The Future Lasts Forever

On the ”Historical Futures” research project

Recently Zoltán Boldizsár Simon and Marek Tamm presented a new “collective research project” (”Historical FuturesHistory and Theory 60 (1), 2021, p. 3)1 on “historical futures” (p. 3) in the form of an introductory article in History and Theory outlining the goals and the theoretical framework of the project (Simon &Tamm 2021). As such, it is intended as an “an open-ended series of articles to be published in sequential issues” (p. 3) of History and Theory and it explicitly extends to and invites perspectives from beyond historiography and forms of presentation not usually found in academic journals.

In this blogpost, I would like to discuss the way Simon and Tamm conceptualize the relation between past and future in their article on a most basic level. I believe there is a striking ambiguity in their understanding of the relationship of past and future that leads to a conflation of ontological or temporal and conceptual questions, which in turn negatively affects the whole analytic frame and the project design. Correcting for it here at the outset of the project, can help to differentiate different issues pertaining the project but which get muddled in Simon and Tamm’s account. Yet before I address this central issue, I will shortly summarize the main goals and concepts of the project.

The overall aim is to “explore the modalities of historical futures that constitute our current historical condition” (p. 3) whereby “historical futures” are defined as the “plurality of transitional relations between apprehensions of the past and anticipated futures” (p. 3). Later on, “historical futures” are said to “trace how change is expected to occur from past to future, as seen from the present viewpoint in different societal, human, technoscientific, and naturalcultural practices dispersed in space and time” (p. 13). And Simon and Tamm’s text indeed gives a comprehensive and impressive overview over understandings, imaginaries, and anticipations of different futures in many different discourses and contexts.

More concretely, the project suggests to research “historical futures” around three dimensions: kinds of transitions, kinds of anticipatory practices, and kinds of registers. The first revolves around the forms of change that are supposed to bring about the expected futures which comprise processual-developmental, gradual, exponential, abrupt, and unprecedented changes (p. 15-17). The second focuses on the practices that are supposed to bring about those changes either wittingly or unwittingly and Simon & Tamm mention a plethora of practices here, deriving in turn from ecological thinking, technoscientific scenarios, science-fiction literature, transhumanist discourses around enhancement, or economic and algorithmic predicting (p. 17-20). Registers, lastly, are something like (external) measures through which these “futures” can be further categorized. There are four such measures: a “time register” registering for the duration of the imagined future; a “scale register” measuring the spatial extent of prospective futures; a “value register” capturing the desirability of the anticipated future; and a “knowledge register” indicating the degree a future is thought to be determined or uncertain (p. 20-22). Simon and Tamm emphasize that these dimensions are more of a heuristic, and that potential contributors to the project might want to explore “historical futures” in other ways they see fit, or within the dimensions given but with other conceptual differentiations or emphases in mind. In any case, they have created a rich conceptual and analytical framework here for the broad and very timely topic of how contemporary societies imagine their futures; so that I have no doubt that it will lead to a fruitful debate.

There are two further claims, one historical and one about the present, that contribute to the agenda of the research project and create a sense of (political) urgency for the authors. The historical claim holds that only with the birth of modern historiography in the 18th century did the future become an area of genuine interest, because only then could it be conceived as being any different the from the past or the present (p. 6). The other states that today we are faced with “disconnective futures” (p. 7) that were “unimaginable” (p. 7) in the past. These novel and previously unimaginable futures are especially visible in the “radical alterity of recent technoscientific and anthropocenic historical futures” (p. 10) as they have been surfacing in discussions around the Anthropocene or around radical enhancement and technological singularities in trans- and posthumanist contexts. It is this “radical alterity” of modern futures makes them indigestible the discipline to modern historiography as it has developed since the 18th century in unison with Western modernity. Taken together, these claims justify that we try to redefine our notion of the future and that we primarily look elsewhere than modern historiography when it comes to understanding and conceptualizing the “historical futures” we are faced with today.2 (Most historians wouldn’t disagree at this point I suppose. They see as their main business to give us knowledge and understanding of the past, as opposed to pondering about possible futures.)

