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  • The Possibility of Progress:A Pragmatist Account
  • John McGowan (bio)

The sins attributed to the idea, or ideology, of progress are legion. Conceptually, in Marx or in the eyes of various nineteenth-century liberal optimists, progress was associated with inevitability and holism. All of history was of one piece and that history was moving inexorably toward a final consummation of the good. Everything imperfect would yield, in due course, to perfection. Nothing in particular needed to be done by human hands. Necessity itself would do the job for us. We need only ride the escalator of history to utopia. World War I, it is generally agreed, put paid to that idea of progress. In practice, quietist waiting for the promised end was fairly unusual. Instead, armed with the confidence that history was on their side, various partisans of progressive visions felt justified in pushing the recalcitrant off the history train. While World War I destroyed the idea that the world was, slowly but surely, becoming more peaceful, more democratic, and more humane, the horrors of the twentieth century that followed the Great War demonstrated that the idea of a better future could be used to create a truly horrific present.

No wonder, then, that today most political theorists and even many practicing politicians want nothing to do with the idea of progress. It is tainted beyond all recall in their eyes. I want to attempt in this essay, however, a qualified "reconstruction" (a favorite term of John Dewey's) of the idea of progress, taking my inspiration from the pragmatism of Dewey and of William James. At stake is nothing less than the possibility of meaningful action at all. But the very first move in this reconstruction is to back ourselves down from such a dramatic, all-or-nothing understanding of the stakes. Pragmatism, both intellectually and temperamentally, should, I will insist and attempt to demonstrate, be characterized as a modest philosophy. It eschews dramatic either/ors in favor of more complicated accounts of trade-offs among multiple participants (both human and non-human) in any situation, with each participant a contributor to and impacted by the eventual outcomes of multi-faceted interactions.1

I need to begin with explaining James's argument against necessity, even though we might protest that no one believes in the necessity of progress in 2008. Why slay a dragon long dead? It might help to make James more our contemporary to remind ourselves of the deep connection between the notion of progress and the whole concept of "the modern." As a temporal term, modernity implies a before and an after. Nothing is modern if nothing is premodern. A change must have occurred. Life is not lived now as it was then. Of course, the modern may be worse than the premodern, so it may not be progress, since that term entails improvement. But the arrival of the modern is very often understood as inexorable—and modernity is also very often understood holistically. True, "development" on the ground is uneven, but there has been a strong presumption that once the process of modernization has begun, the whole package of modernity will eventually be installed. There are modern societies, societies on the way toward becoming modern societies, and primitive societies. The last are unsalvageable, and consigned to the dustbin of history. The aboriginals cannot survive because modernity, as a totality, cannot tolerate or sustain premodern remnants. Even when aided on their way by aggressive humans, the aboriginals are the inevitable victims of necessity, not of an avoidable or lamentable human malevolence.

This kind of appeal to necessity was very common in late nineteenth-century apologies for imperialism. British politician Joseph Chamberlain's 1897 jingoistic celebration of imperialism hits all the familiar notes.

In carrying out this work of civilization we are fulfilling what I believe to be our national mission, and we are finding scope for the exercise of those faculties and qualities which have made of us a great governing race. I do not say that our success has been perfect in every case, I do not say that all our methods have been beyond reproach; but I do say that in almost every instance...


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