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As contested a concept as its question-begging dictionary definition (“forward movement,” or “improvement over time”) would suggest, the idea of progress has been in circulation for upwards of 2500 years, but gained its most sustained momentum during the Enlightenment in the 18th century. Whether as the rationalisation of the capacity of things in general to get better, or with a tighter focus, say on the expansion of scientific knowledge, progress became bound up with the steady emancipation of humankind from blinkered subservience, blind faith and the pull of myth and mysticism.

Treated on the one hand as a matter of uninterruptible historical evolution, the idea of progress took strongest hold as the interventionary power of human agency began finally to displace the fatalistic acceptance of providence in the tenor of social thinking.


How then, to quantify progress? Post-modern theorists have linked the atrocities and excesses of the twentieth century (for example, Auschwitz and the nuclear build-up) to the pride held in Enlightenment’s prediction of an emancipatory triumph of reason over virtue. Like Adorno and Horkheimer before them, they trace the frition of « instrumental » reason exemplified in recent barbarities back to modernity’s fetishizing of universal reason and the concurrent banishment of the irrational, illusory or retrograde. Thus scientific or technological advance does not by itself a good society make; and indeed the valorisation of science as supreme source of knowledge makes more likely the regimentation, normalisation and silencing of those not party to the expert culture, which is hardly progress in the modern definition. This is not to say that progress has no place. Indeed, can we really look at the history of science or medicine and deny that substantive advances have taken place?  Rather, we need to question our assumptions in using the term and in what we take to constitute progress by, for example, asking ourselves to whom it is destined, by what means, by whom.