Progress

John Gast, American Progress, 1872. Autry Museum of the American West, Los Angeles, California. Image Rights: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ppmsca-09855, Public Domain.

Editorial note: This entry consists of a personal reflection from John P. McCormick on studying with Koselleck at the University of Chicago in the early 1990s, followed by a response by Komposita editor Jonathon Catlin.

John McCormick:

I first heard the name Reinhart Koselleck at a 1990 conference on “The Enlightenment and its Legacies” at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. The historian of political thought Melvin Richter, Koselleck’s greatest champion in the U.S., invoked Koselleck as a pioneer of Begriffsgeschichte, a deeply erudite approach to history that pursues nuanced engagements with changing meanings of the most important words and concepts used in political theory. Around these years, Richter brought Koselleck to the U.S. for a symposium commemorating the completion of the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe, which he hailed as “one of the greatest achievements of German historians” in the Federal Republic, and which he predicted would still be relied on by scholars “a century from now.”1 In the ensuing conversation, the political theorist Benjamin Barber, by contrast, made a rather hostile intervention, denouncing Begriffsgeschichte as an overly scholastic and hopelessly unpolitical intellectual enterprise. Richter seemed especially incensed by Barber’s claim that Begriffsgeschichte offered nothing to help political theorists comprehend the present collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe. This was my first year in graduate school, and I had never experienced a public intellectual exchange of such intensity.

I had no idea that Koselleck, following his forced retirement from Bielefeld at age sixty-five, was already a recurring visitor at the University of Chicago when I started my graduate studies there. Conservatives at the university had sought to counter-balance what they considered to be leftist bias on campus, and so they invited prominent anti-Marxist scholars, such as Koselleck and François Furet, to teach in the History Department and in the Committee on Social Thought, respectively. Once the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the presence of Koselleck and Furet contributed to a somewhat stifling post-Communist climate at Chicago. As Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann has shown, Koselleck was then in the peak of his American reception.2 After a delay of thirty years, Koselleck’s dissertation book, Critique and Crisis, came out in English translation in 1988. In a 1987 review of the 1985 translation of Futures Past in the flagship journal the American Historical Review, the towering theorist of history Hayden White referred to Koselleck as “one of Germany’s most distinguished philosophers of history.”3 Koselleck’s warm welcome in the United States coincided with the triumphalist moment of the “end of history” for “classical liberals” who enjoyed rubbing the noses of their leftist colleagues in the ashes of the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, in my recollection, the presence of Koselleck and Furet proved to be an intellectual boon to all members of the Chicago intellectual community, whatever their political stripe.

At the insistence of my dissertation advisor, Stephen Holmes, I enrolled in the course on Carl Schmitt that he was going to co-teach with Koselleck in 1991. Much to my shame, I knew very little about Schmitt. But Holmes insisted that, given my interest in both early modern state theory (Machiavelli and Hobbes) and what he called “post-Nietzschean critiques of rationality crap” (Heidegger, Adorno, etc.), I would be sure to get a dissertation idea in this class because “Schmitt was the combination” of these two intellectual traditions. It was a small class, maybe twenty participants, most of whom were history PhD students who were awed by the presence of Koselleck. It was from them that I learned what a truly great and influential historian Koselleck was, and that he had been an intimate intellectual interlocutor with Schmitt. Koselleck and his work became an important resource as I developed my dissertation on technology in Schmitt’s Weimar legal-political writings – especially his historical corroboration of Schmitt’s claim that the concept of the exception increasingly vanished over the course of modern political thought.4

I remember two of Koselleck’s class interventions quite vividly. When discussing the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, Koselleck put the blame squarely on the Catholic Church. If not for Hitler’s 1933 Concordat with the Church, Koselleck insisted, the Nazis would never have secured their regime. This was, of course, a preposterous claim, but Koselleck, a staunch Silesian Protestant, was clearly still fighting the Kulturkampf.

The second memory is even more arresting. After a student criticized Schmitt for underestimating the reality of civilizational progress, Koselleck leaned over the table and said in a low, grave voice, “If you had been at Stalingrad, you would not speak of progress.” We were all shocked into silence. The statement seemed to imply that Koselleck, as a Wehrmacht soldier, had endured the horrors of perhaps the Second World War’s worst battle. However, when I later learned that Koselleck had not in fact been at Stalingrad (his foot was run over by a tank before then as the front advanced), I felt differently about the remark. I thought that Koselleck might have shown greater remorse for fighting on behalf of the Third Reich by invoking, say, Auschwitz rather than Stalingrad as the emblematic event that might plausibly cast doubt on the reality of Enlightenment progress. I was disappointed that Koselleck still seemed to be clinging to the unrepentant, and in Germany the especially pernicious view, that Bolshevism was the greater evil than Nazism.5

