I am curious about what characteristics of humanity, considered individually or collectively, have been labeled and discussed by a somewhat iconic philosopher as a great obstruction to human progress?

There is, of course, the a priori meta-questions of whether "progress" is both definable and possible; however, I am mainly interested in commentary that assumes both of these qualities. The idea of "progress" may be the philosopher's own.

A few examples of such obstructions that I would anticipate having been discussed at some point would include

  • A diminishing sense of altruistic conduct as estrangement increases
  • The growing estrangement between humans and nature
  • The common experience that individual humans tend to think of themselves as the most competent person in the room until experience teaches them otherwise
  • Religion
  • Specialization and Division of Labor
  • 1
    "The overpowering of the subject by the object, which hinders it from becoming a subject, hinders it just so from knowledge of the object." Ardorno, in "Social Amnesia", Russell Jacoby, Beacon Press (1975), p. 81.
    – Gordon
    Jan 18, 2018 at 16:30
  • 1
    In order for there to be a society, the individual's drives must be suppressed (repressed). We don't have an individual yet, for the most part. And just because we are repressed, we can't see what represses us. Freud, "Civilization and its Discontents". This is Freud, Frankfurt school etc. Our "mutilated"...subjectivity must be brought to objectivity so it can be realized. (Jacoby, p.81). This may be one approach to some of the issues you suggest.
    – Gordon
    Jan 18, 2018 at 17:54
  • 1
    Deep urges that compel action and bring nothing but misery, Buddha's desires or Schopenhauer's Will. Consumer fetishism and alienation of humans from themselves due to their enslavement by the means of production, Marx. The cause is somewhat impersonal and created by material laws that govern societies. This was much expanded by Lukac and Baudrillard.
    – Conifold
    Jan 18, 2018 at 21:45
  • @Conifold Why answer in comments? It seems like that is happening more and more on this SE.
    – Chelonian
    May 10, 2018 at 11:24
  • 1
    @Chelonian Because it is not an answer, just pointers. Answers are expected to be more than a list of names and some links, they should give context, summary, commentary, etc., and people do not always have time to spend on writing one. Hopefully, other users can use the pointers to do it, and if not at least the questioner gets something.
    – Conifold
    May 11, 2018 at 20:59

1 Answer 1


What do you mean by progress? Without a definition your list of examples looks arbitrary and a matter of opinion. To include religion and division of labour is to make the list highly idiosyncratic.

Clearly you want to progress in a certain direction, but it may not be what I would call progress.

Off the top of my head I'd list group-think, peer-pressure, scholastic-inertia, fear and pessimism, lack of care for truth, temperamental and self-serving-judgements, sloppy workmanship, the success of the naive exoteric Roman form of religion, human frailty and tendency to not think clearly.

But I feel Conifold nails it. It is the ego that causes all our problems. For the mystic and meditator human beings would be perfectly capable of making good progress once this problem is dealt with. The complication is only that once the ego is dealt with one's idea of what constitutes progress may tend to change rather dramatically.

Heidegger had this to say. It seems remarkably prescient.

"Man finds himself in a perilous position…A far greater danger threatens [than the outbreak of a third world war]: the approaching tide of technological revolution in the atomic age could so captivate, bewitch, dazzle and beguile man that calculative thinking may someday come to be accepted and practiced as the only way of thinking. What great danger then might move upon us? Then there might go hand in hand with the greatest ingenuity in calculative planning and inventing, indifference towards ‘meditative’ thinking, total thoughtlessness. And then? Then man would have denied and thrown away his own special nature – that he is a meditative being. Therefore the issue is keeping meditative thinking alive."

Speech commemorating German composer Conradin Kreutzer in 1955

  • This seems to be a very Platonic or Socratic answer; however, WHERE (as in a quote they wrote, said, or have been claimed to say) did they discuss any of these as ideas as humanities greatest obstruction to progress? I don't necessarily need progress in any given direction. I left the door open for the idea of progress to be the philosopher's own. Marx considered the disconnect between labor and product to be highly irregular and certainly predicted that humanity would make progress when the workers took control of the means of production.
    – user30473
    May 9, 2018 at 13:22
  • @Robert - Ah, yes, I didn't mention any names. The ego issue is well-covered in the Wisdom literature, but otherwise I'm not sure who to mention. I always liked the speech Heidegger gave at the funeral of his pianist friend in the 50s. I've added an extract as an edit.
    – user20253
    May 10, 2018 at 11:01
  • I wanted to put the answer "ego" but 3-letter comments are disallowed; more so 1 word answers😈. So thanks for giving me something to upvote! More seriously though, you need to augment the answer: ego is not so much the western notion of pride vanity arrogance etc but the oriental one of me-separate-other
    – Rushi
    Jun 13, 2019 at 3:37
  • Also I would add: The belief in progress....usually under some fancy-sounding term like historical determinism. Hegel(progress) -> Marx(materiakistic progress) -> Lenin(progress justifies violence) -> Stalin, Mao etc 100 million dead is small change offered to the progress-god
    – Rushi
    Jun 13, 2019 at 4:07
  • @Rusi - Oh yes, I agree it would have been enough just say 'ego'. As for progress, I was thinking of what a Buddhist would call progress. It is ill-defined in the question.
    – user20253
    Jun 13, 2019 at 11:57

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