Excellent work done in HIS 101
The Progress of Progress
In the eighteenth century, Immanuel Kant argued for the possibility and utility of a teleological Universal History. Kant argued that natural principles provide history with its purpose: the development of humanity’s ability to reason to its full capacity, which will manifest itself in the perfect civic order. Since Kant, numerous historians and philosophers have taken up the idea of the purpose or progress of human history, expanding it, re-framing it, or challenging it. The writings of Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel wrestle with defining this progress, what it is and how it works; Karl Marx, Aimé Césaire and Chandra Talpade Mohanty explode the issue with the critical question, “progress for whom?”
Walter Benjamin characterized the angel of history as having his face “turned towards the past,” seeing “one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet”—Benjamin seems to be challenging assumptions that history is progressing towards a purposive, rational, and desirable end. Benjamin is not alone in his critique of conceptions of historical progress. Tracing the idea of the progress of history through the works of Kant, Hegel, Marx, Césaire, and Mohanty, a progress of ideas can be observed, from a rather Eurocentric optimism through to a more universal—in the sense of inclusivity—and less deterministic view.
In his essay, “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View,” Kant proposes that history “may be seen from the standpoint of the human race as a whole to be a steady and progressive though slow evolution of its original endowment.” Kant’s idea is that, although human actions at the level of the individual seem unpredictable, a broader perspective will reveal a direction to the course of human events. Kant’s justification for this teleological view of history is his teleological view of nature, as evinced quite explicitly in his first thesis: “An arrangement that does not achieve its purpose,” argues Kant, is a “contradiction in the teleological theory of nature.” Kant’s assumption is that Nature itself works towards a goal—the development of natural capacities to their natural end—and that this theory is applicable to history as well as the natural sciences. The natural capacity Kant speaks of is reason, and the goal of “Nature’s secret plan” is a “perfectly constituted state … in which the capacities of mankind can be fully developed, and also bring forth that external relation among states which is perfectly adequate to this end.” In other words, for Kant, the progress of history is the development of human reason, manifested through statecraft, which both represents and allows such development.
Kant’s conception of progress reflects certain Enlightenment attitudes to some degree, namely faith in the ability of science to describe events in terms of laws, and a Eurocentric world-view. Kant cites Newton’s explanation of planetary orbits by a “universal natural cause” as a precedent for his project, and Kant’s “Universal History” seems unfortunately limited in its scope: Kant proposes to discover “a regular progress in the constitution of states on our continent”—that is, Europe—which will “probably give law, eventually, to all the others.” History is eligible for inclusion in Kant’s Universal History based on its relation to Europe. It is Greek history “through which every older or contemporaneous history has been handed down or … certified,” for “only a learned public, which has lasted from its beginning to our own day, can certify ancient history … and the history of peoples outside it can only be begun when they come into contact with it.” Although Kant’s aim may have been veracity in history, his decision to locate history, and historical progress, within Europe and Europe alone biases his project to favour the European, and, given Kant’s placement of statecraft as the goal of historical progress—a sphere largely limited to educated males in Enlightenment Europe—to favour particularly the upper-class European male.
Hegel’s The Philosophy of History picks up Kant’s idea of historical progress towards a perfect state and expands on it. For Hegel, the development of reason is not the goal of Nature, but rather reason itself is the force that governs the world, and thus governs history. In other words, all events proceed according to rationally comprehensible laws, even though the actors in any given event may be unconscious of the laws they follow, including humans, for the “universal principle is implicit in them, and is realising itself through them.” What this universal principle is realising is freedom: for Hegel, the history of the world is “none other than the progress of the consciousness of Freedom.” This progress towards freedom, like Kant’s progress towards the development of reason, is measured through the state. Here Hegel introduces an important concept to the idea of historical progress: states succeed each other in a dialectical progression, “a series of increasingly adequate expressions or manifestations of Freedom.”