Response by Jonathon Catlin:

Fifteen years before John McCormick’s graduate seminar with Koselleck at the University of Chicago, Koselleck co-authored the entry on Fortschritt in the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe.6 There he articulated his well-known argument that “progress is a modern category whose content of experience and whose surplus of expectation was not available before the eighteenth century,” the period he called “the beginning of modernity.”7 While progress was a product of abstract ideologies and philosophies of universal history, Koselleck saw it as much more than an empty illusion: its inextricable “content of experience” included technological breakthroughs8 that dramatically accelerated the experience of modern life:9 the printing press enabled the rapid spread of information through newspapers, while roads, canals, and the steam locomotive revolutionized transportation. Inventions like the microscope set off waves of new scientific innovation that markedly improved medicine and quality of life, while the globalization of capitalism and the expansion of empires and industries enabled the rise of the bourgeoisie. All of this contributed to a palpable sense of “progression toward something better.”10

At times, Koselleck could be seen to praise the concept of progress’s distinctively rational and modern qualities. He once called it “the first genuinely historical definition of time that has not derived its meaning from other areas of experience such as theology or mythical foreknowledge.”11 Notably, Koselleck was close with Karl Löwith and had a hand in translating the latter’s landmark book Meaning in History, which developed an understanding of progress, especially in its Marxist forms, as a form of secularized Christian eschatology.12 In this passage, however, Koselleck seems much closer to the critique of Löwith by his fellow Poetik und Hermeneutik interlocutor Hans Blumenberg, who distinguished ideological notions of “inevitable progress” that were seen as quasi-theologically imminent in history from the more modest notion of “possible progress” achieved by secular and finite human self-assertion, only the latter of which he defended as a legitimate modern achievement.13 Indeed, in a letter to Blumenberg, Koselleck stated directly his closer proximity to Blumenberg’s “radical-historical” approach: “Your theoretical distinctions between [Christian] eschatology and progress are completely compelling and coherent. […] Now it is certainly indisputable that progress, reduced to a pure concept, has nothing to do with eschatology, reduced to a Christian concept.”14 More reservedly (or perhaps conservatively) than Blumenberg, Koselleck ultimately concluded that the progressive view of history inherited from Enlightenment philosophies of history is not only historically and scientifically false, but also politically dangerous and ideological: “The progress of modernity, despite its universal claim, reflects only a partial, self-consistent experience and, instead, masks or obscures other modes of experience,” such as repetitions, declines, and ruptures.15 In light of the “absurd16 and “meaningless” catastrophes17 of his own lifetime, including Stalingrad, Hiroshima, and Auschwitz, Koselleck held a decidedly “skeptical”18 attitude toward one of this concept’s consistent features, which was to suggest “that the future should be a horizon of planning.”19 Such skepticism became unavoidable after Koselleck was confronted firsthand with the totalitarian horrors of the Nazi regime as a prisoner of war who was marched to Auschwitz by the Soviets.20

Already at the opening of his 1959 dissertation book Critique and Crisis, Koselleck wrote that in the political realm, the rampant ideology of progress had “allowed the whole world to drift into a state of permanent crisis,” while accelerating technological progress threatened to “blow up mankind as well in a self-initiated process of self-destruction.”21 McCormick’s reflections on his encounter studying with Koselleck prompt us to speculate about what might have changed for Koselleck thirty years later, after the Soviet experiment had decisively failed, and when even the Cold War nuclear threats that preoccupied Koselleck’s onetime Heidelberg teacher Karl Jaspers seemed to have been put temporarily into remission.22 McCormick writes, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that Koselleck and Furet were brought to Chicago (the latter through the notoriously conservative Committee on Social Thought) as part of a triumphalist celebration of the “end of history” proclaimed in 1989 by Francis Fukuyama, who had ties to followers of Leo Strauss on the Committee, notably Allan Bloom.23 But if Koselleck was as plainly anticommunist as McCormick suggests, why didn’t he seem to consider the recent Wende of 1989 as a “progressive” moment for capitalist liberal democracy? Did 1989 already then represent a disappointment of lofty Fukuyamian expectations—in particular a crisis of uncertainty regarding the fate of Eastern Europe? Was it more a difference in generation, or politics, or national-historical cultures that lay behind Koselleck’s grave tone and patronizing remark to the purportedly naïve Chicago student?

