A Sceptical Attitude Towards Progress

By Nick Psomas

The 11th thesis on Feuerbach states that “philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”. A superfluous and hasty examination of Marx’s commentary tempts the reader to believe that its author is discarding abstract theorising. Fortunately, for philosophy at least, Marx was much more nuanced in his view which aimed to ground traditional philosophy in empirical reality and a form of historical conditionality. Unfortunately, his metaphilosophical stance is often largely ignored and replaced with an unsophisticated and ambiguous cry for social change. Undoubtedly, it would be a mistake to consider Marx as a mere ‘armchair’ philosopher, but a naive revolutionary is equally criminal. Regrettably, it seems that ‘radical social change’ and ‘inevitable progress’ are the only elements that define his legacy in popular consciousness. From climate change activism to the Black Lives Matter Movement, the core principle of all these modes of unconventional political participation is immediate, uncompromising radical change. 

However, the concept of ‘radical change’ is not bound by a single ideology. More importantly, it is derived from a notion that serves as the metaphysical presupposition of Western culture, namely ‘Progress’. Embedded deep in the collective imagination, it acts as an emblem for individuals of all categories of political affiliation. In its minimalist form, ‘Progress’ as an improvement of social and political conditions is professed both by Black Lives Matter activists and QAnon conspiracy theorists, the former for the collapse of institutional racism and the latter for the eradication of a supposedly cannibalistic, ‘Satan worshipping’ cabal through Trump. Obviously, claims to ‘Progress’ are hierarchical in terms of legitimacy, correspondence to reality and general degree of sanity. 

Hence, as Progress is invoked by all sides of the political, moral and common-sense spectrum, it might be a worthwhile endeavour to undertake an inquiry as to its origins, transformation and implications. In other words, what insights can be gained by momentarily detaching oneself from the active process of promoting change, and instead retreat in philosophical contemplation and rigorous examination of the notion of ‘Progress’? 

The twentieth century Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein eloquently captured the role of ‘Progress’ in the West. In Culture and Value, he proposed that “Our civilisation is characterised by the word progress. Progress is its form rather than making progress one of its features. Typically, it constructs. It is occupied with building an ever more complicated structure”. While it may initially appear as a triumphant proclamation, the passage carries an underlying tone of concern. Rather than being a mere predicate, ‘Progress’ had become the very subject/essence of political activism and public engagement. It was a realisation of the pervasive transformation of ‘Progress’ from an element of political life, to a totalising ideology. A tacit illusion of a self-congratulatory affirmation that implies an escape from primitiveness to modernity.

For Wittgenstein, the normative implication is an awareness of the limits of technological advancement and scientism that has become synonymous with ‘Progress’. One ought not to simply contribute to the development of ‘civilisation’ but also be suspicious of its possible consequences and disparities. In more concrete terms, there cannot be an egalitarian and identical application of ‘Progress’, with scientism as one of its main axioms, in every domain of life. Obviously, the development of technology and the advancement of the natural sciences by necessity is forwarded through the resolution of certain puzzles via the scientific method. Notwithstanding, in the areas of philosophy, politics, economics and culture this monolithic concept of ‘Progress’ is impotent and, ironically, dangerously paralysing.

The tension between the dogmatic nature of economics and environmental protection is epitomic. Models of market dynamics accommodate limited space to ecological considerations, primarily cast as ‘externalities’. Where it concerns the utility-maximising, rational individual constructed to suit mathematical abstraction, one wonders where the preservation of the planet might fit. It is important to note that the picture above is painted with broad brushstrokes and that environmental economics has indeed yielded some promising insights. The purpose of the example is not an arrogant contempt for economic theory but to highlight the problem of the orthodoxy of economic growth as an axiom for progress in relation to ecology. 

The Wittgensteinian admonition of ‘Progress’ as a rational endeavour based exclusively on a form of naive scientism, while vital, is only one side of the coin. From a historical perspective, this notion of ‘Progress’ arguably originated with modernity and the Enlightenment. Hegel, a predecessor of Marx, was suspicious of Enlightenment advocates who interpreted the French Revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic wars as a rapture from history and the ushering of a new dawn that would set  civilisation free of ecclesiastical tyranny and operate purely on principles of instrumental rationality, secularity and freedom.Modern history seems, at the very least, to warrant some of Hegel’s reservations in regards to the Enlightenment. Robespierre’s ‘Reign of Terror’ created a proto-totalitarian state whose task was the consolidation of Enlightenment ideals. In the twentieth century, Stalinist Russia and Maoist China demonstrated the vices of ‘Progress’ as they pursued the establishment of ‘utopias’ baptised in the blood of millions. Ironically, the totalising ideology of ‘Progress’ as guided by reason and secularity was a deeply ‘religious’ enterprise because it required an enormous act of faith in its capacity to deliver the ‘liberation’ of the human spirit from primitiveness and darkness.

