One day workshop facilitated by
and David Large
Summary of discussions and conclusions
by Caspar Hewett
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Progress Of The Human Mind: From Enlightenment To Postmodernism was
a one day workshop held in September 2008 as part of The
Great Debate Human Nature Series facilitated by
Caspar Hewett and
The aim of the workshop was to examine the changing nature of society’s
understanding of the meaning of ‘progress’ and how it relates to the way
that humanity is perceived today. The work of some key thinkers was
introduced to facilitate the discussion: Condorcet, Kant, Saint-Simon,
Auguste Comte and Michel Foucault.
Some notes on these thinkers can be found in the links section below.
In these notes I attempt to capture some of the main points that came out of the
the day. This is an ongoing discussion and I am sure we will keep exploring it
for many years to come. Special thanks go to The Complexity and Change Network
at Northumbria University and Newcastle Philosophy Society for sponsoring
In the course of the day, workshop participants were asked to consider to
following questions in their discussions:
List four things you would associate with the word progress.
List four things you think are right/wrong with Condorcet’s account
What does Kant think the Enlightenment is about?
Does the Enlightenment represent progress?
List what you think are the three most important differences between
the notions of progress we have looked at so far. Why are they important?
What does the term progress mean to you? Try to define it.
Does the Post-Enlightenment represent progress?
Is it possible to hold a notion of progress today? Why/why not?
What would be your future vision of progress for the 21st Century?
Some key themes arose from the discussion of the
Enlightenment idea of progress (Condorcet and Kant)
The following table summarises what the participants thought was right and
wrong with Condorcet’s account of progress:
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Inevitability of progress
Progress of science
Emancipation of women
Questioning of religion
Trust of people
Importance of printing press
Inevitability of progress
Science not entirely positive
Technology often not positive
Thinking in terms of right and wrong (absolutist)
His view was Eurocentric (thus too many assumptions made)
Historical order questionable
Inaccurate account of early epochs (understandable considering knowledge
of his period)
On the question of what Kant thinks the Enlightenment is about, six main
points were identified:
The rejection of authority
Acceptance of responsibility
Free and tolerant society (the paradox of human relations)
Courage (morality and the refusal of cowardice)
The things the participants associated with the word progress were
Redistribution of resources
Elimination of prejudices
Liberation from religious myth
Use of reason
Freedom of thought
Disillusionment (as part of maturing)
Increased production of resources
Some people lose out
Individual and societal self-awareness
Liberation from (capitalist) control
Freedom from … (various types of interference)
To assess whether they thought the Enlightenment represents progress, the
participants compared what has been achieved in the last 200 years with the
Those areas where they felt it does were: Liberation from religious myth;
use of reason; freedom of thought; disillusionment (as part of maturing);
individual and societal self-awareness; justice; increase in knowledge and
freedom from various types of interference (compared to pre-Enlightenment
However, the Enlightenment was not thought to represent progress
regarding redistribution of resources, the fact that some people lose out and
the failure to be liberated from (capitalist) control.
The answer was thought to be less clear cut when it came to the elimination
of prejudice (some progress has been made, but it is limited), increased
production of resources (a double edged sword) and technology (not all
technological developments are progressive, e.g. the atom bomb.)
The participants were divided on whether progress is possible today:
Some felt that it is, while others are relativists who think the notion of
progress itself is faulted.
Some argued that progress is not possible since
it is against human nature to treat everyone in an
equal and just way. This brought up the question of whether human nature
is fixed, what part culture plays etc. but exploring these themes was
beyond the scope of the workshop.
The fact that wars are still going on was
fairly universally seen as a sign of a lack of progress.
Postmodernism could be seen both as progress and a lack of it – if considered
as a step beyond modernism it could be seen as progress, while its attachment
to the idea of there being no answers to big questions suggests that it
cannot represent progress.
It was agreed that technological progress would continue, and there was
some agreement that more people are engaged with it today. On example cited
was growing access to communications technology, especially the internet.
One last definition of progress was suggested by some of the participants, which
was that it is 'something for which you aim but do not achieve' - for example
equality, freedom and justice are always worth aiming for even if they are
never entirely reached!
Finally, David Large posed the question of whether
the Enlightenment has made people better. There was a lack of
willingness to engage with this (moral) question. The participants
thought that people are perhaps better off, better educated, live a
better quality of life etc. but felt that it is impossible to say if
people are actually better. This was not a surprising view from the
hardened relativists, but was interesting in that it spanned the
whole group. The problem was agreeing the terms of reference – does
one accept Kant's terms of reference? Caspar Hewett suggested that
the obvious terms of reference to take were those
the participants associated with the word progress as listed at the
beginning of the day, perhaps taking universal benefits such as
education as a measure. It had been intriguing to note how closely
the participants agreed on those terms of reference considering
the range of backgrounds and opinions of the group. The notably
social emphasis in their list of things they associate
with progress is almost certainly atypical as most discussions
of progress today are imbued with a narrow technical understanding of
the notion. Nevertheless, the group as a whole felt that better
educated people were not necessarily better people and refused to answer
this last question – Kant and Condorcet would have been disappointed!
Notes written by Caspar J M Hewett
Progress of the Human Mind:
From Enlightenment to Postmodernism was held in September 2008
as part of
Great Debate Tenth Anniversary
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