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On Progress

March 18, 2010

There are lots of great critiques of the language of “progress”: the idea that modern western nations have made some sort of universal progress (in a teleological sense) over backward nations is to project a nonexistent universal standard—a standard that is implied every time we use the language of “first world” and “third world” nation.

However, it doesn’t follow from this critique that there are no workable senses of the term “progress.”

We can, in fact, use the word progress without invoking a universal standard. For instance, if I’m on a trip from NYC to LA, I could say I’ve made “progress” toward my goal without implying that there is some sort of universal standard.

Similarly, it makes perfect sense to me to say that when it comes to the goal of gender equality, America (for all its continuing faults) has made some progress over where it was two centuries ago.

Of course to some extent I’m stating the obvious here, but every once in awhile I meet someone who practically shouts “GOTCHA!” if I let the word “progress” slip from my lips.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. larry c wilson permalink
    March 18, 2010 6:16 pm

    A universal standard is not implied–at least to me–by saying that a “first world” country is defined as “X” and a “third world” country is defined as X-2Y.

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    March 18, 2010 8:56 pm

    Maybe not to your ears, but I bet most people hear the drums of universal progress …

  3. larry c wilson permalink
    March 19, 2010 9:37 am

    As the Man said, A man more right than his neighbors is a majority of one.

  4. fuzzytheory permalink
    March 19, 2010 11:21 pm

    Yes, first-world and third-world are loaded terms. According to what universal standard of value do we determine what is first-world and third-world? Who set up these distinctions and by what criteria? What’s the geneology of these terms and how does this discourse affect real people in practical situations?

    I agree with your discussion of progress, MFM: the term need not imply a universal standard. However, it necessarily implies a teleology. And that is where the discussion can take place. Knee-jerk reactions against the term are as useful as knee-jerk reactions to most things: not very. However, embedded in teleologies are often hidden universal standards or other kinds of presuppositions that can be just as harmful or privileged. So, I agree with you, in principle. We need to examine the teleology that underlies any notion of progress to determine its usefulness or worth. Take for example “progress” towards social justice. The teleology is a kind of dignity (that is often seen as a universal standard, for better or ill). Seems like a laudable teleology. The value of economic “progress” on the other hand really depends on the teleology of what economic progress means for the interlocutors.

  5. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    March 20, 2010 10:31 am

    fuzzy theory: yes, it is a kind of teleology—I just meant it need not imply the sort of necessary unfolding of essences we see in Aristotle or Hegel. That’s a really ramped-up version of teleology that is unacceptable.

  6. Deane Galbraith permalink
    March 20, 2010 7:39 pm

    This post marks a real progress in definition.

  7. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    March 20, 2010 10:32 pm


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