The term success if often found in modern western culture. Without further thinking, success in its most common context is related to either an increase in wealth or social status. But the notion of success is homelike in other context as well:

It is clear that according to the context, the notion of success differs, thus that the definition of success naturally has to depend on the context. Nevertheless, it might be possible to clearly and unambiguously define the 'concept of success' by means of which notions of success can be inferred for a given context.

Is there some literature on this?

ps. Please be indulgent in judging the terms used to describe this question, I'm a layman.

  • Globally there is no such thing as success.There is only possibility. Success is a comparative function. If you can not compare -- there is no success. Globally you can not compare.
    – Asphir Dom
    Jul 17, 2013 at 13:51
  • This is a good point. But one could think of a restricted setting that allows for an unambiguous comparison between, say a current and a desired state. In this case one could think of implicitly defining a comparative function. How could this implicit definition look like?
    – j-i-l
    Jul 17, 2013 at 14:55
  • @dedoco All you need is a function φ that maps the set of states to the non-negative real numbers. Then you implicitly define a binary relation on states by requiring φ be a homomorphism into the non-negative real numbers ordered by the usual "less-than-or-equal-to" relation.
    – David H
    Jul 17, 2013 at 18:36
  • @DavidH: Why the non-negative reals? Can't a state be highly destructive? Why a linear ordering? Can't two events be non-comparable? Shouldn't the ordering on the states come first? And then one can choose to apply an order-preserving homomorphism - think of probability measures - the measure is put on the space of states & a random variable is an assignment to the reals for conveniance. Jul 21, 2013 at 18:13
  • @MoziburUllah Good questions, but the comment section is an appropriate place for a thorough response. I'd be more than happy to chat about it tonight if you're available.
    – David H
    Jul 22, 2013 at 0:15

3 Answers 3


The historical notion of success derives from the desire for fame which was an eschatological response to the loss and replacement of transcendence or the divine ground as the ultimate orientation of the soul. In Plato’s book X of the Republic there is the Myth of Er which recounts the destiny and drama of the soul as an account of rewards and punishments in the afterlife. This Greek version of success gets extended and Christianized through Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy and Dante’s Divine Comedy. With the apex of Thomas Aquinas’ philosophical theology we reach the immortality of the soul turned into the beatific vision and friendship with God. In mid-fifteenth century, Poggio Bracciolini introduced fame as a symbol for the triumph of a world-immanent soul who seeks salvation through remembrance beyond one's historical epoch, not in the eternal civitas Dei. Eric Voegelin states: “The intramundane afterlife of fame is replacing the life beyond. Salvation by fame, however, is precarious, just as is salvation by Grace; many are called, but few are the elect. The orientation within the world requires no less a theology of fall and redemption than does the transcendental orientation” (Religion and the Rise of Modernity, in volume 23 of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, 139). This speculation enters under the impact of the Reformation and competitive society. “By the nineteenth century the biological formula of the survival of the fittest has replaced the Renaissance speculation on the fortuna secunda et adversa, and the survival of the fittest implies the plebian assumption that he who survives is the better man. Poggio is still aware of the tension between fate and value; he is sensitive to the tragedy of history; and there is something alive in him of the Polybian shudder in the face of victory. In the later adoration of success the two dimensions of action, victory and value, are made to coincide and the flow of action becomes untragically progressive; the plebian victor does not like to see the shadow of fortuna; he wants to be the victor by his merit” (ibid., 139-40).

Success is transformed from other-worldly to the secular intramundane in modernity; this is one of the consequences of embracing human mortality and finitude. It also enhances the alienation and estrangement, along with Angst of modern selves because they look to subjective immortality through others who seek the same thing. That the historians will tell the people about their great deeds and achievements and this should give further satisfaction for those willing to follow or connected to them in some inspirational way. Praise for military, literary, or entertainment greatness culminates into living in the hearts and minds of future generations. But like Polybius we will “shudder” in the reality that the people will forget or that just as we conquer a people today, the same demise will visit our people someday.

Therefore, I see success more to do with the “adventure” of one’s existence along the rhythms of victory and defeat, fame and shame. This adventure also applies to cultures and can be interpreted aesthetically, religiously, morally, and so on. Civilizational advancement would not be enough to be persuaded by the spirit of progress alone. It lies more in the effort and tenacity one is able to achieve through intensity and the accretion of value as stablized in sets of harmonies conducive to its environments. This includes the consideration and integration of exclusive or negative relations (prehensions) and the inhibitive nature of disharmonies, including their potential stagnation and destructiveness for the organic society or (non-) social nexus.

