What Are Progress and Development?

Z. Soner Dinç Philosophy, Master’s Degree)
The concepts “progress”, “development and “change” have become a part of our daily lives. We hear things like “progressive, changeable, developmental” almost every day. But what are they? It is possible to say that the concept of progress and the origin of the discussions around almost date back to the same time. Becoming much denser following the massive destruction caused by World War II (1945), the concept of “progress” (German: der Progress or der Fortschritt), which became/was made a cursed concept that must be almost absolutely abstained from, either has become actually forbidden or has been forced into a position which is nearly compulsory to be avoided, as emphasized in his quotation “It is said that Tzar Nicholas I of Russia [1796-1855] banned the use of the word “progress”: Currently, philosophers and historians from Western Europe or even from the United States, though belatedly, have come to the same conclusion as he did.” by Edward Carr, a great historian. Within this long process, the consideration of the concept of progress in an extremely distorted, superficial manner stuck inside the boundedness of a daily jargon has become a circumstance and a norm being almost generally accepted. Following the expressions that presented a negative and certain judgment about it from the beginning, the points of determinant significance, such as what the progress is, how it appeared, what it quintessentially meant, had initially become obscure and then were reduced to a secondary position which never became main topics of conversation, losing their essential position. Due to this fact, it is virtually obligatory to take a look at the date of appearance of the concept of progress in the first place.

The concept of progress, which we are in direct relation with, is mainly observed to derive from the word “progress” with slight differentiations in Western languages. According to the Dictionary of Untranslatables, a dictionary of philosophy, the concept of progress derives from the concept of “progressus” which means “to walk forward” in Latin. In its direct meaning, “progress” briefly means “to walk forward”. Despite the fact that German (an Germanic languages in general) differs from Latin-rooted language group in terms of the historical development of the language, the concept of “Fortschritt”, one of the two main concepts used for “progress”, bears the same meaning as this one within the clarity of “schritt” meaning “-step”, and it points out the same verb and the same action associated with it. In that case, based on the definition that automatically appears upon a brief inquiry made regarding the origins of the concept, it is possible to say that progress, in its simplest meaning, means to step forward, to walk forward. The obligation that a walk must logically have a starting point, a duration and eventually a destination makes it easier for us to establish a decent metaphorical connection regarding the content of the concept of progress.

Although there are various points of conflict as to the emergence and development background of the concept of progress, it appears that the Ancient Greek and Roman worlds of thought have a general agreement regarding the manifestation of the essences of this concept for an early period, though not in its modern meaning. Even though there are various concepts like ‘epididonai’, ‘prokoptein’, ‘epidosis’ and ‘prokope’ which mean development, growth and progress in Greek, it is transferred into the Roman world of thought in the form of “progressus” or “progressio” by the translation made by Cicero based on the concept of “prokope”. As a consequence of this transfer, we see the very first emergence of the “progress”-rooted concepts being currently used in Western languages. Nonetheless, it is immediately required to state that the concept of “progress” in the Ancient Greek world has some structurally fundamental differences from the concept in current use. Though it indicates a difference from the one that was present in the Ancient Greek, progress has been perceived as a change or a variation, independently of good or bad concepts. This idea of moving forward does not exist in the modern sense that we are familiar with. Nevertheless, although it seems that a modern content of the concept has yet to occur, as an exception, it is possible to say that the following sentence by Xenophanes in the Ancient Greece (circa 500), the context and relevance of which are not fully known, shows there was a general thought in that period, covering both change and progress as an idea: “Gods, in fact, did not explain all to the mortals; on the contrary, the mortals shall find the better in time through searching.”. As seen, the idea of “better” indicated and emphasized here refers to a difference based on then-current situation, and further to a situation of progress potentially hidden inside the word “more” independently of the purpose and intent of the one uttering that word. Even though it cannot be comprehended by the people of this age, it appears that saying there was an idea of progress based on this expression in the further studies carried out regarding that age would not be a wrong determination in methodical terms.

