Does Progress Have a Future? A Conversation with Pierre-Andre Taguieff

Queen's Quarterly, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Does Progress Have a Future? A Conversation with Pierre-Andre Taguieff


In the face of growing scepticism toward Enlightenment ideals, the eminent historian of ideas Pierre-Andre Taguieff has published The Meaning of Progress--a reflection on four centuries of the political and conceptual history of the idea of progress, from Bacon and Pascal to today's anti-globalization activists.

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AUDE LANCELIN: In your latest book you evoke the "unprecedented" crisis in the notion of progress, a crisis that has been sweeping the West since the closing decades of the twentieth century. Where exactly, in your view, do the roots of this radical re-evaluation lie?

PIERRE-ANDRE TAGUIEFF: The anti-nuclear movement of the early 1970s marks an important step. It was the first to point the finger at a genuinely destructive logic underlying the techno-scientific project, at a "murderous progress," rather than simply at a few perverse consequences. But to understand the shattering of the metaphysic of progress as a whole, we need to go back to the shock of the First World War, which was immediately seen as an empirical refutation of the optimistic predictions drawn from the religion of Progress. Long before the neo-barbarism of the twentieth century, there had been fierce assaults on historical optimism, for instance in Rousseau's Discourse on the Arts and Sciences. But they were speculative. It was really in 1914 that everything shifted, and that the nineteenth century came to an end, that the "century of progress" was brought to a close. And so began the age of industrial extermination, of the mechanization of existence, and this redirection of technical progress toward technological savagery demanded a re-evaluation. Right after the war came Spengler's reflections on decline and Valery's on the mortality of civilizations. Cultural pessimism settled in. We began to understand that techno-scientific advances can be completely uncoupled from progress in the sense in which the Enlightenment or the positivists understood it. The idea that Western civilization is a process of unlimited linear improvement, continuous and irreversible and bound to become universal, was seriously breached.

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In what sense can we speak of a religion of Progress among the Moderns, from the eighteenth century on?

A picture of the future as a promise of happiness and the image of better things to come managed to re-enchant the world just as it was beginning to be disenchanted with the effects of techno-scientific rationality. In that sense, the religion of Progress was really the Moderns' palliative religiosity. It assumed the total inversion of "classical" conceptions of temporality. Traditional myths placed the Golden Age in the distant and never-to-be-recovered past. The Moderns situate perfection in the future. No ancient philosopher could have seen human history as a global and necessary progression; this view presupposes a future-oriented philosophy of history, structured by the primacy of the future over the present and of the present over the past. Raymond Aron introduced the term "secular religion" for any doctrine of collective salvation in and through history. But there is something missing if we limit ourselves to that: what's missing is the utopian dimension. What accounts for the novelty of the idea of progress, as it was conceived in the wake of Bacon and Pascal in the seventeenth century, is the amalgamation of two elements: a view of humanity's historical development in which humanity as a whole advances as one, and a utopia lying in the future. It's no coincidence that Bacon was the author of New Atlantis (1627), in which technology serves as the model for a perfect society: indefinite lengthening of life, elimination of most diseases, unlimited perfectibility of physical and mental faculties--in fact all this is not too far removed from eugenics. From the moment the idea of progress takes shape, we discover the ideal of the New Man, much improved and no longer subject to finitude. …

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