2012 New History
P. O. Box 1-44, Nankang, Taipei 11529, Taiwan, R. O. C.
02-2782-9555 # 226

The Idea of Progress: The Challenge of the Twentieth Century

Jyh-chyang Fang

Department of History, National Chung-Cheng University

In modern world, the most influential result of continuing efforts to fashion a historical understanding is the idea of progress. It is perhaps the most characteristic and pervasive theme in modern Western thought. The idea of progress could be revealed both as a historical fact and as a moral ideal. From the aspect of progress as a historical fact, the idea of progress is “an interpretation of history.” But from the aspect of progress as a moral ideal, it becomes “a dynamic power.” The doctrines of vast ideal forces devoured people by confining their knowledge of the past, by coding their present behavior, and by directing their chase to the future. Accordingly, one of the deepest human desires is to find an unitary pattern in which the whole of experience, past, present and future, actual, possible and unfulfilled, is symmetrically ordered. However, the idea of progress is itself a product of history. The rise and fall of an idea is caused by the intellectual and cultural transformation in history. The idea of progress has inspirited most of the great political and intellectual movements for two hundred years. But it declines and even becomes an exploded myth in the last century. The idea of progress is not only a kind of idea to be study as a historical phenomenon, but also as a category of historiography. The essay discusses both history and historiography, especially emphasizes the tension between the moral ideal and the historical fact in its history. The essay reveals the historical, intellectual and cultural transformations in the twentieth century, the destructive challenge faced by the idea of progress, the disillusion of the progressive myth, and the new perspective of world history.


Keywords: progress, history, optimism, pessimism, post-modernism, world history