In Hegel’s view, the progression of states, embodying the progression of history, works through a dialectic process, or a movement from thesis to antithesis to synthesis. In other words, a state embodies a constellation of ideas—art, science, religion—of a civilization and will rise and fall according to the agreement or disagreement between these ideas and freedom. In this instance, the thesis of the dialectic process is the state itself, and the antithesis is that within the state which fails to achieve freedom. Synthesis occurs in the rise of a successive state, which will build upon the successes and failures of the previous state and achieve a form closer to the ideal. Hegel explains this process in terms of Spirit, which “makes war upon itself—consumes its own existence; but in this very destruction it works up with existence into a new form, and each successive phase becomes in its turn a material, working on which it exalts itself to a new grade.” Framing the progress of history in dialectical terms, that is, through successive incarnations that gradually work out the failings or contradictions within a system, marks an important turn in the course of the idea of historical progress. This framework recognizes conflict, as Marx will show in his contribution to the idea of progress: Marx uses a dialectic approach to introduce conflict to the idea itself, to show how progress as formulated by Kant or Hegel may serve the interests of a particular class.
Both Kant and Hegel chart history according to the guiding principle of reason; Marx, however, takes a more materialist approach. For Marx, “the socially determined production of individuals” is “the point of departure.” Contests over the means of production are the impetus for historical progression. In Marx’s words, “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” Marx sees historical progress as stemming from this struggle, and this struggle gives progress a dialectical nature. Society is divided into those who have control of the means of production and those who do not; historical change is marked by revolutions leading toward a classless society in which all have shared control over production. Thus Marx’s end result of historical progress is similar to Kant’s or Hegel’s: an ideal state. However, the mechanism of progress is vastly different, and Marx takes a critical look at the role of conflict in society.
For Marx, class antagonism is a given in history: from Marx’s perspective, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted … fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.
Although Kant recognizes conflict as playing a role in society, calling it “the cause of a lawful order among men,” Marx treats the issue as central to historical change and does not view it as being so easily beneficial. In the Manifesto of the Communist Party, Marx describes ways in which the bourgeoisie, the industrialist ruling class, structure society in an effort to maintain existing power relationships. According to Marx, the bourgeoisie has “exclusive political sway” in the modern state; in fact, “the executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” Such exploitive relationships stemming from class conflict counter Kant’s claim that conflict leads to a lawful order, suggesting instead that the order regulated by law may be for the benefit of the upper classes. This recognition of class antagonism and attempts to secure power challenge the conceptions of progress put forth by Kant and Hegel which assume a naturally egalitarian progression for society. Rather than a progression towards freedom, as Hegel describes history, Marx describes the status of the proletariat in the modern state as more debased than those of preceding subordinated classes, especially in terms of labour. According to Marx, the result of the modern use of machinery and division of labour is that “the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently all charm for the workman,” who becomes little more than an extension of the machine at which he works. Although Marx theorizes that society will ultimately become a classless society, he problematizes the idea of progress by pointing out how class conflict, Marx’s agent of progress, is also an agent of domination and dehumanization.
Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism issues a further challenge to the idea of progress, arguing that the dominating and dehumanizing acts committed by colonialist Europe, under various progressive pretences, have in fact caused a regression rather than progress. In a way, Césaire extends on ideas presented by Marx by describing the proletarianization of colonized peoples, but Césaire also introduces some profound critiques of colonialist societies that call earlier conceptions of historical progress into question. Césaire argues that the cruelty and exploitation of colonialism not only harm the colonized, but de-civilize the colonizers as well. The acceptance of colonialist exploitation and brutality by the colonialist Europe is a “poison” slowly but surely leading the continent towards savagery.
Césaire defines colonialism as a “bridgehead in a campaign to civilize barbarism, from which there may emerge at any moment the negation of civilization.” In other words, colonialist enterprise contains within it the potential to undo progress. Césaire does not treat progress as something which will inevitably occur as a result of natural processes, but instead suggests that actions taken ostensibly to promote progress may halt or destroy progress entirely. Furthermore, Césaire’s defence of the colonized challenges conceptions of a progress of societies culminating in Europe, as suggested in the works of Kant and Hegel. Césaire represents the colonized, the “uncivilized,” as communal, democratic, cooperative, and fraternal—that is, advanced in terms of statecraft, which Kant, Hegel, and Marx all place at or near the goal of the progress of history. Césaires work explicitly critiques Eurocentric ideas of civilization and progress and the actions taken by European countries for the sake of these ideas: the “Europeanization” of other nations, which may have done more to hinder or distort the progress of these nations than to encourage it.
