The Idea of Progress in Eighteenth-Century Britain


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David Spadafora

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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

"A solid and sophisticated contribution to intellectual history written in a clear, authoritative, and attractive style. This is an important book."—Bernard Semmel

"This largish subject allows David Spadafora to deploy his extensive knowledge of English and Scottish culture, especially between 1730 and 1789. . . . This a superbly rich and wide-ranging discussion of a wealth of texts, which will be the starting point for all subsequent research."—Jonathan Clark, Times Literary Supplement

"In this cogent and readable study, Spadafora amply realizes his four stated objectives: to remedy deficiencies in previous critiques of the idea of progress; to demonstrate its enduring vitality in eighteenth-century Britain; to explore its social origins; and to respond to contextualist and poststructuralist criticisms of intellectual history. Mining a vast quarry of personal testimony by lawyers, judges, schoolmasters, clergy, professors, philosophers, and scholars, Spadafora convincingly revises Bury’s thesis that the British idea of progress is a secularized Christian notion imported from France. With an eye for nuance, he distinguishes Scottish from English versions of the idea, and explores its application in art and science, religion, philosophy, language, and culture. This is history from above and below, at once sweeping and detailed."—Choice

"An interesting and carefully crafted book. . . . [Spadafora] ends it with a triumphalist flourish, arguing that the Industrial Revolution not only made possible the victory of the creed of progress but was itself the outcome of that creed."—Paul Langford, London Review of Books

"There is . . . much to praise in this book. Spadafora’s width of reading in the period is impressive, he handles complex textual problems skillfully and elegantly, his analysis of the thought of individuals . . . is subtle and acute. . . . The reader will find a wealth of source material on numerous aspects of eighteenth-century thought. The scale of Spadafora’s undertaking is impressive too: his book will remain essential reading to anyone with a serious interest in the greatest of eighteenth-century intellectual debates."—Malcolm Jack, Eighteenth-Century Studies

"Well-organized and well-written, this [is a] definitive work."—Richard C. Wiles, Scriblerian

"Not the least virtue of David Spadafora’s richly documented study is that it revises [the] pedigree of progress by stressing the seminal importance of the intellectual ferments of eighteenth-century Britain. Spadafora meticulously unravels the complex genealogy of the idea. . . . Spadafora’s case is convincing."—Roy Porter, New Statesman and Society

"[Spadafora] sieves the Georgians’ intellectual soup and provides a lucid list of ingredients, the subtle seasoning as well as the basic stock. Thorough and systematic, he surveys the changing definitions of ’progress’"—Nicholas Henshall, History Today

"[An] extended treatment of the idea of progress in Britain between 1730 and 1789. . . . The detail and depth of Spadafora’s discussions makes this a very valuable book. . . . It is highly recommended to anyone with an interest in eighteenth-century studies."—Dabney Townsend, Canadian Philosophical Review

"A significant study for scholars and advanced students of British and European intellectual history."—Abraham D. Kriegel, History: Reviews of New Books

"This is a work that substantially enriches our understanding of the world of ideas. Unafraid of digressions, the violation of strict chronology, parallelism, and other narrative devices, David Spadafora elucidated a theme around which is spun a web of enlightening and mutually illuminating threads of discourse. . . . Spadafora has produced a work that will remain a standard in the field of British intellectual history for some considerable time to come."—James E. Crimmins, Journal of Modern History
ISBN: 9780300046717
Publication Date: September 10, 1990
480 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
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