I want to take it as given that our ways of thinking about the world have evolved--and will continue to evolve--for the better. (By "our" I mean educated society.) Science is able to characterize more of nature and to do it more clearly and more accurately. Unsubstantiated, poorly formulated, or simply wrong ideas about how the world works, e.g., vitalism, are eventually discarded. Etc. This is essentially an optimistic view of the evolution of human thought.

When was this view formulated? Who has the best presentation of it? What are the counter arguments? Etc.

  • 3
    I believe the view is called "progressivism". In the late 19th / early 20th century version, it included phrenology and eugenics... But I don't fully grasp the question.
    – virmaior
    Commented Aug 6, 2015 at 14:34

3 Answers 3


The opening is formulated as a call to discussion, which is not the point of this website. However, it does contain three specific questions.

Q: When was it formulated? A: It is how natural evolution itself works, independent of what we think about it. Nature "selects" what anticipates the world better, because that allows smarter behaviour. Therefore better predictive observations provide competitive advantage, which naturally leads to better models, genes, etc. win higher prevalence.

For example, the Buddhist idea of self improvement via introspection is essentially about improving one's thoughts. All cultures since prehistoric times have concepts of good and bad, learning, etc. which allow rejecting bad ideas and passing on the better ones. In other words, I see this as a part of the essence of what life is.

Q: Who has the best presentation of it? A: It is better have several. Otherwise there wouldn't be that much free evolution and improvement. My own answer to this is science and pluralistic schools of philosophy; naturalist interpretations of Tao, Zen, Stoism etc. being some of my personal favourites.

Q: What are the counter arguments? A: Those would have to be some denialists, believers in some doctrine, literalists, etc. There are no credible arguments against evolution of thought, life, etc.

  • This is an interesting answer but it's quite an amalgam. It's difficult to square progressivism with traditional Buddhist doctrines. Specifically, because consciousness is seen as the root of suffering and the problem, it's hard to see how advancing consciousness is going to work with that.
    – virmaior
    Commented Aug 6, 2015 at 14:36
  • The argument from evolution makes a case that the position is correct. The question, though, is who (which philosophers) make this into a philosophical argument. Similarly for the Buddhist perspective. Are there philosophers who turn this into a principle that says that human though improves over the years? In other words, which academic papers have the best presentations of these positions?
    – RussAbbott
    Commented Aug 6, 2015 at 16:21
  • @SAM: +1 upvote, Great opening, voting for pluralism but repudiating doctrines.
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Aug 6, 2015 at 16:56

When was the view formulated

Depending on the context, the name of this view is called "progressivism". Fundamentally, this view has its roots in the Renaissance philosophy of reason and its later Enlightenment cousin.

Kant, for instance, has a strong insistence that what we need to do is realize our rationality and through this establish a cosmopolitan society guided by reason (which he calls a "church" in Religion within the bounds of Reason Alone but which may be misleading if thought of as a place where people worship a divine God that makes pronouncements from Mt. Sinai).

Hegel offers a version that has the evolutionary element you're seeking. In that Hegel, all things are necessary in the progress of Geist, sometimes translated "spirit" and less frequently "mind." And this this simultaneously represents the unfolding of necessary logic.

There were also version based on advents in science. The timing of these views and their particular beliefs also supply one of the more interesting arguments against a belief in universal progress.

A mid 19th century view took the belief that then current physics had explained everything and we just needed to wrap up a few details. (And then came the https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultraviolet_catastrophe).

In the late 19th / early 20th century version, a version built around evolution was floated. It turned to a belief in phrenology (quite popularly believed at the time) and eugenics (which held that belief that some races are superior to others).

Early 21st Century versions benefit from better science so arguably they are the best presentations that invoke the views of the modern liberal state.

What are the counter arguments?

There's three avenues of counterargument that seem possible to me.

First, it's not obvious that progress is inevitable. It's difficult to come up with a naturalistic reason why it must be so. Why assume everything is moving forward? The Stoics assumed everything was a giant cycle that recurred, and the only thing we can change is our attitudes. Some religions assume things are heading towards a horrific apocalypse.

Second, naturalistic progress is not necessarily the progress we want to be inevitable. In other words, if a new superbug appears and kills the human race, is this "progress" in the relevant sense or do we mean something that relates more to goals we might appreciate.

Third, many of the previous examples had visions of progress that we would today see as morally flawed. Mussolini's Italy doesn't strike me as the sort of place I would want to live -- and not merely due to my own ethnicity. Moreover, these ideas were the scientific vogue of their time, so it's not so clear that the ideas that get wiped out and replaced by whatever people call science at a given time are the ideas that are wrong. (racial slavery, for instance, was an idea that grew on people in Europe in a way that it did not previously exist).

  • Thanks. The question wasn't about societal progress but about improvements in our ways of understanding the world. We may learn that we are doomed--e.g., the universe will end in a heat bath--but to the extent that that's a better way of understanding reality, it's an improved way of thinking. You say that the 21st century versions may be better. Whom would you recommend as a competent spokesperson for this position?
    – RussAbbott
    Commented Aug 6, 2015 at 16:08
  • I don't see the two positions as all that distinct. Or rather I don't find the argument from evolution convincing because of the three objections.
    – virmaior
    Commented Aug 6, 2015 at 22:02
  • @virmaior. The post was on the evolution of knowledge, but not on the difficult term of ethical or cultural progress. Do you hold up your stated objections or other objections also against the diagnosis of a progress of knowledge?
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Aug 7, 2015 at 6:18
  • I am not sure if you can separate the two so readily. Eugenics was seen by its followers as no less natural science than Darwin's account of evolution. Phrenology too was understood to be science. Or maybe to come at it from another angle human progress is always cultural progress. The triumphalism naturally bleeds past any barrier of natural science and assumes it understand the whole.
    – virmaior
    Commented Aug 7, 2015 at 7:02

You ask three questions about improving our thinking about the world:

1) When was this view formulated?

I cannot name the first author who explicitly formulates this view. But I consider the following cultural achievements important milestones in the improvement of Western thinking about the world:

  • The invention of the scientific method by scientist like Kopernikus, Kepler, Galilei and Newton. Mature theories have a mathematical form.

  • The age of enlightenment which prompts people to use their rational capabilites to question tradition, doctrines and opinions.

  • The age of enlightenment which prompts people to take over responsibility for their actions.

  • The discovery of the biological evolution by Darwin. And its present generalization to the concept of a cosmological evolution.

  • The decreasing power of persuasion of religious explanations.

2) Who has the best presentation of it?

For everybody, the best presentation of the evolving human knowledge would be: Write an essay on this subject and collect arguments which support your personal opinion.

3) What are the counter arguments?

  • Emphasizing the boundaries of scientific explanation.

Concerning the opinion of an eminent scientific investigator of the 19. century see:


Note. The translation above (from German) contains an error. The last passage has to read:

But as regards the enigma what matter and force are and how they are able to conceive, he [the investigator of Nature] must resign himself once for all to the far more difficult confession - "IGNORABIMUS!"

  • Pointing to existential questions which have no answer from science.

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