Call for Proposals - Narratives of Progress: Global and Local Perspectives

narrative   |   global   |   local   |   perspectives

20-21.6.2017, The Van Leer Jerusalem Institute

International Workshop organized by the Minerva Center at Tel Aviv University

and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute

Please send abstracts by 30.4.17

The idea of progress, which has its origins in religious discourse, gathered its main momentum during the eighteenth century and the age of Enlightenment, and seems to have reached its full force during the nineteenth century. Its rise seemed to follow the great advances in the natural sciences and the industrial revolution. These laid the basis for the (at least allegedly) rational belief that the human race as a whole is on a path of advancement, and for the expectation that the future will be better and more developed than the present. It was mainly the twentieth century, with its mass-scale disasters, that brought not only this historical prognosis but also the very ideal of progress under severe critique.

In this workshop we would like to raise questions about the concepts, dynamics, and ideologies of progress from philosophical, historical, rhetorical, and other perspectives. We propose doing so by looking at three contexts or dimensions.

On the global or universal dimension, we would like to examine whether the debate over the usefulness of the concept of progress is still viable. Is it still an indispensable concept? Can there be any political critique that does not resort to some ideal of progress (or alternatively to a diagnosis of regress)? What kind of "humanity" does the concept either presuppose or seek to construct? Are we talking about a single notion of progress that features in, say, both religious discourse and political discourse; in both conservative and revolutionary politics? Or is it rather a plural term that signifies different ideals altogether? Is progress a concept (mindset, ideology) that is uniquely tied to the West (however construed); to monotheism; to Christian or other eschatology? Or is it a universal structure that assumes local shapes in different eras?

The second dimension or cluster of questions is the colonial/post-colonial context. We are interested in the challenges posed to the idea of progress by the concrete positions and struggles of those who turned out to be victims of regimes that regarded themselves as progressive—where such progress all too often manifested itself in the form of imperial projects, colonial settlement, and economic expansion. What, if any, are the relations between progress and colonialism? Is there a necessary causation between the two, or is it a matter of ideological distortion? Is it possible to hold on to the idea of progress on the one hand and still resist its colonial and imperial implications, or does such resistance necessitate a rejection of the very mindset of progress? And if so, what should replace progress as that in the name of which resistance takes place?

Third is the local context. We regard the concept of progress as particularly relevant for examining Islamic modernist movements (Nahda) who thought to "join" a universal paradigm of progress, compared to other modes of political Islam who at times question the whole idea of progress and at other times place emphasis on alternative visions of progress. It is also an important marker of the political landscape of Israel/Palestine, seeing how the Zionist project was imbued from the start with colonial language, which deployed a discourse of progress, while at the same time criticizing the European world of ideas that left the Jews outside history. In this sense one can notice similar ambivalences in some versions of political Islam and Zionism when it comes to questions of modernity and progress. We would be interested in questions such as the way these movements understand, appropriate, reject, and trnasform the concept(s) of progress; and which, if any, aspects of it do they seek to affirm, reject, or somehow transform?


We invite interested participants to send proposals that deal with these or related questions. We also encourage approaching these questions by examining specific case studies, or by examining specific figures relevant to either of these dimensions (e.g., Hegel, Franz Fanon, Muhammad Abduh, to name but a few).

We suggest three formats of proposals:

  1. Round-table discussions of an article or book chapter related to one of the above topics
  2. Panel discussions
  3. 20-minute papers

We are aware of the relatively short notice. We hope, and plan, that this workshop will be followed by another one next year, developing some of the themes raised in this coming workshop.

Please send abstracts in one of the above three formats by 30.4.17 to