If You Want to Know the Future…

“If you want to know the future, study the past,” is one of the clichés of our age. Among those who are said to have said so are the Spanish philosopher George Santayana and President Theodore Roosevelt. Rarely, though, have people gone very far in explaining just how it should be done. So here are a few thoughts about the question.

Until 1750. The idea that history is an arrow-like, ever-changing, non-repeating, process that leads in a straight line from far in the past to far into the future is a surprisingly recent one. In this form it only made its appearance around the middle of the eighteenth century. Before that date history was considered to be the province of again and again. Either the most important things did not change at all but always followed the same patterns, as Thucydides and Machiavelli thought. This, too, was what Sun Tzu was referring to, albeit in a negative way, when he said the historical analogies were no way for finding out what the enemy would do. Or else history moved in cycles as many philosophers and historians from Plato to Arnold Toynbee did. Either way it was possible to use the past for looking into the future, at any rate in principle.

From 1750 on. Starting with the late Enlightenment, patterns and cycles have been joined, and to some extent replaced, by the view of history as a linear process. A process, in other words, that was moving in a certain direction from the Creation (later replaced by the Big Bang) towards an objective or goal. This in turn gave birth to two other ideas, both of which are often used for predicting the future. The first, which has since become one the most common of all, was “trends.” The term is derived from the Middle English trenden, meaning to roll about, turn, revolve. In other words, the very opposite of what it means today. During the sixteenth century it began to stand for a move in a specific direction; but it was only about 1880 that its use became at all common.

Trends gave rise to extrapolation, another modern term. Starting its rise around 1920, today extrapolation is everywhere. The number of fields which have been analyzed with its aid, sometimes with success and sometimes without, is vast. Among them are births, deaths, populations (both human and non-human), migration, incomes, demand, sales, traffic (including accidents), energy consumption, hothouse gases in the atmosphere, the number of working scientists, technological development, the speed at which we move from one point to another, and so many other things as to boggle the mind.

Following hard on the discovery of trends and extrapolation came the other post-1750 historical method, i.e dialectics. The first to point to dialectics as the key to historical change, and therefore to any attempt to look into the future, was the early nineteenth-century German philosopher Georg Hegel. Hegel’s starting point that it was the spirit that moved the world. Any idea (thesis) would quickly give rise to its opposite (antithesis). As the two met, the outcome would be a synthesis made up of elements taken from both the thesis and the antithesis—for nothing is ever completely lost—and forming a new thesis. And so on in a process that could be observed at work in all human affairs, from the highest to the lowest.

Where Hegel really left his predecessors behind was by insisting that the process was not stationary, like scales moving now one way and now in another while in search of equilibrium, but dynamic. Unfolding in time, never repeating itself but always taking on new forms, it led history away from the past through the present and from there into the future. History, in other words, was a process of becoming.

It was in this form that dialectics were taken over by Karl Marx. Marx’s starting point was that, while Hegel had been right in pointing to dialectics as the moving principle of history, he should have applied it to economic life first of all. Here the various systems of production were forever jostling each other, pushing development along. Thus emergent slavery replaced “primitive communism.” Feudalism took the place of slavery; capitalism drove out feudalism; and communism, returning in a much more highly-developed form with every kind of modern technology at its disposal, would end up by doing away with capitalism. Each of these four systems contained traces of the previous one. And each also contained the germ of its own opposite within itself. When the time was ripe it would be negated by that opposite. As the old passed away, the new would emerge out of it like a butterfly out of its chrysalis. To this process Hegel had given the name Aufhebung. Inadequately translated as sublation, it can mean both “abolition” and “taking to a new, and higher, level.”

Hegel and Marx are long dead. However, arguably dialectics, applied to both spiritual and material factors and recognizing the interaction between them, still remains the best way to describe the way history unfolds over time. If so, then seen as a method for understanding the present and forecasting the future it is by no means passé. Modern examples of the way dialectics work are all around us. One such is the shift from craftsmanship to conveyor belts producing endless numbers of identical items and from there to computerized factories which manufacture an almost equally endless variety of them. Another is the growth in motor traffic which has now reached the point where, instead of increasing mobility, it threatens to choke it and bring it to a halt.

Still others are the rise of globalization which, having emerged after the end of the Cold War with its sharp division between West and East, is now being confronted by its opposite, decentralization, regionalization, and social fragmentation; and the rise of political correctness (itself, in many ways, a reaction to the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s), the reaction to which became manifest when Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. Thanks to dialectics all these, and many others, were predictable. And some far-sighted people actually did predict every one of them.

To retrace our steps, history (A) and (B) together provides us with four different ways of looking into the future. Two of those, the one based on the idea that there is no change and the one that change is cyclical, go back at least as far as the fifth century BCE when the very idea of history, meaning a record of things past, was conceived of for the first time. Between them they dominated the field until the effects of the industrial revolution started making themselves felt during the second half of the eighteenth century. Both remain in use even today. The other two, which assume that history does not repeat itself and that change is the very stuff of which it is made, are of more recent vintage.

What all four methods have in common is that they are based, or are supposed to be based, on the sober and systematic study of recorded facts and processes. Such as anyone, provided he or she applies himself, can access and interpret. The difficulty, of course, is to decide which method should be applied to what development at what time; also, which one to use in dealing with each problem and how to combine all four.

To this question, no answer had yet been found.