Conveniently, the well-known American historian and critic Christopher Lasch published a 600-page tome on the notion of progress in American life the same year as Koselleck’s seminar. A neo-Marxist and scornful critic of the “shallow optimism” of American liberalism, Lasch began his study out of genuine perplexity—perhaps not unlike Koselleck’s—that “serious people continue to believe in progress, in the face of massive evidence that might have been expected to refute the idea of progress once and for all”: “Faith in progress” demonstrated a strange “persistence” given “a century full of calamities.”24 Lasch describes Americans in 1991 facing a paradox: “We find it more and more difficult to mount a compelling defense of the idea of progress; but we find it equally difficult to imagine life without it.”25 It is notable that in this text Lasch criticizes Susan Sontag’s famous essays on “The Imagination of Disaster” and the AIDS crisis, which had offered visions of collective and individual catastrophe as the opposite of progress.26 Instead, Lasch argued that the “other side of the ideology of progress” was not doom but “nostalgia,” which he conceived as “yearning for bygone simplicity” but also “an abdication of memory.”27 With characteristic pessimism, Lasch concluded that in his moment it seemed “difficult to avoid the choice between fatuous optimism and debilitating nostalgia.”28 It is hard to imagine Koselleck accepting such a rosy view of the past. For he already represented the generational shift Aleida Assmann has identified from seeing the past as a source of comfort to a source of trauma demanding painful memory work, to which Koselleck contributed.29

From a contemporary American perspective, we surely live in a less optimistic moment than 1991. The financial crisis of 2007–08, the election of Donald Trump and the global resurgence of right-wing populism and authoritarianism, and above all the ongoing slow catastrophe of climate change30 and the specter of planetary extinction have dashed popular expectations of an open future that could be colonized by infinite progress. In my own experience teaching, we no longer need to assign skeptics of utopia like Koselleck in order to disillusion our students of blind faith in progress: they have already witnessed enough catastrophe. Indeed, many have internalized Walter Benjamin’s insight that progress for bourgeois civilization has often entailed barbarism toward the marginalized and oppressed, as well as his concomitant view that it is not the exceptional event but the status quo that is the true catastrophe. Indeed, skepticism about progress has become such common sense that important works by leading philosophers in the Frankfurt School tradition, Amy Allen and Rahel Jaeggi, have attempted to reconceive and recuperate the concepts of progress and regression in more dialectical, self-critical, and less Eurocentric terms in order to rescue the concept from its associations with self-congratulatory triumphalism. Following Theodor W. Adorno’s famous essay on “Progress” from 1962, Jaeggi has recently written, “Under the flag of progress, critical theory does not defend what has been achieved, but rather the possibility of a different world.”31

While I would follow McCormick in identifying Koselleck as a fellow traveler of Cold War conservatism, I would argue that he was also, to invoke a central term in Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann’s recent intellectual biography, too much of a “catastrophist” to endorse the idea of a triumphalist “end of history” proclaimed by Fukuyama.32 Indeed, in a laudation he delivered for his Chicago colleague Furet in 1998, he criticized thinkers of both the Left and Right, “Heidegger and Lukács, Kojève and Jaspers,” because their postwar thought “still operated in the run-up to the catastrophe.”33 Unique among thinkers of their time, he went on, “This was not the case with [Hannah] Arendt,” whom Koselleck invited to Heidelberg in 1956 and who had also taught in Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought from 1963 to 1968. Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism (published 1951 in English and 1955 in German) had a tremendous impact on Koselleck, and his personal copy of it held at the Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach is well-worn and thoroughly underlined.34 

In Origins Arendt famously criticized all ideological “keys to history” from the National Socialist “discovery” of race to Bolshevik recourse to dialectics.35 In a curious passage in the second section, “Imperialism,” Arendt writes that the ideology of progress, once historically actualized into a “process of never-ending accumulation of power necessary for the protection of a never-ending accumulation of capital,” also triggered “a process that was unable to stop and to stabilize, and could therefore only begin a series of destructive catastrophes once it had reached these limits.”36 In the 1920s, particularly in Germany and France, the Enlightenment ethos of progress transformed decisively beyond the expansionist ethos of nineteenth-century imperialism: “nihilism […] replaced the superstition of progress with the equally vulgar superstition of doom, and preached automatic annihilation with the same enthusiasm that the fanatics of automatic progress had preached the irresistibility of economic laws.”37 Already for the revolutionary progressives of the eighteenth century that Koselleck criticized in Critique and Crisis, he wrote, “progressive certainty of victory and eschatological visions of Doomsday did not cancel each other out,” but were rather perpetually—and ominously—“projected into the future.”38

