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J.B. Bury
This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 296 pages of information about The Idea of Progress.

Moreover, even if it is admitted to be probable that the course of civilisation has so far been in a desirable direction, and such as would lead to general felicity if the direction were followed far enough, it cannot be proved that ultimate attainment depends entirely on the human will.  For the advance might at some point be arrested by an insuperable wall.  Take the particular case of knowledge, as to which it is generally taken for granted that the continuity of progress in the future depends altogether on the continuity of human effort (assuming that human brains do not degenerate).  This assumption is based on a strictly limited experience.  Science has been advancing without interruption during the last three or four hundred years; every new discovery has led to new problems and new methods of solution, and opened up new fields for exploration.  Hitherto men of science have not been compelled to halt, they have always found means to advance further.  But what assurance have we that they will not one day come up against impassable barriers?  The experience of four hundred years, in which the surface of nature has been successfully tapped, can hardly be said to warrant conclusions as to the prospect of operations extending over four hundred or four thousand centuries.  Take biology or astronomy.  How can we be sure that some day progress may not come to a dead pause, not because knowledge is exhausted, but because our resources for investigation are exhausted—­because, for instance, scientific instruments have reached the limit of perfection beyond which it is demonstrably impossible to improve them, or because (in the case of astronomy) we come into the presence of forces of which, unlike gravitation, we have no terrestrial experience?  It is an assumption, which cannot be verified, that we shall not soon reach a point in our knowledge of nature beyond which the human intellect is unqualified to pass.

But it is just this assumption which is the light and inspiration of man’s scientific research.  For if the assumption is not true, it means that he can never come within sight of the goal which is, in the case of physical science, if not a complete knowledge of the cosmos and the processes of nature, at least an immeasurably larger and deeper knowledge than we at present possess.

Thus continuous progress in man’s knowledge of his environment, which is one of the chief conditions of general Progress, is a hypothesis which may or may not be true.  And if it is true, there remains the further hypothesis of man’s moral and social “perfectibility,” which rests on much less impressive evidence.  There is nothing to show that he may not reach, in his psychical and social development, a stage at which the conditions of his life will be still far from satisfactory, and beyond which he will find it impossible to progress.  This is a question of fact which no willing on man’s part can alter.  It is a question bearing on the mystery of life.

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