In this paradoxical manner, ‘Progress’ is constituted by scientific rationalism, secularism and liberal anthropocentrism, but simultaneously demanding an act of faith. There is a transcendence of the categorical binary of reason/faith as the conceptual boundaries have become increasingly fluid. Therefore, ‘Progress’ is an elusive notion that does not hold its allegiance to a specific intellectual doctrine. Especially in the current political climate, a Kierkegaardian attitude has resonated where there is an aversion towards over-intellectualising or over-philosophising about the potential avenues towards ‘Progress. The rhetoric, on both the left and the right, is that of decisive action in order to rescue ‘civilisation’ from the paradigmatic Other. The message is that those who claim the moral high ground need to take a leap of faith. 

This “leap of faith” led by esoteric passion and a sense of moral righteousness appears to lead to a downfall, resulting in voluntary social suicide. While this might evoke a Burkean tone, it is neither supposed to denounce the concept of ‘Progress’ itself nor endorse a paralysing form of conservatism or romanticisation of a previous historical epoch. The point is that both the left and the right have lost their cognitive mapping as to the direction of Western civilisation and how to construct a fair and just society. 

Black Lives Matter activists have embarked on a crusade of racial justice through proposals of abolishing the police and condemning any form of critique towards them as racist and immoral. Greta Thunberg and her acolytes have equated the climate change agenda with the unwillingness to engage in any form of critical discourse about the issue. The “woke” Left promotes the suppression of thought and language through political correctness and plays the toxic game of identity politics. On the other side, radical Trump supporters have descended to complete madness by storming the US Capitol, entertaining QAnon conspiracy theories about Covid-19 and anything that might seem ‘abnormal’ to them. In Europe, right-wing populist demagogues long for a retreat to the cocoon of the nation-state because in their eyes, it is the only way forward. The xenophobic and anti-immigration sentiment displayed by the far-right elements in the governments of Hungary, Poland, Italy and Greece translates into an inhumane and appalling treatment of immigrants, all in the name of national preservation, pride and historical continuity. 

 The descriptions above are, undoubtedly,  not all-encompassing characterisations. Among the BLM abolitionists, there are reformists. Nationalist anti-immigration rhetoric is countered, by acts of solidarity from everyday citizens towards incoming refugees. Nevertheless, intensified polarisation, exacerbated by social media, gives a voice to the radicals. Consequently, the caricatured version of the 11th thesis on Feuerbach becomes a rationale for a call to revolution. 

A student of history would recognise that the principal issue is not the instigation of revolution but its unpredictability and proclivity towards violence. Storming the US Capitol or abolishing the police might invoke  romantic imagery of the French or Russian Revolution and the beginning of a journey towards a harmonious society. However, it is an ethical duty to remember that, in many cases, ‘the day after the revolution’, in many cases, thousands of people were sacrificed for it to be sustained. 

The current circumstances do not demand moral posturing and grand actions. The most profound act towards ‘Progress’ is to be sceptical of the concept itself. Scepticism should not invite a fundamentalist version of conservatism. Rather it seeks to humble the absolute faith placed on ‘Progress’ as the very essence and form of civilisation. For civilisation to thrive in the consciousness of its adherents it demands ‘monsters’ so that it can differentiate itself. Perhaps one should let go of his/her epistemological absolutism, pseudo-moralism and instinctive rebelliousness that aims to rescue ‘Progress’ and civilisation from the artificially made ‘monsters’. The most rebellious act is dismantling this narrative through the Socratic invocation of our inner sceptic, heretic, hermit and philosopher. 

Edited by Yasmina Al Ammari

Artwork by Chira Tudoran


Hinchman, L. P. (1984). Hegel’s critique of the enlightenment. Gainesville: University Presses Of Florida.

Jaarsma, A. S. (2010). Habermas’ Kierkegaard and the Nature of the Secular. Constellations, 17(2), 271–292. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8675.2010.00591.x

MacIntyre, A. (1994). The Theses on Feuerbach: A Road not Taken. Artifacts, Representations and Social Practice, 154, 277–290.

Newton, C. (2020). Defund or abolish? US debate about police reform continues. Al Jazeera.

Read, R. (2016). Wittgenstein and the Illusion of “Progress”: On Real Politics and Real Philosophy in a World of Technocracy. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement, 78, 265–284. https://doi.org/10.1017/s1358246116000321

Søren Kierkegaard, Hong, H. V., & Hong, E. H. (1992). Concluding unscientific postscript to Philosophical fragments / Vol. II, Historical introduction, supplement. notes, and index. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, Cop.

West, D. (2011). Continental philosophy : an introduction. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press.