Mohanty’s “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonialist Discourses” adds another layer to the critique of Western colonialist attitudes by examining Western-oriented feminism in its relationship to non-Western women. Mohanty uncovers a bias similar to that described by Césaire: the hegemonic location of progress exclusively within one cultural context, denying it to all others. Mohanty argues that Western feminist discourse on the third world denies third world women of agency and individuality, reducing them to “object” status. The effect of this discourse is the representation of Western women as the true “subjects” of feminist counterhistory, that is, the true agents and inheritors of feminist progress. The idea of historical progress is presented with two problems: first, that there is the necessity of constructing a feminist counterhistory, that history and thus historical progress have been defined as male endeavours; second, that even attempts to redefine the idea of progress are problematic, excluding or marginalizing different groups.
However, Mohanty’s work also offers a possible solution to these problems. Mohanty calls for the simultaneous deconstruction of hegemonic Western feminisms and the construction of “autonomous, geographically, historically, and culturally grounded feminist concerns and strategies.” The task of deconstruction and construction is an attempt to break down monolithic, ethnocentric formulations of progress and to replace them with conceptions that allow for the multiplicity of human experience. One critical aspect of this reformulation is that Mohanty does not expect it to occur as a result of pre-determined natural forces, but through the conscious effort of individuals. Mohanty at once calls for the recognition the agency of the individual—all individuals, even those in subjugated positions—and the employment of such agency for the realisation of progress. For Mohanty, progress is not a fait accompli but a goal in itself, towards which one can work.
Through the challenges posed to it, the idea of historical progress has undergone a progress of its own. The teleological Universal History first proposed by Kant has had to face up to how many have been excluded from its reckoning. Critiques based on class, race, and gender have contributed to the gradual re-conception of progress in history as being progress for all and as perhaps more complicated and more difficult to achieve than first theorized. Arguably, the evolution of the idea of progress to improved universality is an example of how historical progress has been conceptualized as working, a dialectical process of thesis—societies progress towards freedom, antithesis—the freedom of some has come at the cost of the freedom of others, and synthesis—it is imperative to work towards the freedom of all.
In the progress of my own historical thinking in HIS101, I found the readings by Mohanty, Edward Said, and Ranajit Guha the most enlightening. These works all explicate how power relations can be embedded into academic discourse and distort knowledge that claims to be “pure.” For me, these readings emphasized just how important an awareness of power and language is in any sort of scholarly pursuit, and the necessity of maintaining a critical perspective in any discipline. History is often thought of as an objective study, even to the point of being tedious or dull—a mere catalogue of factual occurrences—but the reality is that the selection and presentation of facts is a much more politically charged issue. Historical studies, particularly in the areas of suppressed histories, the histories of the marginalized, can be a political and commendable undertaking, an avenue for representation, recognition, and even empowerment of the oppressed.
Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations; Essays and Reflections, ed. Hanna Arendt. New York: Schocken Books, 1988.
Césaire, Aimé. Discourse on Colonialism. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972.
Hegel, G.W.F. The Philosophy of History, trans. J. Sibree. New York: Prometheus Books, 1991.
Kant, Immanuel. “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View,” in Kant: Political Writings, ed. Hans Reiss. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970.
Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. Manifesto of the Communist Party. trans. Samuel Moore. London: 1888.
Marx, Karl. Introduction to “A Contribution to A Critique of Political Economy,” Die Neue Zeit (1903).
Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses,” Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, edited by C. Mohanty, Ann Russo, and Lourdes Torres. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.
Singer, Peter. "Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich" The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford University Press 2005. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. University of Toronto Libraries. 10 December 2006 <http://www.oxfordreference.com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t116.e1089>
. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations; Essays and Reflections, ed. Hanna Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1988).
. Immanuel Kant, “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View,” in Kant: Political Writings, ed. Hans Reiss (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970).
. G.W.F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History, trans. J. Sibree (New York: Prometheus Books, 1991) paragraph 27.
. Prof. Peter Singer "Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich" The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford University Press 2005. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. University of Toronto Libraries. 10 December 2006.
. Karl Marx, Introduction to “A Contribution to A Critique of Political Economy,” Die Neue Zeit (1903).
. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party. trans. Samuel Moore. (London: 1888).
. Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism. (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972) 35.
. Chandra Mohanty, “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses,” Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, edited by C. Mohanty, Ann Russo, and Lourdes Torres (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991) 71.