After the Greek world, it is also possible to see the traces of the concept in the Roman world of thought. The studies of Lucretius have a particular place for the concept. The equivalent of progress is the concept of prokope in the Roman world, referring to the moral perfection of the person on an individual plane. Another important point to be emphasized is the fact that the concept of progress, which was generally perceived as a world domination in respect of its period, differs in the Roman world. What is understood from the progress in Rome is a state of peace; the concept of progress is perceived as peace in Rome, essentially differing both from its predecessors and its contemporaries. Furthermore, the first trace of the idea of an “eternal peace”, which can be observed in philosophers like Erasmus, Hobbes and Kant, is seen in the Roman world in the context of progress, though within a religious framework. As conveyed by Lactantius (240-320), it is said that God shall bring about an eternal peace on earth. Both emphases are a significant difference and apparent points of emphasizing within the history of development of the concept, along with the process of the creation of its content.

Beyond this point, however, it is seen that the discussions made regarding the concept progress are limited on an earthly plane for quite a long period of time. Throughout this long period, the idea and concept of progress are processed within a religious framework. With the late Renaissance and early modern period, the discussions of progress start once again, this time differing from their predecessors. Initially, thanks to the concrete achievements, scientific developments and inventions made by scientists like Kepler, Galileo and Newton in the field of natural sciences, it was possible to have an increase in the reliance put on the concept of progress with a practically new situation. We can say that the concept established itself on more accurate and visible things with the strong contributions and mediation of the natural sciences in the modern age. Thus, this point is of critical significance regarding the emergence and course of development of the progress. It can be seen that the Age of Enlightenment, along with its specific emphases, is a breakthrough in terms of the emergence and course of development of the concept. In the 18th century, the concept of progress is of a fundamental position for the philosophers of the Classical German Philosophy tradition like Herder and Kant. For instance, as we mentioned in the previous related part, according to Herder, the concept of progress is shaped over the concept of humanity, and the holistic progress of the people towards humanity is pointed out. Similarly, as per Kant, the concept of progress has its own unique place within the system of philosophy of history, and he is known to have used this concept circa 1775 at the latest (Koselleck, 2007: 62).

Although the issue of progress is not directly mentioned in the article “What is Enlightenment?” by Kant, the issue of majority/minority is essentially addressed. It appears that the journey from the state of being a minor towards the state of being a major is, in itself, a definition of progress, though on an individual plane. At the same time, we can say that the famous motto “Have the courage to use your own reason!” has this vein of progress. As pointed out by Koselleck, progressing towards something better, differently from the current situation, is unlike anything that is naturally spontaneous, or any gift granted by the nature to the people, or any godly plan, according to Kant. As per Kant, progress is rather a duty eternally assigned to humans (Koselleck, 2007: 64). It is possible to say that the concept of progress, which was started to be considered by Kant in a structure independent of the capture of or having an influence an object in its natural state, or of the claim that it is gift granted by God, or of the method of acting in compliance with God’s orders, becomes different as of this point with a structurally thematic bounce. As of late 18th century, the concept fully became terrestrial and started to be taken into consideration with its new and unique structure shaped by humans as a species by remaining within the humanly borders of the earthly area. This profanation in the form of a new approach, and it being shaped by humans can be considered an innovation that is possible to be explained as an attempt of “secularization” (Koselleck, 2007: 67). It can be said that the concept is now fully earthly in the direction of this effort, has earthly borders and has become secularized by its structure. The fundamental thing pointed out in the progress is within the borders of this world.

The journey of the idea of progress and development towards Hegel over the concept of perfection (and the concept of completion in association with it) approximately starts from this point. While we are on the subject, we must state that human is a species that is changing and progressing as a consequence of its persistent efforts, which is obviously a determinant characteristic for human species. Indeed, Hegel also indicates this while considering the progress as a process. Hence, the concepts of history and progress created the new field by almost being integrated. According to Carr, in this new situation, “History became a way of proceeding towards the purpose of maturation of the human’s position on earth.” (Carr, 2011: 171).

As a consequence, regardless of wherever it takes place, the categories of change, development and progress indicate a situation being newly created and bear the marks of a birth. After all, aren’t all sciences from philosophy to psychology and psychiatry, which focus on the improvement and further development of humans, basically aiming to reach this point? Regardless of how bad their current situations are, humans will be able to find their own solutions by themselves through their own fundamental capacities, and humans are far more than the combination of relations frozen in a fixed state; they are always open for development. So long as life continues, progress and development will continue.

– Edward Carr, Tarih Nedir? (Translated by: Misket Gizem Gürtürk), İletişim Yayınları, 2011
– Reinhart Koselleck, İlerleme (Translated by: Mustafa Özdemir) Dost Yayınları, 2007