What is Progress? How the Enlightenment is Ruining Everything

by Shaun Terry

It seems that, fundamentally, the Enlightenment is about an ideal of progress. I think that part of Foucault’s point is to question this notion of progress and to consider how the attitude of modernistic progress is what helps to define modernity.

Much of Kant’s work seems to have been predicated upon the idea that some people have greater value in society than do others. The way that he moralizes people’s positions in society is consistent with certain conceptions of Christian theology at the time (although he certainly seems to manipulate certain contemporaneous aspects of Christian understanding) and it seems to address certain needs of the state and of the bourgeoisie. By conceiving of human nature and human progress in certain ways, and by conceiving of human endeavors in terms of their usefulnesses, his call for rationalization seems to fit within broader ideas of what people should be and what they should do. For Kant, I think that there is a way by which he forms a social hierarchy based on those aspects of humanity that he privileges.

It seems to me that the develop of the Enlightenment, in some ways, might have been a response to the Crusades, the Reformation, British land reform, and colonialism and calls for further colonizations. If it helped to justify different forms of expropriation, discipline, formation of a working class, colonization, Patriarchy, and the like, then maybe it was through things like the idealization of progress and Kant’s call for us to “dare to know.” What these examples appear to have in common is that each is a case of some people’s liberties to effect personal progress (fulfillments of desires) to be privileged over other people’s liberties from harm (denials of harms, or, in some cases, even fulfillments of certain kinds of needs). Perhaps Kant’s racism is an indication that Kant’s philosophical positions were necessarily bound with the rationalization of formations of privilege and underprivilege. Reflective of these unequal sets of privileges, it seems to me that the Enlightenment may have always already been about mastery of the universe as a way of promising that anyone can have whatever they want, given some constraints (one would seem to need the time and resources to fulfill their desires, at least). By privileging certain forms, and methods, of knowledge formation, those with access to those knowledge practices appear to be encouraged to do what is necessary in order to effect progress (even Kant, while describing his geography course, privileges certain aspects according to their industrial usefulness [see long quotation from Kant on Elden’s p. 11]). In essence, what occurs to me is that maybe personal enrichment has always been already tied to the formations of knowledge that have been encouraged by the Enlightenment, always already privileging some people at the expense of others, leading to the fulfillments of some people’s desires at the expense of other people’s needs.

All that having been said, and getting back to Foucault, I think that what the readings show is that the relationship between social concerns and the production of knowledge is a complicated one. On one hand, as Foucault puts it, we seem to have an “impatience for liberty.” Here, I think that Foucault probably means that we have an impatience for the developments of new capacities. These developments of these new capacities come with their own problems, including that new capacities can bring about new forms of harm and can exacerbate old forms of harm. On the other hand, the process of developing new capacities often leads to other kinds of questions. Who has access to the tools necessary for producing knowledge? Who has access to knowledge? What is meant by knowledge? How is the knowledge used? How is the knowledge framed? What does it mean if we propose that we can know everything? How do these concerns affect individuals and societies? Plenty of other questions could be added to this list and I think that all of these and many of those not included are probably worthy of plenty of inspection perhaps even before we try to develop new capacities.

Elden, Stuart. “Reassessing Kant’s geography.” Journal of Historical Geography. Amsterdam: Elsevier. 2008. 3-25.

Foucault, Michel. “What Is Enlightenment?” The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon. 1984. 32-50.

Louden, Robert B. “Anthropology from a Kantian point of view: toward a cosmopolitan conception of human nature.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science. Amsterdam: Elsevier. 2008. 515-22.