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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 December 2017

Philip Kitcher*
Philosophy, Columbia University


The concept of social progress I hope to rehabilitate will be local, far from locally complete, and permit only modest extensions; it will be pragmatic rather than teleological. In this way, it will hope to avoid treating the multiplicity of goods as if there were always the possibility of comparing them on a single scale, to abandon the idea of a final state toward which history is tending or should tend, and to substitute piecemeal accomplishments for utopian ends. Its emphasis on local comparisons will allow it to forgo sweeping historical comparisons, those juxtaposing the “enlightened” with “lesser breeds without the law,” or the “ancients” with the “moderns.” A restrained pragmatic concept of social progress honors the insights of critics of the notion of social progress, seeing them as questioning alleged presuppositions that can be given up.

Research Article
Copyright © Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation 2017 

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1 This need not be the case. Sometimes one can focus on a continuous temporal process and examine the relations obtaining at any two instants.

2 For example, economic progress is partly assessed by increase in GDP, and partly by decrease in unemployment.

3 One source of skepticism about social progress is the assumption that a concept of progress must be mathematical. That assumption combines with the recognition of the diversity of social goods to suggest the impossibility of a linear scale, and thus of a concept of social progress. Skepticism of this sort is often motivated by the insight that social progress cannot be collapsed into some measurable form of economic progress.

4 Many paleontologists and evolutionary theorists reject all talk of progress in evolution. Others want to find a place for progress within the framework of an adapting lineage. Recognizing that concepts of progress need not be global may not completely resolve the debate, but it does eliminate some confusions.

5 I had originally supposed that, even for a mathematized notion of progress, transitivity might fail. But the examples on which I based this judgment are fallacious. In discussion David Owen showed me that I was confused on this point. The correct relative of my flawed thesis is presented below. See text to n. 7.

6 Imagine a system whose sequence of states shows alternating progress and regress, where the progress concept is not mathematized.

7 This paragraph corrects the faulty views about breakdowns of transitivity to which I was once inclined. As David Owen pointed out to me, the kinds of examples I have in mind are similar to the scenarios yielding Derek Parfit’s “Repugnant Conclusion” (Parfit, Reasons and Persons [Oxford: Clarendon, 1984], part IV).

8 Progress of this sort involves a relation between practices, in roughly the sense of Philip Kitcher, The Advancement of Science (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

9 I capitalize to bring out the fact that the natural sciences are often seen as a single composite entity. For cogent defense of the view that the sciences are many, see John Dupré, The Disorder of Things (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993) and Nancy Cartwright, The Dappled World (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

10 A very clear statement of the position is Steven Weinberg, Dreams of a Final Theory (New York: Random House, 1992).

11 See Kitcher, Philip, Science, Truth, and Democracy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)CrossRefGoogle Scholar for defense of this point.

12 This important point began to emerge in the final section of Kuhn’s groundbreaking monograph (Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962]). In later writings, Kuhn developed the evolutionary model of progress — progress as adaptation — further; see some of the essays included in his posthumous collection (Kuhn, The Road Since Structure [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000]). Larry Laudan has also emphasized the idea of scientific progress as problem solving (Laudan, Progress and its Problems [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977]).

13 See Daniel Kevles, In the Name of Eugenics (New York: Knopf, 1985) for a classic discussion of genetics and eugenics in this period.

14 I originally offered this proposal in Kitcher, Science, Truth, and Democracy.

15 I present and defend this conception of well-ordered science in Philip Kitcher, Science in a Democratic Society (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2011).

16 My formulation allows for the possibility of progress, even though a science is not well-ordered throughout, provided that it solves problems that satisfy the democratic criterion of significance and the solutions become available to those who need them.

17 This point has been made repeatedly and lucidly by Amartya Sen. He has pointed to the Indian state of Kerala as one in which economic indices give a misleading picture (underrating the quality of the lives of the citizens). See Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

18 See in particular John Dewey, Democracy and Education [1916], reprinted as John Dewey: The Middle Works, Volume 9 (Carbondale, IL: University of Southern Illinois Press, 1980).

19 For an exposition of the difficulties, see my “Education, Democracy and Capitalism” (chapter 15 in Philip Kitcher, Preludes to Pragmatism [New York: Oxford University Press, 2012]).

20 Even if there is a point beyond which further options become superfluous, or even burdensome, I suspect that it would always be possible to refine a system of education and social support so as to increase the autonomy of the decision.

21 He so takes this for granted that John Dewey, The Public and its Problems [1927] (reprinted in John Dewey: The Later Works, Volume 2 [Carbondale, IL: University of Southern Illinois Press, 1984], 237–372) transposes Mill’s conception of liberty into the framework of interacting groups, without Dewey’s giving any explicit account of his assumptions.

