In intellectual history, the Idea of Progress is the idea that advances in technology, science, and social organization can produce an improvement in the human condition. That is, people can become better in terms of quality of life (social progress) through economic development (modernization), and the application of science and technology (scientific progress). The assumption is that the process will happen once people apply their reason and skills, for it is not divinely foreordained. The role of the expert is to identify hindrances that slow or neutralize progress.
The Idea of Progress emerged primarily in the Enlightenment in the 18th century. Significant movements in this period were Diderot’s Encyclopedia, which carried on the campaign against authority and superstition, and the French Revolution. Some scholars consider the idea of progress that was affirmed with the Enlightenment, as a secularization of ideas from early Christianity, and a reworking of ideas from ancient Greece.
In the nineteenth century, the idea of progress was united by Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer to their theories of evolution. The Spencerian version of it, called Social Darwinism, was very widely influential among intellectuals in many fields in the late nineteenth century. By the 1920s, however, Social Darwinism had generally lost favor with intellectuals, especially because World War I had shown that modern technology could cause horrible negative impacts on human affairs.
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