The Idea of Progress: An Inguiry Into Its Origin and Growth

Author: John Bagnell Bury


For the comprehension of history we have perhaps gained as little from Comte’s positive laws as from Hegel’s metaphysical categories. Both thinkers had studied the facts of history only slightly and partially, a rather serious drawback which enabled them to impose their own constructions with the greater ease. Hegel’s method of a PRIORI synthesis was enjoined by his philosophical theory; but in Comte we also find a tendency to a PRIORI treatment. He expressly remarks that the chief social features of the Monotheistic period might almost be constructed a PRIORI.

The law of the Three Stages is discredited. It may be contended that general Progress depends on intellectual progress, and that theology, metaphysics, and science have common roots, and are ultimately identical, being merely phases in the movement of the intelligence. But the law of this movement, if it is to rank as a scientific hypothesis, must be properly deduced from known causes, and must then be verified by a comparison with historical facts. Comte thought that he fulfilled these requirements, but in both respects his demonstration was defective. [Footnote: Criticism of Comte’s assumption that civilisation begins with animism: Weber’s criticisms from this point of view are telling (Le Rythme du progres, 73-95). He observes that if Comte had not left the practical and active side of intelligence in the shade and considered only its speculative side, he could not have formulated the law of the Three Stages. He would have seen that "the positive explanation of phenomena has played in every period a preponderant role, though latent, in the march of the human mind." Weber himself suggests a scheme of two states (corresponding to the two-sidedness of the intellect), technical and speculative, practical and theoretical, through the alternation of which intellectual progress has been effected. The first stage was probably practical (he calls it proto-technic). It is to be remembered that when Comte was constructing his system palaeontology was in its infancy.]

The gravest weakness perhaps in his historical sketch is the gratuitous assumption that man in the earliest stage of his existence had animistic beliefs and that the first phase of his progress was controlled by fetishism. There is no valid evidence that fetishism is not a relatively late development, or that in the myriads of years stretching back beyond our earliest records, during which men decided the future of the human species by their technical inventions and the discovery of fire, they had any views which could be called religious or theological. The psychology of modern savages is no clew to the minds of the people who wrought tools of stone in the world of the mammoth and the RHINOCEROS TICHIRHINUS. If the first stage of man’s development, which was of such critical importance for his destinies, was pre-animistic, Comte’s law of progress fails, for it does not cover the ground.

In another way, Comte’s system may be criticised for failing to cover the ground, if it is regarded as a philosophy of history. In accordance with "the happy artifice of Condorcet," he assumes that the growth of European civilisation is the only history that matters, and discards entirely the civilisations, for instance, of India and China. This assumption is much more than an artifice, and he has not scientifically justified it. [Footnote: A propos of the view that only European civilisation matters it has been well observed that "human history is not unitary but pluralistic": F. J. Teggart, The Processes of History, p. 24 (1918).]

The reader of the PHILOSOPHIE POSITIVE will also observe that Comte has not grappled with a fundamental question which has to be faced in unravelling the woof of history or seeking a law of events. I mean the question of contingency. It must be remembered that contingency does not in the least affect the doctrine of determinism; it is compatible with the strictest interpretation of the principle of causation. A particular example may be taken to show what it implies. [Footnote: On contingency and the "chapter of accidents" see Cournot, Considerations sur la marche des idees et des evenements dans les temps modernes (1872), i. 16 sqq. I have discussed the subject and given some illustrations in a short paper, entitled "Cleopatra’s Nose," in the Annual of the Rationalist Press Association for 1916.]

It may plausibly be argued that a military dictatorship was an inevitable sequence of the French Revolution. This may not be true, but let us assume it. Let us further assume that, given Napoleon, it was inevitable that he should be the dictator. But Napoleon’s existence was due to an independent causal chain which had nothing whatever to do with the course of political events. He might have died in his boyhood by disease or by an accident, and the fact that he survived was due to causes which were similarly independent of the causal chain which, as we are assuming, led necessarily to an epoch of monarchical government. The existence of a man of his genius and character at the given moment was a contingency which profoundly affected the course of history. If he had not been there another dictator would have grasped the helm, but obviously would not have done what Napoleon did.

It is clear that the whole history of man has been modified at every stage by such contingencies, which may be defined as the collisions of two independent causal chains. Voltaire was perfectly right when he emphasised the role of chance in history, though he did not realise what it meant. This factor would explain the oscillations and deflections which Comte admits in the movement of historical progression. But the question arises whether it may not also have once and again definitely altered the direction of the movement. Can the factor be regarded as virtually negligible by those who, like Comte, are concerned with the large perspective of human development and not with the details of an episode? Or was Renouvier right in principle when he maintained "the real possibility that the sequence of events from the Emperor Nerva to the Emperor Charlemagne might have been radically different from what it actually was"? [Footnote: He illustrated this proposition by a fanciful reconstruction of European history from l00 to 800 A.D. in his UCHRONIE, 1876. He contended that there is no definite law of progress: "The true law lies in the equal possibility of progress or regress for societies as for individuals."]


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Chicago: John Bagnell Bury, "5.," The Idea of Progress: An Inguiry Into Its Origin and Growth in The Idea of Progress: An Inguiry Into Its Origin and Growth (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1932), Original Sources, accessed March 22, 2019,

MLA: Bury, John Bagnell. "5." The Idea of Progress: An Inguiry Into Its Origin and Growth, in The Idea of Progress: An Inguiry Into Its Origin and Growth, New York, The Macmillan Company, 1932, Original Sources. 22 Mar. 2019.

Harvard: Bury, JB, '5.' in The Idea of Progress: An Inguiry Into Its Origin and Growth. cited in 1932, The Idea of Progress: An Inguiry Into Its Origin and Growth, The Macmillan Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 22 March 2019, from