Progress and Meliorism: Making Progress in Thinking about Progress

Abstract There is no grand narrative or master plan for historical progress. Contemporary discussions of progress and enlightenment reflect an improved version of an old debate, which has progressed beyond older debates about metaphysical optimism and pessimism. Responding to recent work by John Gray, Steven Pinker, and others, this paper describes meliorism as a middle path between optimism and pessimism. Meliorism is pragmatic, humanistic, secular, and historically grounded. The epistemic modesty of meliorism develops out of understanding the long history of debates about progress and enlightenment, including the history of meliorism itself. The paper provides a historical account of the development of meliorism, while arguing that understanding this history helps us make progress in thinking about progress.