As Hoffmann rightly concludes, “for Arendt as well as Koselleck, history possessed no telos and no reason, but rather was, according to a dictum by Goethe that she noted in her Denktagebuch (Thinking Diary) no more than ‘a mixture of error and violence.’”39 Koselleck’s ambivalent yet distinctive attitude toward the modern concept of progress surely exemplifies Arendt’s iconoclastic maxim to “think without a banister.” Yet while Arendt countered their shared skepticism toward progress with her philosophy of natality, the perpetual promise of new beginnings and political renewal,40 Koselleck leaves us with fewer assurances and no certain political or intellectual pathways out of catastrophe. Still, Koselleck’s principled skepticism and equally searing criticism of both the twinned ideological modern concepts of progress and resulting claims about perennial crisis41 shows that he was prepared, like Arendt, to reject both “reckless optimism and reckless despair,” and to recognize “that Progress and Doom are two sides of the same medal.”42


John P. McCormick is Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. His books include Reading Machiavelli (Princeton, 2018), Weimar Thought: A Contested Legacy (co-edited with Peter E. Gordon, Princeton, 2013), Machiavellian Democracy (Cambridge, 2011), Weber, Habermas, and Transformations of the European State (Cambridge, 2006), Carl Schmitt’s Critique of Liberalism: Against Politics as Technology (Cambridge, 1997).

Jonathon Catlin is a co-editor of Komposita and a Postdoctoral Associate in the Humanities Center at the University of Rochester. He earned his PhD in History and Interdisciplinary Humanities at Princeton University with a dissertation on the concept of catastrophe in twentieth-century German thought. His work has appeared in History and TheoryMemory Studies, Antisemitism Studies, the Los Angles Review of Books, and the Journal of the History of Ideas Blog, where he is a contributing editor. He tweets @planetdenken.


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Cite this blog post
John P. McCormick & Jonathon Catlin (2024, April 9). Progress. Geschichtstheorie am Werk. Retrieved June 17, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/w6rp

