The Idea of Progress in Eighteenth-Century Britain - Spadafora, David - Yale University Press

Series Information
Yale Historical Publications Series

The Idea of Progress in Eighteenth-Century Britain

  • David Spadafora
      REVIEWS             PREVIEW             CONTENTS             EXCERPTS      

The idea of progress stood at the very center of the intellectual world of eighteenth-century Britain, closely linked to every major facet of the British Enlightenment as well as to the economic revolutions of the period.  David Spadafora here provides the most extensive discussion ever written of this prevailing sense of historical optimism, challenging long-held views on the extent of its popularity and its supposed importation from France.  Spadafora demonstrates persuasively that British contributions to the idea of progress were wide-ranging and fully elaborated while owing little to the French.

Drawing on hundreds of eighteenth-century books and pamphlets, Spadafora traces the development of historical progress across the century.  In the process, he distinguishes among the intellectual and social sources of the idea’s growth and argues that its popularity soared after mid-century.  He identifies and examines in depth each of the most widespread varieties of the concept of progress, including those found in thinking about the arts and sciences, religion and the millennium, the human mind and education, and languages.  Spadafora cites and evaluates men of letters, theologians and historians, and scientists and politicians.  In his discussion of the belief in general progress, he explores the differences between English writers such as Priestley, Price, and Edmund Law and the somewhat less optimistic Scottish thinkers such as Hume, Smith, and Robertson.  He concludes by tracing the profound impact of the eighteenth-century idea of progress on the first half of the nineteenth century in Britain and its implications for modernity.

“A solid and sophisticated contribution to intellectual history written in a clear, authoritative, and attractive style.  This is an important book.” –Bernard Semmel, author of John Stuart Mill and the Pursuit of Virtue