What is Progress?

29 January 2019


Reported by Ben Walker, EPSRC-funded CSaP Policy Intern (September - December 2018)

Progress has meant many different things throughout history, and its relationship to science through the ages has not been as simple as it might seem, according to Simon Schaffer, Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge.

A meeting hosted by CSaP and the Expertise Under Pressure project brought together members of CSaP’s Policy Leaders Fellowship to hear Professor Shaffer’s thought-provoking talk, which provided the stimulus for a roundtable discussion on the meaning of progress.

“The claim that nature is progressive was absolutely unthinkable in this country until about 1840, and it was completely self-evident after 1860.”

Author of Leviathan and the Air-Pump, Professor Schaffer presented evidence that science and technology were being used as markers of social progress in Europe in the early 17th century. However, he viewed a historical shift in the 18th century to science and technology as being seen to be the cause of social progress – a view that is now commonly held – and also a distinguisher of countries. Prior to this time, Europeans had viewed religion as their primary distinguisher from the rest of the world.

Further to this shift, Professor Schaffer conjectured that another step change in Europeans’ views on progress came with the publication of Charles Darwin’s seminal work on evolution. Up until 1840, the idea that nature itself was progressive was unthinkable, but after 1860 this idea was self-evident. These ideas, he claims, gave legitimacy to the argument that social progress should be expected, whilst also going some way to describing the limits one should expect of progress, hence staving off revolution.

Participants at the roundtable considered progress as promoting the 'ability to meet needs' with the caveat that needs were also subjective. There was a discussion on current measures for progress, most notably GDP, and whether we were measuring the right things. Could it be that society focused too much on economic or technological progress but failed to meet more fundamental human needs such as food, water, safety and security?

It was concluded that Government's role was to enable progress, but that true progress should promote agency and allow all to identify what progress should be.