22 John Dewey, Democracy and Education [1916], reprinted as John Dewey: The Middle Works, Volume 9 (Carbondale, IL: University of Southern Illinois Press, 1980), 129.

For a variety of statements about the importance of community to “growth” (Dewey’s favored term for discussing the quality of human lives) in Democracy and Education alone, see Dewey, Democracy and Education, 7–9, 18–19, 24, 28, 35, 64, 84–85, 87–88, 91, 93, 95, 104–105, 107, 200, 304, 333. In some of these passages the emphasis is on exchange of ideas on equal terms. Others stress the role of “conjoint activities” (a preoccupation that is continued in The Public and its Problems (John Dewey, The Public and its Problems [1916], reprinted in John Dewey: The Later Works, Volume 2 (Carbondale, IL: University of Southern Illinois Press [1984], 237–372.)

23 For further articulation of the approach adopted here, see chapter 3 of Philip Kitcher, Deaths in Venice: The Cases of Gustav von Aschenbach (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013) and chapter 4 of Kitcher, Life After Faith: The Case for Secular Humanism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014). The importance to us of connection to a human future is brilliantly presented by Samuel Scheffler in Death and the Afterlife (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013). I see his perspective on these issues as complementing my own.

24 Here, I rely on the genealogical account of ethics I have offered in Kitcher, The Ethical Project (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011).

25 It is not something that flows from the operation of “reason.” My route to an emphasis on community is very different from that charted by Hegel (G. W. F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right [Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991]).

For valuable discussions of the relations between Hegel’s approach and my Deweyan pragmatism, I am indebted to Robert Stern.

26 Given our current evidential perspective, we’re entitled to claim that there’s no ideal that combines them. Making that claim is compatible with supposing that future evidence, probably resulting from further “experiments of living,” might lead to revision of this judgment, and to formulating an ideal. I regard the status of the claim as roughly equivalent to many of the theoretical generalizations confidently made in the mature sciences. Thanks to the referee for pressing me on this point.

27 For telling sociological analysis of the decline of community in the United States, see Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000); and Putnam, Our Kids (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015).

28 See, in particular, Sen, Amartya, Development as Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999);Google Scholar Sen, , The Idea of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).Google Scholar Sen, The Idea of Justice implicitly presents a pragmatic concept of progress.

29 Mutual engagement is understood as a commitment to finding a solution that all parties can tolerate. See Philip Kitcher, The Ethical Project (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), chap. 9, for more details.

30 I have learned from (and been inspired by) some actual experiments in democratic decision-making. See, for example, Bruce Ackerman and James Fishkin, Deliberation Day (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004); and James Fishkin, When the People Speak (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

31 See, for example, Amartya Sen’s seminal discussion of equality (Amartya Sen, “Equality . . . of What?” Tanner Lectures on Human Values (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1979).

32 A general argument of this type can be found in John Dewey, “The Need of an Industrial Education in an Industrial Democracy” [1916], reprinted in John Dewey: The Middle Works, Volume 10 (Carbondale, IL: University of Southern Illinois Press, 1980), 137–43). 9. In my view, the attempt to generalize is at odds with Dewey’s deeper commitment to pragmatism.

33 In thinking about different features and functions of community, I have been much aided by the focus on the difficulties of achieving community in Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1983) and by the analysis of levels and varieties of community in (Andrew Mason, Community, Solidarity and Belonging (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

34 See, for example, Honneth, Axel, The Struggle for Recognition (London: Polity Press, 1995).Google Scholar

35 See the text to n. 7.

36 The complexities of this for political life are a central theme of Mason, Community, Solidarity and Belonging.

37 As my distinction of cases suggests, this does not mean that relief of confinement for some cannot progressively be achieved at greater confinement for others. No Pareto condition is built into my concept of social progress. Rather the costs in terms of increased confinement must be accepted, under circumstances of ideal discussion, by those who represent the people who suffer them. Effectively, they must see the greater confinement of their own lives as a reasonable sacrifice for bringing relief to others. Typically, this will be because they recognize their own current predicament as considerably better than that of the people who enjoy the relief, so that the change in social conditions moves in the direction of equalizing life chances.

38 This scenario is, of course, the context for Adam Smith’s famous use of the “invisible hand” in Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations (New York: Modern Library, 2000 [1776]). The entrepreneur promotes the good of society, even though “it was no part of his intention.”

39 As David Schmidtz reminded me, one can lose sight of problems not only by taking too narrow a view, but also by retreating to a distant perspective, from which the difficulties become invisible. Serious efforts at social progress need to combine the distant vision with perception of the details.

40 John Dewey, “Progress” [1916], reprinted in John Dewey: The Middle Works, Volume 9 (Carbondale, IL: University of Southern Illinois Press, 1980), 234–43, at 240.

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