Edit Article

Definition of Progress

People have been thinking about what progress means for at least two millennia. The concept has taken a variety of directions and forms, with various notions gaining favour depending on prevailing political regimes, cultural influences and environmental conditions. But, in all cases, the notion of progress has been used to reflect those qualitative dimensions that are missed by more conventional and quantitative definitions of economic growth. Progress, in other words, takes us back to a broad notion of wellbeing and welfare, and to how these concepts are changing over time.

Please see the chart on the Chronological Evolution of Related Measures of Progress (in PDF format) This chart presents an overview of the development of “influential” indicators. The figure shows a clear acceleration (partly because of the development of basic statistics presumably) in the development of indicators that progressively encompass more and more dimensions of societal progress.

How to measure Progress

“The suggestion that human advancement must not be seen only from an economic perspective was already present in Aristotle’s mind. He made a distinction between moral life, which was necessary to attain happiness, and material life, which was necessary to meet basic needs. Aristotle thought of wellbeing as multidimensional, with both material and immaterial dimensions. He also believed that successful communities must share common principles on what is important for well-being, and that consultations are an essential tool to develop consensus on what is important for the good life.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill spoke about progress and wellbeing in terms of “utility”, with happiness the ultimate goal of humankind. Mill saw utility as comprising intellectual, spiritual and cultural pleasure, and regarding these as more important than physical pleasure. And so Mill followed Aristotle’s notion of eudaimonia (happiness) which sees the pursuit of happiness as associated with excellence in virtuous activities (ethical, intellectual and political).

After the Great Depression and World War Two, “national accounting, an instrument which was meant to go hand in hand with reconstruction and viewed a nation’s productive capacity as the key to its power” (Meda, 2008) came to be seen by many as the main way of measuring progress. The movement towards sustainable development in the 1980s and the UNDP’s effort to measure human development have sought to restore balance by portraying economic growth as a supporting pillar of human wellbeing rather than as its sole goal.

One of the most influential contemporary contributions to thinking about progress is Sen’s “capabilities approach”. He spoke about the importance of human freedom and democracy. Sen was inspired by the Aristotelian theory of human agency, according to which people should be free to make choices influencing their own lives and the lives of others. “Capability” refers to the freedom to promote or achieve valuable functioning. Therefore, Sen sees wellbeing as involving much more than material possessions: relationships, political freedom and a supportive work environment are all important. Sen too sees progress as multidimensional and as including both material and immaterial aspects: good health, personal safety, education and knowledge all increase our capability to achieve wellbeing.

So debate around – and popular interpretations of – progress, have been underway for a long time. While notions of progress differ, they are united in the philosophy that “progress” comprises both material and immaterial components and is synonymous with the idea of “life getting better”. Many people are working to define and measure concepts such as wellbeing, quality of life, and sustainable development and these are all alternative views of progress which depend on the particular lens one uses to think about what “life getting better” means in practice . So we define “progress” as a concept broad enough to encompass all of these alternative views.”

Taken from “A Framework to Measure the Progress of Societies” – OECD

A brief history of Progress 

According to recent studies today’s “western” concept of progress can be traced back to the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries during the European Age of Enlightenment when social commentators and philosophers began to realise that the world was not governed by gods and that people themselves could change society and change their way of life. However, much older cultures developed notions of progress (including the Roman and Greek civilizations).

Plato (427 BC – 347 BC) developed a notion of progress as a continuous process, which improves the human condition from a state of nature to higher and higher levels of culture, economic organisation and political structure (towards an ideal state). Progress is linked to the rising complexity of society and the necessity to enlarge knowledge, through the development of sciences and arts. This process implies change and conflict and so needs to be governed properly.


Bacon (1561 –1626) can be considered is a precursor of the modern idea of progress. He felt that knowledge must be sub-servient to human happiness. So, progress in knowledge should lead to progress in well-being, and inventions should be useful for mankind’s fulfilment.


Thinkers in the late 18th Century searched for “laws of progress” that could describe the evolution of human societies through time. For example, Comte (1798 – 1857), the creator of positivism and altruism (the placing of others above self, of their interests above one’s own) literally created a church of followers and his influence carried as far as Latin America, where the famous Positivist movement maxim “Love as a principle and order as the basis; Progress as the goal” was the base for the dawn of the Brazilian Republic).


Voltaire (1694 – 1778) saw progress as not referring to human actions, but to the human mind (arts and sciences). Bentham (1748 – 1832) stressed the significance of government promotion of social well-being, mainly through laws protecting personal economic possessions. Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873) saw utility in a qualitative and dynamic sense associated with mankind’s progress. Spencer (1820 – 1903) attempted to explain what progress consists, proposing a “law of organic progress”, based on the concept that progress consists of the transformation of the homogeneous into the heterogeneous.


References to the idea of progress can also be found in most major religions. For example, the 1967 Papal Encyclical Populorum Progressio is viewed as one of the most influential Encyclical in the history of the Catholic Church. And Islamic scholars have said that “…sincere accomplished work towards progress and development is, therefore, an act of religious worship and is rewarded as such. The end result will be a serious scrupulous and perfect work, true scientific progress and hence actual achievement of balanced and comprehensive development” (Hamid El-Ghazli, 1994).



See also