Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot (1727– 1781): Father of Progressivsm

Johnathan Israel tells us that it was Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot (1727– 1781), one of the founders together with Adam Smith (1723– 1790) of the science of economics, who first formulated a coherent, systematic doctrine of progress.1 He continues, saying:

An avowed providential Deist but one who attributed to Christianity a broadly positive role in the world, Turgot delivered two doctoral lectures at the Sorbonne, in Paris, in 1750, which together, as has been said, “framed a new conception of world history from remotest antiquity to the present and constituted the first important version in modern times of the ideology of progress.” 9 Turgot, linking epistemology, economics, and administration, argued that man’s capacity to receive new impressions from the outside world— and to sift, combine, and analyze them— had opened a path by which experience absorbs and builds an unending sequence of material improvement, technological advancement, and better organization. The empirically proven fact of progress in the past, furthermore, he construed as proof that retrogression would also be impossible in the future. It was this cumulative unidirectional process embracing all aspects of social development— something he viewed as divinely driven, and hence irreversible— that he designated “progress.”  …

The Enlightenment’s idea of progress, then, was invariably conceived as being “philosophical,” a revolution of the mind. But it was undoubtedly economic, technological, political, medical, and administrative as well, in addition to being legal, moral, educational, and aesthetic. Enlightenment “progress” was thus very wide-ranging and multifaceted. Moreover, it was also inherently unstable, a feature historians have by no means sufficiently focused on in the past. For it is apparent that Enlightenment progress could take specifically Christian, Deist, or atheistic forms; it could be conceived as endorsing or opposing the existing order of society, as being reversible or irreversible, God-ordained or purely natural.(Kindle Locations 227-232).

1. Israel, Jonathan (2011-09-06). A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy (Kindle Locations 212-213). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.