Antique cars and trucks along the roadside, Montana: photo by Carol M. Highsmith, 29 September 2005 (Library of Congress)
For a theoretical account of the category of progress it is necessary to scrutinize the category so closely that it loses its semblance of obviousness, both in its positive and its negative usage. And yet such proximity also makes the account more difficult. Even more than other concepts, the concept of progress dissolves upon attempts to specify its exact meaning, for instance what progresses and what does not. Whoever wants to define the concept precisely easily destroys what he is aiming at. The subaltern prudence that refuses to speak of progress before it can distinguish progress in what, of what, and in relation to what, displaces the unity of the moments, which within the concept ritually elaborate each other, into a mere juxtaposition. By insisting on exactitude where the impossibility of the unambiguous appertains to the subject matter itself, dogmatic epistemology misses its object, sabotages insight and helps to perpetuate the bad by zealously forbidding reflection upon what, in the age of both utopian and absolutely destructive possibilities, the consciousness of those entangled would like to discover: whether there is progress. Like every philosophical term, 'progress' has its equivocations; and as in any such term, these equivocations also register a commonality. What at this time one should understand by 'progress' one knows vaguely, but precisely: for just this reason one cannot employ the concept roughly enough. To use the term pedantically merely cheats it out of what it promises: an answer to the doubt and the hope that things will finally get better, that people will at last be able to breathe a sigh of relief. For this reason alone one cannot say precisely what progress should mean to people, because the crisis of the situation is that precisely while everyone feels the crisis, the words bringing resolution are missing. Only those reflections about progress have truth that immerse themselves in progress and yet maintain distance, withdrawing from paralyzing facts and specialized meanings. Today reflections of this kind come to a point in the contemplation of whether humanity is capable of preventing catastrophe. The forms of humanity's own global societal constitution threaten its life, if a self-conscious global subject does not develop and intervene.
Antique trucks along the road, Montana: photo by Carol M. Highsmith, 29 September 2005 (Library of Congress)
Theodor Adorno: excerpt from Progress, Lecture at Münster Philosophers' Congress, 22 October 1962, translated by Henry Pickford in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, 1998