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Retrieving the idea of progress

Brian O’Connor explains why Adorno is not the enemy of the Enlightenment

hasok200A 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.”

This form of analysis seems obsolete. The belief in progress is now seen as the naïveté of those who really did not know, or want to know, how terrible we human beings can be. (Indeed, it is curious that some Enlightenment thinkers duly noted the flaws of human nature and the bloodiness of history without allowing these thoughts to compromise their theories of progress. Kant’s “crooked timber” remark is exemplary in this regard). We regard ourselves as somewhat wiser and more honest about the self-destructive capabilities of human beings and can find only reasons to turn away from the idea of progress. There are indeed many.

The most obvious is that the story of progress is a highly selective narrative. We can undermine that narrative through an equipollent story of destruction, cruelty and conflict. A different kind of objection is the relativistic one which goes back at least as far as Herder – an early critic of the Enlightenment – which is that progress, as we understand it, is nothing more than a Eurocentric story prejudiced against the achievements and sophistication of cultures beyond. A lesson that Herderianism has tried to teach us is that it is cultural arrogance that prompts wars in the name of progress.

The last and probably most ambitious versions of the concept of progress were developed by German Idealism which in its philosophy of history, at least, clung to an Enlightenment principle. The idealist theories were unsustainable because of their unattractive philosophical foundations. The essentially metaphysical idea underpinning the idealist theory hypothesizes some phenomenon – the species, nature, civilization or human spirit – which could be interpreted as undergoing, in the manner of an entity (or a substance in the philosophical sense), progressive transformation over time. This notion is understandably often dismissed as gratuitous yet it is a direct response to the need to explain the alleged continuity of the historical process, a process referred to by the idealists as “universal history”. Universal history is the philosophical construal of the progressive unfolding of history across temporally sequenced civilizations. The theorists of this position look naturally towards such terms as maturity, completion, realization and development as a consequence of their commitment to the reality of progress.

If we are obliged to posit the metaphysically infused notion of universal history – the substance of history – in order to explain the continuity of progress then we must surely abandon the idea of progress altogether. The selective narrative objection and the Eurocentric objection may, in any case, be sufficiently persuasive.

Yet the idea of progress is indispensable whenever we seek social change. That thought, at the same time, pulls against the problematic conceptions devised by the Enlightenment: the intuitive normative force of the idea of progress is complicated by our philosophical objections against it. One way out of this difficulty, one which might allow us a viable retrieval of the idea, is proposed by Theodor Adorno.

Adorno may seem an unlikely champion of progress, being often regarded – indeed admired – as one of the Enlightenment’s most severe critics. With his collaborator Max Horkheimer he tried to show (in Dialectic of Enlightenment) that there was a process inherent in the Enlightenment – a dialectic – in which the very concepts it developed in order to lead humanity away from myths and blind submission to authority themselves hardened into myth and authority explaining “why mankind, instead of entering into a truly human condition, is sinking into a new kind of barbarism.” Another one of Adorno’s eye-catching formulations ostensibly disqualifies him further from the task of retrieving the idea of progress: “No universal history leads from savagery to humanitarianism, but there is one leading from the slingshot to the atom bomb” (Negative Dialectics). This prima facie is a straightforwardly declinist philosophy of history, turning as it does the progress narrative in the opposite direction.

Where the relevance of Adorno’s philosophy of history lies, however, is in the ways it forces us to think about the relation of progress to time. When is progress? This is an important question in that there must be some moment which we can identify as one of progress. There are dilemmatic options: (a) the moment of progress cannot be extra-temporal in the sense that progress would be achieved only when history – the struggle for progress – is overcome (the product of the “end of history”). Under this option, Adorno writes, “it evaporates into historical theology” (“Progress”). It entails the plainly unacceptable thesis that the meaning of individual human contributions to the world over generations is unknown until the final result. If, alternatively, we understand history as (b) the continuing story of our progress – even granting some setbacks here and there – we give ourselves over to the narrative of universal history. This narrative assumes the inevitability of progress across civilizations, thereby – perhaps inadvertently – diminishing human agency. Adorno expresses a further worry here: if progress is inevitable then each progressive step must be overcome or transcended for there to be progress. This, he holds, is “the absurdity that it is progress itself that inhibits progress” (“Progress”).

Adorno offers a negativistic theory of progress as a way beyond this dilemma. His alternative is powerfully informed by the horrors of twentieth century history: “I believe that you should start by taking progress to mean this very simple thing: that it would be better if people had no cause to fear: if there were no impending catastrophe on the horizon… For progress today really does mean simply the prevention and avoidance of total catastrophe” (History and Freedom, my italics). This negativistic formulation is addressed to the wide range of related concerns that Adorno expressed about the increasing technologization of the lifeworld. Concentrating the notion within this single objective provides it with a specific historical task. It is one which is intelligible to the salient historical actors as progressive and it comes with no sense of inevitability – what Adorno calls the “magic spell” of progress – precisely in that it sets out to establish a discontinuity within the historical process. It is a break with the assumptions which have produced the conditions which threaten further catastrophe. The break means recognizing that the conditions for progress do not yet exist: the process which moves along with the assumption of an ever-developing humanity makes, for Adorno, a key mistake: “no progress is to be assumed that would imply that humanity in general already existed and therefore could progress. Rather progress would be the very establishment of humanity in the first place” (“Progress”).

Adorno’s student Jürgen Habermas has famously spoken about the business of critical social theory as that of contributing to the completion of the unfinished project of the Enlightenment: we must find ways of reinvigorating the progressive dynamic of history promised by the Enlightenment. But can we avoid the problems that underlie its necessary concomitant, universal history? Adorno’s radical proposal – that progress becomes intelligible once sundered from its Enlightenment articulations – provides, I think, an alternative way of giving theoretical support to our non-negotiable idea of progress.

Brian O’Connor is senior lecturer at University College Dublin’s department of philosophy, and author of Adorno’s Negative Dialectic: Philosophy and the Possibility of a Critical Rationality (MIT Press)


3 comments for “Retrieving the idea of progress”

  1. [...] Retrieving the idea of progress 2010 March 4 by psgsousf Brian O’Connor in The Philosopher’s Magazine: [...]

    Posted by Retrieving the idea of progress « Scriptus | March 4, 2010, 9:04 pm
  2. Sustainable progress would require a world view that is not one-dimensional. With the hubris that came with the Enlightenment too much that was of value to humanity was jettisoned. If life is both esoteric and exoteric, ignoring, or denying, one part of the equation creates an unreal situation and jeopardizes progress and even survival. Instead of guideposts there now are signposts with dire warnings. Focusing on what is exoteric alone is the equivalent of living in one half of a circle while believing that the other half does not exist.

    A way out may be to realize that the human ego and reason cannot survive unanchored to what is fundamental in life; on their own they flounder in an exoteric realm that is becoming increasingly hostile. A first step would be to humbly acknowledge our debt to previous cultures and to ancient civilizations. They viewed life as a circle, one half esoteric and one half exoteric. They strove to balance the two realms. It may be necessary to emulate them in order to have progress that is sustainable and even in order to survive.

    Posted by Anne | March 5, 2010, 5:04 pm
  3. Who is “we” in this article? Unless and until that is clarified, it is pefectly useless, being merely a collection of the prejudices of one person, whose academic credentials alone are no grounds for taking them any more seriously than anyone else’s prejudices. The failure of the Enlightenment is nowhere more obvious than in the tedious repetition of stupid articles like this one.

    Posted by Denis Diderot | April 21, 2010, 10:56 pm