This brings us to the main “problematique” of this text: the way Simon & Tamm conceptualize “historical futures” and in particular the relationship between past and future. In effect, they confound the ontological or temporal relationship between past and future with the various understandings of that relationship that appear in many contemporary discourses, be they expressed as expectations, anticipations, or imaginaries of all sorts. Take the following statement of the authors as starting point on this issue:

“This is only to say that despite the survival of engineering ambitions, there is something that has changed immensely since the heyday of Western modernity, and that something is the future.” (p. 4)

On one level this statement goes against very widely held metaphysical beliefs about past and future, equally shared by most historians and laypeople I believe, i.e. that the past is fixed, done, and over with and the future is open, undecided, yet to be made. More philosophically put, the future is causally and counterfactually dependent on the pastor at least on the present, which is causally and counterfactually dependent on the pastnot the other way around. This is a fundamental temporal experience and understanding about the world as we know it (with a few possible exceptions in fundamental physics, see Kosso 1997) (Lewis 1979). That the future changes, as the quote seems to suggest, is a conceptual impossibility in this schema, just as impossible as that the past changes, though for exactly opposite reasons: one is done with and the other is yet to happen. The only temporal realm where there can be change in this schema is the present, which is conspicuously absent throughout most of Simon and Tamm’s text.

Now, we could also read the quote a bit more charitably, and take it tongue-in-cheek as a clever and intentionally ambiguous way of pointing out that many of our expectations about the future and about how it would turn out have changed “since the heyday of Western modernity”, though the fundamental theoretical tension remains and can be witnessed in other places in their text. The problem is particularly evident when Simon & Tamm talk about the relationship between past and future head on. I will give a longer quote of theirs here before analyzing the different claims they make one by one:

“History connects past and future in various ways, making apparent a basic dialectical relation between the two categories. In modern historical understanding, the future is typically fashioned by the conditions and constraints of the past, though the past is also continuously shaped by the future. Alberto Melucci explains: ‘Whenever we confront the possible—as in planning for the future—when we make a decision that anticipates the action to come, the past is re-examined, amended, and given a new meaning. We thus continually rewrite our own pasts and that of the world.’ Put differently, our concept of the past derives from our ideas about the future; without a concept of the future, history as we know it is not possible—and the same is true of any new forms of history inasmuch as they necessitate the possibility of change over time in the future. Moreover, inasmuch as we think that change has taken place between any given pasts and any given futures, we think of those futures as being “historical.”” (p. 7)

Simon & Tamm seem to argue, in a rather condensed way, for the following claims:

  1. The relationship between past and future is “dialectical”, which means that the future is conditioned and constrained by the past but that the past is also “continuously shaped” by the future.
  2. Whenever we take decisions, we “rewrite our own past and that of the world”, which I take to be one possible rendition of (1) (“continuously shaped”).
  3. “Our concept of the past derives from our idea of the future.”
  4. We cannot have “history as we know it” without having a concept of the future, which is a more limited claim than (3) where the talk is about derivation.
  5. Any new forms of history are also dependent on the future because they are dependent on change over time in the future.
  6. Insofar as we think that any change has taken place between a past and a future, we think of this future as historical.

Now, I hope I have summarized Simon and Tamm’s arguments in the quote as faithfully as possible; I admit that I had a special difficulty the phrasing of (5), which is a rephrasing of “and the same is true of any new forms of history inasmuch as they necessitate the possibility of change over time in the future” (p. 7).

In these six claims, I believe we can see the difficulty that arises when one does not differentiate ontological or temporal and conceptual questions properly.

Claims (1) and (2) above are on the face of it ontological claims about the relationship between past and future, leaving out the present as it were, and both assert to varying degrees that the future “shapes” the past just as much as the past conditions and constrains the future. (2), additionally, specifies the “shaping” claim by stating that we “rewrite our own past and that of the world” whenever we take a decision. Note again, that decisions are actually taken in the present, not the future, no matter how future-oriented they might be as intentions to make something happen. In any case, Simon and Tamm give no argument beyond the quote itself why any decision taken should by necessity “rewrite” our past and the past of the world, which is a really strong claim, just as they give no argument as to why and how the future could shape the past or the present in the first place. This weighs especially heavy as our ordinary metaphysical understanding of temporality—shared by most historians and laypeople and also a good bunch of philosophers—works in the way described above, with the past being determined and over with and the future as open and yet to happen or to be made. To topple this entrenched understanding of temporality and make the future shape the past, we would need good arguments but none are given.