  1. See the published version of the 1992 conference proceedings, to which Koselleck contributed: Hartmut Lehmann and Melvin Richter (eds.), The Meaning of Historical Terms and Concepts: New Studies on Begriffsgeschichte. German Historical Institute occasional paper no. 15 (1996), 7. See also Melvin Richter, The History of Political and Social Concepts: A Critical Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. []
  2. See Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann, “Koselleck in America,” New German Critique 132, vol. 44, no. 3 (2017), 167-187. []
  3. Hayden White, “Review of Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time,” The Amerian Historical Review 92, no. 5 (1987), 1175–76, here 1175. []
  4. On Koselleck’s early intellectual dependence on Schmitt’s idea and later independence from them, see Thomas Meyer’s review of the Koselleck-Schmitt letters (edited by Jan Eike Dunkhase) in Sehepunkte 20, no. 3 (2020), URL: https://www.sehepunkte.de/2020/03/33929.html (04.04.2024). []
  5. Koselleck reflects on his wartime experience in the following interview: Christian Esch, “Der Historiker Reinhart Koselleck über die Erinnerung an den Krieg, sein Ende und seine Toten: Ich war weder Opfer noch befreit,” Berliner Zeitung (06.05.2005), URL: https://www.berliner-zeitung.de/der-historiker-reinhart-koselleck-ueber-die-erinnerung-an-den-krieg-sein-ende-und-seine-toten-ich-war-weder-opfer-noch-befreit-li.50988 (04.04.2024). []
  6. Reinhart Koselleck and Christian Meier, “Fortschritt,” in Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe. Historisches Lexikon zur politisch-sozialen Sprache in Deutschland. Vol. 2: E-G, ed. Otto Brunner, Werner Conze, and Reinhart Koselleck. Stuttgart: Klett Cotta, 1975, 351-423. []
  7. Reinhart Koselleck, “‘Progress’ and ‘Decline’: An Appendix to the History of Two Concepts” [1980], translated from German by Todd Presner, in Reinhart Koselleck, The Practice of Conceptual History: Timing History, Spacing Concepts. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002, 218-235, here 219. []
  8. See Isabella Consolati, “Technology, Accelerated History, and the Plurality of Historical Times,” Geschichtstheorie am Werk (Issue KOMPOSITA) (04.04.2023), DOI: https://doi.org/10.58079/pcyq. []
  9. See Falko Schmieder, “Beschleunigungsaxiom,” Geschichtstheorie am Werk (Issue KOMPOSITA) (18.04.2023), DOI: https://doi.org/10.58079/pcyt. []
  10. Koselleck: “‘Progess’ and ‘Decline'”, 225. []
  11. Reinhart Koselleck, “Concepts of Historical Time and Social History,” translated from German by Adelheis Baker, in Koselleck, The Practice of Conceptual History, 115-130, here 120. []
  12. See Karl Löwith, Meaning in History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949, 44-59. []
  13. See Hans Blumenberg, Die Legitimität der Neuzeit. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1966. These helpful distinctions come from Robert M. Wallace’s “Translator’s Introduction,” in Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, translated from German by Robert M. Wallace. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985, xi-xxxi. []
  14. See Koselleck’s letter to Blumenberg on 16 December 1975, in Hans Blumenberg and Reinhart Koselleck, Briefwechsel 1965-1994, ed. Jan Eike Dunkhase and Rüdiger Zill. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 76-84, here 77 and 78. I am grateful to Lisa Regazzoni and Jan Eike Dunkhase for pointing me to this reference. []
  15. Koselleck, “‘Progress’ and ‘Decline,’” 235. []
  16. See Jan Eike Dunkhase, “Absurdität,” Geschichtstheorie am Werk (Issue KOMPOSITA) (21.03.2023), DOI: https://doi.org/10.58079/pcyn. []
  17. See Jonathon Catlin, “Catastrophe,” Geschichtstheorie am Werk (Issue KOMPOSITA) (07.03.2023), DOI: https://doi.org/10.58079/pcyk. []
  18. Koselleck, “‘Progress’ and ‘Decline,’” 220. []
  19. KosellecIbid, 1k, “Concepts of Historical Time and Social History,” 120. []
  20. See Niklas Olsen, History in the Plural: An Introduction to the Work of Reinhart Koselleck. New York: Berghahn, 2012, 289. []
  21. Reinhart Koselleck, Critique and Crisis: Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, [1959] 1988, 1. []
  22. See Karl Jaspers, Die Atombombe und die Zukunft des Menschen: Politisches Bewusstsein in unserer Zeit. Munich: Piper Verlag, 1958. For the English edition, see The Future of Mankind, translated from Germany by E. B. Ashton. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961. []
  23. On the connection between these figures at the University of Chicago, see Louis Menand, “Francis Fukuyama Postpones the End of History,” New Yorker (27.08.2018), URL: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/09/03/francis-fukuyama-postpones-the-end-of-history (27.02.2024). []
  24. Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics. New York: Norton, 1991, here 370, 42, 13. []
  25. Ibid., 168. []
  26. Ibid., 169. []
  27. Ibid., 14. []
  28. Ibid., 170. []
  29. See Aleida Assmann, Is Time out of Joint? On the Rise and Fall of the Modern Time Regime, translated from German by Sarah Clift. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2020, and Reinhart Koselleck, Geronnene Lava: Texte zu politischem Totenkult und Erinnerung, ed. Manfred Hettling, Hubert Locher, and Adriana Markantonatos. Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2023. []
  30. See Helge Jordheim, “Welt/Umwelt,” Geschichtstheorie am Werk (Issue KOMPOSITA) (18.04.2023), DOI: https://doi.org/10.58079/pcyu. []
  31. Rahel Jaeggi, Fortschritt und Regression. Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2023, 12. Also see Amy Allen, The End of Progress: Decolonizing the Normative Foundations of Critical Theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016, and Theodor W. Adorno, “Progress” [1962], in Theodor W. Adorno, Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, translated from German by Henry W. Pickford. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998, 143–160. []
  32. See Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann, Der Riss in der Zeit: Kosellecks ungeschriebene Historik. Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2023, 9, see also 15, 18, 19. []
  33. Koselleck, “Laudatio auf François Furet,” Sinn und Form 49 (1998), 297. Cited in Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann, “Koselleck, Arendt, and the Anthropology of Historical Experience,” History and Theory 49, no. 2 (2010), 212-236, 224. []
  34. Niklas Olsen, “On Reinhart Koselleck’s Intellectual Relations to Carl Schmitt,” Contributions to the History of Concepts 6, no. 1 (2021): 141-146. DOI: https://doi.org/10.3167/choc.2020.160107. []
  35. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt, 9. []
  36. Ibid., 143, 144. []
  37. Ibid., 144. []
  38. Koselleck, Critique and Crisis, 182. []
  39. Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann, “Koselleck, Arendt, and the Anthropology of Historical Experience,” 224, citing Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch 1950-1973. Munich: Piper Verlag, 2002, I, 488. []
  40. See Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism, 479. []
  41. See Gennaro Imbriano, “Crisis-time / Krisenzeit,” Geschichtstheorie am Werk (Issue KOMPOSITA) (07.02.2023), DOI: https://doi.org/10.58079/pcyc. []
  42. Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism, vii. []

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