Ludwig Wittgenstein's foreword to his Philosophical Investigations begins with a motto borrowed from the nineteenth-century Austrian playwright and satirist Nestroy: `One characteristic of progress is that it appears to be much bigger than it really is.' This is an unusual choice of motto, because nowhere in his Philosophical Investigations does he mention historical development or processes, let alone progress. Moreover, nowhere does he say anything of significance at all about such a concept. 1
No less intriguing is the way the concept of progress continues to resurface during the twentieth century. Progress, it was repeated, was a dated concept based on a metaphysical idea of history long since dismissed. The prevailing opinion was that it was a nineteenth-century idea that had been subject to criticism even in its own day, before being given the definitive death sentence with the outbreak of the First World War, when the optimistic West was forced once and for all to take off its blinkers. 2 Progress, it was reiterated, especially during the last two decades of the twentieth century, was the fossil fuel that for centuries had fed the grand narratives of history and the what- proved-to-be disastrous ideologies. But that fuel supply had now finally been exhausted, or, as Dutch writer Gerard Reve once put it: `Progress doesn't exist, and it's a good thing, too, because things are already bad enough as they are.' 3
It is striking that the philosophers of the previous century were continually preoccupied with repudiating a belief or idea that, according to the communis opinio of their discipline, had been outdated for many years. In this way, much twentieth-century philosophy resembles the struggle that Hercules faced when he had to chop off the heads of the much-feared Hydra, even though it was already known that the monster would grow new heads again instantly. The name of the many-headed monster in the present context is Progress, and the mythological impact of the concept of progress is no less far-reaching than that of the monster that Hercules took to task. But Hercules had more success in achieving his goal than philosophy has had in its struggle with Progress, for the question still remains of whether this philosophical undertaking has been completed. Might it not be more appropriate to turn Nestroy's motto around to read: `Isn't it characteristic of progress that it appears to be much smaller than it really is?'
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Publication information: Book title: Art in Progress: A Philosophical Response to the End of the Avant-Garde. Contributors: Maarten Doorman - Author, Sherry Marx - Translator. Publisher: Amsterdam University Press. Place of publication: Amsterdam. Publication year: 2003. Page number: 9.
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