Now, the two claims might make more sense if we were to say that our understandings of past and future depend on each other in the way alleged by Simon and Tamm in (1) and (2). However, there is no effort to differentiate these issues in the section given above, and I doubt that the claims would hold even when limited to our conceptions of past and future. Take claim (3) and (4) in this respect, which ostensibly are about our varying understandings of the relationship between past and future. I don’t see how our concept of the past would in any facile way “derive” from our concept of the future, as (3) claims (no dialectics here involved for Simon and Tamm, it would seem). (4), then, is the more interesting claim in this regard. Setting aside the exact meaning of the phrase “history as we know it”, it asserts that we cannot have a concept of history without a having a concept of the future. This is probably right in the sense of the general issue of conceptual demarcation where the Spinozan or Hegelian determinatio est negatio holds. In other words, we wouldn’t have a concept of the past if it wasn’t set against what it is not, which most sensibly and pertinently in this regard are the present and future. Beyond that, I don’t see that we need to have a (specific) concept of the future when we want to have a concept of the past. And even if we usually think together some specific concept of past and future, I would argue it is the common notion of our ordinary temporal understanding of past and future that is at play here, with the past defined as done and over with and the future as open and yet to be (along with a basic social ontology applied to both I suppose). In any case, claim (4) seems to be conceptually unfounded beyond the general point about the demarcation of concepts I just made and metaphysically best understood via our ordinary temporal understanding of the relationship of past and future (and present), and not through the propositions of (1) and (2). And (3) is a very strong claim about the relationship between our concepts for past and future for which the authors give no arguments whatsoever.

Claims (5) is probably also best read conceptually following the intention of the authors. As written above, I have some difficulty in pinning down the meaning of (5) precisely given Simon & Tamm’s formulation, but it seems to be an extension and specification of (4). Now not just “history as we know it” is dependent on a concept of the future, but any “new form of history” is so dependent, plus the concept of the future is also concretized in (5): concepts of history are now dependent on the “possibility of change over time in the future”. Again, I see no direct connection between the concept of the past and the concept of the future as “possibility of change over time” beyond what I have outlined at (4).3 Now, if, in an inversion of Russell’s famous 5 minutes thought experiment (Russell 2005: 132), the world ended in 5 minutes, then the possibility of doing historiography would cease with it, and there would be “no possibility of change over time” for humans in the future anymore either. In this existential sense, one could say that in this scenario the concept of history is dependent on the future, just as much of everything else we care about is dependent on the continuing existence of the world. But this, again, is a metaphysical scenario and not about our concepts of past and future and their relations to each other, as (5) claims.

Finally (6), which might be read metaphysically or conceptually. Metaphysically, the future cannot be historical or it is not the future anymore, as argued throughout this text. A future that has become historical is no future but past, that is, historical in the proper sense of the word. In addition, there is no direct connection between past and future, with change taking place in the present. Taken as a conceptual point, I have a hard time understanding what (6) could mean. A “change has taken place between a past and a future” (p. 7)is not something that sounds like a conceptual relation, plus the notion of “historical”, as before, is not clear either here.

In sum, claims (1), (2), (3), (5) and (6) on the relation of the past to future seem unfounded to me, either metaphysically or conceptually. I believe that (4) is interesting, perhaps even beyond the general point of conceptual demarcation, but that it would need more analysis and explication. Overall, the failure to differentiate ontological or temporal questions from conceptual ones seriously hampers the analytical clarity of the framework. Yet, exactly such clarity would clearly benefit the research project and its goals right at its outset.

In the light of all this, “historical futures” in the way defined by Simon and Tamm is an unfortunate term. I think “historical futures” are best defined as the understandings past people and societies had of the future itself, and as such they are normal objects of interest of historiography.4 What Simon & Tamm more broadly refer to as “historical futures” I suggest calling concepts of the historical process, or imagined or anticipated futures if talking about futures as they painted in the present.

Simon and Tamm define “historical futures”, we remember, as “plurality of transitional relations between apprehensions of the past and anticipated futures” (p. 3). They further explain that they use “apprehensions of the past” so as to account for all kinds of postulated relations to the past, in contrast to “knowledge of the past” which they see as the domain of historiography as “the culturally sanctioned ‘legitimate’ practice of historical knowledge production in Western modernity” (p. 13). Now, I believe apprehension is an unfortunate choice too. The term has a particularly perceptual ring to itself and is usually linked to issues such as perceptual awareness and its conditions of possibility (so in Kant, for example), which is very limiting meaning (or at least connotation) when talking about the manifold understandings of the past that exist in different theories and discourses. As such, the notion lacks the breadth to subsume all possible (cognitive) relations to the past humans might have. I have used “understandings of the past” as the most basic and abstract notion instead throughout this text. It has the advantage of being very general and not carrying any of the problematic connotations of apprehension.