As Whitehead writes at the end of Science and Modern World: “But in nature the normal way in which trees flourish is by their association in a forest. Each tree may lose something of its individual perfection of growth, but they mutually assist each other in preserving the conditions for survival. The soil is preserved and shaded; and the microbes necessary for its fertility are neither scorched, nor frozen, nor washed away. A forest is the triumph of the organisation of mutually dependent species. Further a species of microbes which kills the forest, also exterminates itself. Again the two sexes exhibit the same advantage of differentiation. In the history of the world, the prize has not gone to those species which specialised in methods of violence, or even in defensive armour. In fact, nature began with producing animals encased in hard shells for defence against the ills of life. It also experimented in size. But smaller animals, without external armour, warm-blooded, sensitive, and alert, have cleared these monsters off the face of the earth. Also, the lions and tigers are not the successful species. There is something in the ready use of force which defeats its own object. Its main defect is that it bars coöperation. Every organism requires an environment of friends, partly to shield it from violent changes, and partly to supply it with its wants....The Gospel of Force is incompatible with a social life. By force, I mean antagonism in its most general sense. Almost equally dangerous is the Gospel of Uniformity. The differences between the nations and races of mankind are required to preserve the conditions under which higher development is possible. One main factor in the upward trend of animal life has been the power of wandering. Perhaps this is why the armour-plated monsters fared badly. They could not wander. Animals wander into new conditions. They have to adapt themselves or die. Mankind has wandered from the trees to the plains, from the plains to the seacoast, from climate to climate, from continent to continent, and from habit of life to habit of life. When man ceases to wander, he will cease to ascend in the scale of being. Physical wandering is still important, but greater still is the power of man’s spiritual adventures—adventures of thought, adventures of passionate feeling, adventures of aesthetic experience. A diversification among human communities is essential for the provision of the incentive and material for the Odyssey of the human spirit. Other nations of different habits are not enemies: they are godsends. Men require of their neighbours something sufficiently akin to be understood, something sufficiently different to provoke attention, and something great enough to command admiration. We must not expect, however, all the virtues. We should even be satisfied if there is something odd enough to be interesting.” (New York: The Free Press, 1967, 206-07).


Success is simply the achievement of a set goal. If you set yourself a goal losing 10 pounds, and you lose 10 or more, that is considered a success.

In biology, the primary goal of an organism is procreation. If the number of organisms increases, that organism was successful.

If the goal is to reduce your carbon footprint, actually reducing your carbon footprint means you were successful. If a competitor reduced their footprint more than you did, then they were more successful at exceeding the same goal.

In investment, earning interest that exceeds inflation is considered a success because the goal is to maintain or increase the value of your assets.


  • If success is exclusively the achievement of a goal and the goal would be to lose 10 pounds, then someone that loses only 9 pounds would just be unsuccessful. Wouldn't we tend to attribute some success in this case? Also the question of how successful would be essentially ill posed then, because possible answers would be: Yes, the individual is successful, or No, it isn't.
    – j-i-l
    Jul 17, 2013 at 14:59
  • No. success is measured by the achievement of a goal. The more specific the goal, the less room for measuring more, or less, success. If the goal was simply to lose weight, then losing 1 pound is less successful than losing 2. But if the goal is to lose at least 10 pounds, then losing 9 pounds is a failure. What you described there is called "shifting the goal posts", or redefining the goal in an attempt to seem successful. Jul 18, 2013 at 7:26
  • 1
    But there are soft goals, which can be partially achieved, in addition to hard goals, which are binary. See s-cube-network.eu/km/terms/s/soft-goal
    – CesarGon
    Jul 18, 2013 at 15:58
  • A soft goal is simply a goal with subjective criteria. The test for partial success is still a binary one. Jul 18, 2013 at 16:29
  • Or rather, a "soft goal" is simply a compound goal or collection of goals, each counting towards a super-goal of achieving x-number of goals in the set. Everything reduces to binary or hard goals. Jul 19, 2013 at 8:53

success has many forms and for that reason is ambiguous, as well as being in many situations hard to discern & opaque.

  1. In evolutionary biology success is determined by the long-term survival of the species. Its not enough that I survive, or my family does but the species does - otherwise there is a drastically reduced gene pool making natural selection ineffective when the ecological environment changes dramatically. Of course when you're talking in terms of millenia, or millions of years the idea of a realistic finely-grained success function doesn't make much sense in any sense. What mathematical evolutionary biologists do - is model coarse behaviour in very simple systems in the hope of discovering new ideas & directions for research.

  2. In economics a similar argument holds, except of course the time-scales are much smaller. Typically tens of years. The idea of a utility function, a measure of success is when looked at properly very hard to sustain. How does one measure success when most things in life are not measurable? The idea of an ordering of preference is makes more sense - but is still problematic. How does one for example, measure the preference of the American Poet, Emily Dickinson between God & no-God, as she struggles between faith & loss of faith? To which should we judge is success?

  3. In the path-integral formulation of quantum mechanics an electron is judged to travel every possible space and assign it a measure of 'success'. This is then averaged over. These are calculations that one can do and they match experiment very well. But really, should we assign the notion of 'success' to something like this? Is the notion of a path integral an artifact of the theory and suspect? Perhaps a new formulation might remove the need for it.

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