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Wittgenstein and the Illusion of ‘Progress’: On Real Politics and Real Philosophy in a World of Technocracy

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 July 2016

Rupert Read*
University of East Anglia


‘You can’t stop progress’, we are endlessly told. But what is meant by “progress”? What is “progress” toward? We are rarely told. Human flourishing? And a culture? That would be a good start – but rarely seems a criterion for ‘progress’. (In fact, survival would be a good start…)

Rather, ‘progress’ is simply a process, that we are not allowed, apparently, to stop. Or rather: it would be futile to seek to stop it. So that we are seemingly-deliberately demoralised into giving up even trying.

Questioning the myth of ‘progress’, and seeking to substitute for it the idea of real progress – progress which is actually assessed according to some independent not-purely-procedural criteria – is a vital thing to do, at this point in history. Literally: life, or at least civilisation, and thus culture, may depend on it.

Once we overcome the myth of ‘progress’, we can clear the ground for a real politics that would jettison the absurd hubris of liberalism and of most ‘Leftism’. And would jettison the extreme Prometheanism and lack of precaution endemic to our current pseudo-democratic technocracy. The challenge is to do so in a way that does not fall into complete pessimism or into an endorsement of the untenable and unsavoury features of conservatism. The challenge, in other words, is to generate an ideology or philosophy for our time, that might yet save us, and ensure that we are worth saving.

This paper is then a kind of reading of Wittgenstein’s crucial aphorism on this topic: ‘Our civilization is characterized by the word progress. Progress is its form rather than making progress being one of its features.’

Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy and the contributors 2016 

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1 The quote continues: ‘And even clarity is only sought as a means to this end, not as an end in itself. For me on the contrary clarity, perspicuity are valuable in themselves. I am not interested in constructing a building, so much as in having a perspicuous view of the foundations of typical buildings.’ Culture and Value (ed. G. H. von Wright; transl. Peter Winch; Oxford: Blackwell, 1980), 7–8.

2 Philosophical Investigations (London: MacMillan, 2009/1953).

3 See my and Crary's edited collection, The New Wittgenstein (London: Routledge, 2000).

4 On this last point, see Martin Stone's essay in my and Crary's (ibid)., ‘Wittgenstein on deconstruction’, and my own A no-theory theory?’, Philosophical Investigations 29:1 (2006), 7381Google Scholar.

5 For detail, see my and Rob Deans's ‘The possibility of a resolutely resolute reading of the Tractatus’, in my and Matt Lavery's Beyond the Tractatus Wars (London: Routledge, 2011).

6 My own view is that Wittgenstein himself did not succeed in fully overcoming this tendency in himself. See my essay in Beyond the Tractatus wars (ibid.), for explication. (In other words: I think that Wittgenstein in his later work became if anything slightly too hard on his early work.)  But at least he drew our attention powerfully to the tendency.

7 Culture and Value, 86.

8 Gordon Baker and Katherine Morris, Descartes's dualism (London: Routledge, 2002).

9 In the title essay of The Realistic Spirit (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1991).

10 See my ‘The new antagonists of “the New Hume”: on the relevance of Wittgenstein and Goodman to the “New Hume debate”’, in my and Ken Richman's The New Hume Debate (London: Routledge, 2007).

11 See e.g. his masterly ‘Must We Show What We Cannot Say?’ in The Senses of Stanley Cavell, ed. R. Fleming and M. Payne (Bucknell University Press, Lewisburg: 1989), 242–283.

12 See e.g. Zettel (Berkeley: U. Cal. Press / Blackwell, 1967) section 447. See also my reading of 133, a passage often (wrongly) adduced to impute an ‘end of philosophy’ philosophy to Wittgenstein: ‘The real philosophical discovery’, Philosophical Investigations 18:4 (1995), 362369Google Scholar.

13 See my reading thereof in Chapter 1 of my A Wittgensteinian Way with Paradoxes (New York: Lexington, 2013).

14 I offer this reading in Chapter 10 of my (ibid).

17 See on this my ‘On Future People’, in Think 10:29, 43–47:

18 My full response to Piketty can be found here, in Radical Philosophy 189: ‘Green economics versus growth economics’, https://

19 See on this Jared Diamond's important book, Collapse (London: Penguin, 2011).

20 For my objections to that jargon, see the section on ‘“Sustainability”?’ in my chapter on ‘Post-growth common-sense’ in John Blewitt and Ray Cunningham's The Post-Growth Project (London: London Publishing Partnership, 2014).

21 The Future Eaters (Kew: Reed Books, 1994).

22 In Anthony Kenny & Brian McGuinness (eds), Wittgenstein and His Times (University of Chicago Press, 1982).

23 Found as a post-script to his The Constitution of Liberty (London: Routledge, 1960).

24 For detail, see my ‘How ecologism is the true heir of both socialism and conservatism’:

25 On which, see Debal Deb, Beyond Developmentality (London: Earthscan, 2009).

26 See Chapter 8, ‘Swastikas and Cyborgs: The Significance of PI 420', of my A Wittgensteinian Way with Paradoxes (Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2013), for a Reading of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations as a ‘war book’.

27 Culture and value, 64 (my translation).

28 To mention one example, it is worth looking at Bhutan's goal:

29 The quotation that I have employed as an epigraph for the present essay includes this telling sentence: ‘Typically, it [our ‘progressive’ civilization] constructs’. For Wittgenstein, building was not to be equated with progress. It might be (look say at the house he built); but often it was a substitute for thinking, for looking, for attending, for describing, for pausing, for dwelling.

30 Think for instance of the untenable ‘life-cycle’ of mobile phones, today.

31 I owe this point to Jonathan Essex: see his important essay on ‘How to Make-Do and Mend our economy’, in Blewitt and Cunningham (op.cit.).

32 For detail on this, see Wolfgang Sachs (ed.), The Development Dictionary (New York: Zed, 1992).

33 This, again, conservatism gets right.