Further, so as to properly classify and judge current understandings of potential futures and their conditions of realization as they are postulated in all the different fields and discourses which Simon and Tamm describe so knowledgeably, we would need take account of the present too (Bhaskar 2009: 149), yet the notion is basically absent from their text. Along with the insight that any potential future is conditioned and determined by the past and the present and not the other way around. This basic insight, I believe, would put historiography and other historical sciences once centre stage, at least for the portions of our current predicament that need <a realistic understanding of the present and past and explanation through recourse to the past. This could go hand in hand with focusing more on scientific forms of “futuring” such as prediction, modelling, and simulation than Simon and Tamm do in their broad canvas of imagined futures. After all, they give us the most reliable information about potential futures that we might want to realize or avert in the times to come.

The research project initiated by Simon and Tamm still has many merits. For one, with its sequential publishing form and mostly open character it is a research and publishing experiment in its own right. The analytical grid developed by both authors is also very valuable and seems to me well suited to analyze the manifold of different understandings of the relation between past and future (especially through the three central analytical categories of kinds of transitions, anticipatory practices, and registers), while not omitting the present I hope. The grid can also be used to analyze different understandings, anticipations, and imaginaries of the future itself. Understandings of the future or the historical process leading to the future do matter to the present as they can prompt people do some things and make them refrain from others, and realistic understandings of the actual possibilities and trends at hand matter positively just as skewed understandings matter negatively. “Historical Futures” gives us some of the tools necessary for understanding these futures. Bringing them about, or even just avoiding the worst of them, is a matter of informed praxis.

 

Georg Gangl

 

xThe first part of the title is taken from Louis Althusser’s autobiography The Future Lasts Forever (Althusser 1993). I would like to thank Ilkka Lähteenmäki and Jouni-Matti Kuukkanen for comments on an earlier version of this text.

1 Simple page numbers refer to Simon & Tamm 2021; the text is open-access and can be read and downloaded here.

2 Simon argued as much also in his most recent book on “epochal events” (Simon 2020) which according to him cannot be understood within the developmental paradigm of traditional historiography (Simon 2020: 11-31; 97-118). Simon also gave a talk about the same topic with the Centre for Philosophical Studies of History that can be watched here.

3 ”Change over time” in the past can be seen as the explanandum of historiography though, as I have argued elsewhere (Gangl forthcoming) based on mechanismic notions of causality and Danto’s concept of narrative explanations (Glennan 2016; Danto 1985: 233-255). 

4 Simon and Tamm acknowledge this possibility but call it ”rather narrowly construed” (10, Fn.22). Narrow this construal of “historical futures” may be but it is not internally contradictory in the way Simon and Tamm’s notion is.

 

 

 

References

 

Althusser, L. 1993. The Future Lasts Forever. New York: The New Press.

Bhaskar, R. 2009 [1986]. Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation. Abingdon: Routledge.

Danto, A. C. 1985. Narration and Knowledge. New York: Columbia University Press.

Gangl, G. (forthcoming). “Narrative Explanations: The Case for Causality" Journal of the Philosophy of History.

Glennan, S. 2016. “Ephermeral Mechanisms and Historical Explanation” Erkenntnis 72, 251-266.

Kosso, P. 1998. Appearance and Reality. An Introduction to the Philosophy of Physics. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lewis, D. 1979. “Counterfactual Dependence and Time’s Arrow” Nous 13 (4), 455-476.

Russell, B. 2005 [1921]. The Analysis of Mind. London: Routledge.

Simon, Z. B. 2020. The Epochal Event. Transformations in the Entangled Human, Technological, and Natural Worlds. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.

Simon, Z. B. & Tamm, M. 2021. ”Historical FuturesHistory and Theory 60 (1), 3-22.

Simon, Z. B. "Epochal Event" web-lecture https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dz7oQdPcBvY (26.03.2021)

 

 

Last updated: 6.4.2021