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Progress Of The Human Mind: From Enlightenment To Postmodernism

One day workshop facilitated by Caspar Hewett 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 David Large. 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 this event.

In the course of the day, workshop participants were asked to consider to following questions in their discussions:

  1. List four things you would associate with the word progress.
  2. List four things you think are right/wrong with Condorcet’s account of progress.
  3. What does Kant think the Enlightenment is about?
  4. Does the Enlightenment represent progress?
  5. 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?
  6. What does the term progress mean to you? Try to define it.
  7. Does the Post-Enlightenment represent progress?
  8. Is it possible to hold a notion of progress today? Why/why not?
  9. 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)

  • Equality;
  • Trust;
  • Freedom;
  • Human perfectibility;
  • Universal education;
  • Tolerance;
  • Democracy;
  • Republic;
  • Enlightened despot;
  • Social contract;
  • Public debate;
  • Religion;
  • Limits;
  • Experiment

The following table summarises what the participants thought was right and wrong with Condorcet’s account of progress:


Inevitability of progress
Progress of science
Emancipation of women
Questioning of religion
Trust of people
Importance of printing press


Over optimistic
Over universal
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)

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On the question of what Kant thinks the Enlightenment is about, six main points were identified:

  1. Industrial growth
  2. Rational argument
  3. The rejection of authority
  4. Acceptance of responsibility
  5. Free and tolerant society (the paradox of human relations)
  6. 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
  • Justice
  • Technology
  • Liberation from (capitalist) control
  • Knowledge
  • 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 list above.

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 times).

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 The Great Debate Tenth Anniversary

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Related Links

On this site

Humanism and the Enlightenment
The Three Cs and the Notion of Progress: Copernicus, Condorcet, Comte by Caspar Hewett
Sketch of Condorcet's Sketch for an Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind by Caspar Hewett
Henri de Saint-Simon: The Great Synthesist by Caspar Hewett
Auguste Comte – High Priest of Positivism by Caspar Hewett
John Locke’s Theory of Knowledge (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding) by Caspar Hewett
Life of Voltaire by Caspar Hewett
The Great Blank Slate Debate

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© C J M Hewett, 2008