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  • Philosopher's Progress
  • Eugene F. Miller (bio)

Writing in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out that democratic America, from its colonial beginnings, had been especially hospitable to the idea of progress.1 This would remain true for at least a century after Tocqueville's travels in the United States; but by the end of World War II, currents of European thought that strongly questioned or rejected Enlightenment views of progress would have a substantial impact here, challenging what Progressive Era thinkers such as Herbert Croly had regarded as the Nation's animating faith—its imaginative projection of an ideal future, expressed as a belief in "the Promise of American life."2 These currents of anti-Enlightenment thought have greatly affected America's universities, forcing them to reconsider the progressivist foundations on which they were built. At the heart of the oft-discussed crisis of the university are doubts as to what progress can mean now.

Progress as Journey

"Progress" is not a univocal term that refers to a single "what" or essence, but belongs instead to the class of equivocals, i.e., it refers to different kinds of things which—because of some likeness that they bear to each other—share a common name. Complex ideas of progress, especially as regards morals and politics, are typically formed through analogy or metaphor, or through the transference of meaning from something else that progress is like. Thus to gain some clarity about progress, it helps to look for the primary experiences that underlie how we conceive it. These primary experiences may be universal, even if their metaphorical development varies by time and place.

To progress, in the elementary sense, is simply to move forward in space or time towards some end or destination which, if achieved, would mark an improvement. Progress thus understood is a ubiquitous feature of our daily experience. In reflecting deeply on this experience, some are led to conclude that whatever may be the proximate end of our choices and actions, the good or happy life is their ultimate end. This at least is the argument that Aristotle famously develops in the Nicomachean Ethics, the implication of which is that progress is to be measured by the attainment of happiness. Other thinkers, such as Thomas Hobbes, divorce progress [End Page 1] [Begin Page 4] from completion. For Hobbes, happiness is indeed a kind of "progresse," but never the attainment of an "utmost ayme" or "greatest good." As he explains: "Felicity is a continuall progresse of the desire, from one object to another; the attaining of the former, begin still but the way to the later."3 Many of Hobbes' successors would follow him in defining happiness as progress, in the sense of unending movement, rather than as culmination or fulfillment.4

Since progress, in its elementary sense, is movement toward a destination that may or may not be reached, it is hardly surprising that the term is closely connected to the idea of a journey. Indeed, from early times until at least the 18th century, the English phrase, "to make a progress" could mean—especially when referring to a sovereign—to undertake a journey.5 Thus to the question, "What is progress?" one might properly reply: Progress is journeying.

How might we explain this spontaneous naming of the journey as "a progress"? A journey seeks, on a large scale, to accomplish what we undertake daily on a small scale, i.e., to move successfully toward some destination or goal. Just as we form our elementary understanding of progress from those daily efforts, we employ the metaphor of a journey to grasp what progress means on a large scale. Stated differently, the pervasive metaphor of life as a journey, especially as developed by poets and philosophers, is a valuable resource for understanding how progress, broadly conceived, may be understood. Of course, other metaphors are used as well to characterize progress, e.g., life as organic growth, or life as cyclicality, or life as ceaseless accumulation of desired objects or of the means requisite to their acquisition. Even so, in efforts to convey life's progressive character, the metaphor of life as a journey is pervasive and highly influential.

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-9731
Print ISSN
1089-0017
Pages
pp. 1-12
Launched on MUSE
2008-09-20
Open Access
No
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