disease. But as the advent of postmodernism suggests, it will not be easy to predict what moral forms these long lives will adopt, or whether, if we could see into the future, we would see them as evidence of moral progress. In the United States, postmodernism is generally allied, perhaps paradoxically, with progressive or liberal movements such as multiculturalism and feminism. But postmodernism could just as easily be allied (as indeed it was in the case of Heidegger and the literary theorist Paul de Mann) with illiberal political irrationalism, or even with a new age of faith. As Nietzsche argued, the demise of reason as an ideal takes place at the hands of reason. If Nietzsche is correct, then the terminus of progress is the end of the "idea" of progress.


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Jerry Weinberger

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Positive Number to Propaganda - World War IiIdea of Progress - The First Prophet Of Progress, Inevitable Progress, The Idea Of Progress In The Anglo-american World