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

Author: John Bagnell Bury


Comte spent the later years of his life in composing another huge work, on social reorganisation. It included a new religion, in which Humanity was the object of worship, but made no other important addition to the speculations of his earlier manhood, though he developed them further.

The Course of Positive Philosophy was not a book that took the public by storm. We are told by a competent student of social theories in France that the author’s name was little known in his own country till about 1855, when his greatness began to win recognition, and his influence to operate. [Footnote: Weill, Hist. du mouvement social, p. 21.] Even then his work can hardly have been widely read. But through men like Littre and Taine, whose conceptions of history were moulded by his teaching, and men like Mill, whom he stimulated, as well as through the disciples who adopted Positivism as a religion, his leading principles, detached from his system, became current in the world of speculation.

[Footnote: The influence of Comte. The manner in which ideas filter through, as it were, underground and emerge oblivious of their source is illustrated by the German historian Lamprecht’s theory of historical development. He surveyed the history of a people as a series of what he called typical periods, each of which is marked by a collective psychical character expressing itself in every department of life. He named this a diapason. Lamprecht had never read Comte, and he imagined that this principle, on which he based his kulturhistorische Methode, was original. But his psychical diapason is the psychical consensus of Comte, whose system, as we have seen, depended on the proposition that a given social organisation corresponds in a definite way to the contemporary stage of mental development; and Comte had derived the principle from Saint-Simon. Cf. his pamphlet Die kulturhistorische Methode (1900). The succession of "typical period" was worked out for Germany in his History of the German People.]

He laid the foundations of sociology, convincing many minds that the history of civilisation is subject to general laws, or, in other words, that a science of society is possible. In England this idea was still a novelty when Mill’s System of Logic appeared in 1843.

The publication of this work, which attempted to define the rules for the investigation of truth in all fields of inquiry and to provide tests for the hypotheses of science, was a considerable event, whether we regard its value and range or its prolonged influence on education. Mill, who had followed recent French thought attentively and was particularly impressed by the system of Comte, recognised that a new method of investigating social phenomena had been inaugurated by the thinkers who set out to discover the "law" of human progression. He proclaimed and welcomed it as superior to previous methods, and at the same time pointed out its limitations.

Till about fifty years ago, he said, generalisations on man and society have erred by implicitly assuming that human nature and society will for ever revolve in the same orbit and exhibit virtually the same phenomena. This is still the view of the ostentatiously practical votaries of common sense in Great Britain; whereas the more reflective minds of the present age, analysing historical records more minutely, have adopted the opinion that the human race is in a state of necessary progression. The reciprocal action between circumstances and human nature, from which social phenomena result, must produce either a cycle or a trajectory. While Vico maintained the conception of periodic cycles, his successors have universally adopted the idea of a trajectory or progress, and are endeavouring to discover its law. [Footnote: Philosophical writers in England in the middle of the century paid more attention to Cousin than to Comte or Saint-Simon. J. D. Morell, in his forgotten History and Critical View of Speculative Philosophy (1846), says that eclecticism is the philosophy of human progress (vol. ii. 635, 2nd ed.). He conceived the movement of humanity as that of a spiral, ever tending to a higher perfection (638).]

But they have fallen into a misconception in imagining that if they can find a law of uniformity in the succession of events they can infer the future from the past terms of the series. For such a law would only be an "empirical law"; it would not be a causal law or an ultimate law. However rigidly uniform, there is no guarantee that it would apply to phenomena outside those from which it was derived. It must itself depend on laws of mind and character (psychology and ethology). When those laws are known and the nature of the dependence is explained, when the determining causes of all the changes constituting the progress are understood, then the empirical law will be elevated to a scientific law, then only will it be possible to predict.

Thus Mill asserted that if the advanced thinkers who are engaged on the subject succeed in discovering an empirical law from the data of history, it may be converted into a scientific law by deducing it a priori from the principles of human nature. In the meantime, he argued that what is already known of those principles justifies the important conclusion that the order of general human progression will mainly depend on the order of progression in the intellectual convictions of mankind.

Throughout his exposition Mill uses "progress" in a neutral sense, without implying that the progression necessarily means improvement. Social science has still to demonstrate that the changes determined by human nature do mean improvement. But in warning the reader of this he declares himself to be personally an optimist, believing that the general tendency, saving temporary exceptions, is in the direction of a better and happier state.


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Chicago: John Bagnell Bury, "7.," 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 December 8, 2023,

MLA: Bury, John Bagnell. "7." 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. 8 Dec. 2023.

Harvard: Bury, JB, '7.' 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 8 December 2023, from