The A Priori Futurist Imagination

14 August 2011

Sunday


Dated futurism is one of my guilty pleasures, and I have written about this previously in A Hundred Years of Futurism. Recently I’ve been reading a number of mid-twentieth century futurist works for some research I am doing. These are not the wide-eyed adolescent takes on the future, but intended to be sober analyses of what one book calls The Most Probable World. This is a project in the spirit of George Friedman’s The Next 100 Years, which I have discussed several times (cf. Ecological Succession in Cultural Geography).

The wide-eyed enthusiasm for possible futures is pure fun, but the serious attempts to try to understand a likely future constitute futurism of another order, and it deserves to be treated separately, if only because of the intentions of the author. While the science fiction scenarios have sometimes come closer to the truth than some overly-serious attempts to futurism (the latter at times approaching self-parody), this kind of nearly-chance correspondence bears some resemblance to the Gettier paradox, which can be intuitively understood as the fact that a non-functioning clock is precisely correct twice a day, but when a stopped clock is correct in indicating the time, it is not correct for the right reason.

Some of these “serious” (for lack of a better term) works of futurism are more sociological than futurist in character, and can only be called futurist in virtue of their discussion of present trends with a strong implication that the trend under discussion will be a central thread in the developments of the immediate future. In this sense, the sort of sober “futurist” works to which I am here referring needn’t even mention the future or prediction. The future is understood to be embodied in the pregnant present, if only we can recognize the inchoate future in embryo.

I would like to suggest that these works of sober futurism are distinct from works of enthusiasm because they are based on a method, however imperfectly put into practice, and this is the method of the historical a priori imagination. In several previous posts I have had occasion to refer to R. G. Collingwood’s conception of the historical a priori imagination. This is given in the Epilogomena to his The Idea of History, as follows:

“I have already remarked that, in addition to selecting from among his authorities’ statements those which he regards as important, the historian must in two ways go beyond what his authorities tell him. One is the critical way, and this is what Bradley has attempted to analyse. The other is the constructive way. Of this he has said nothing, and to this I now propose to return. I described constructive history as interpolating, between the statements borrowed from our authorities, other statements implied by them. Thus our authorities tell us that on one day Caesar was in Rome and on a later day in Gaul ; they tell us nothing about his journey from one place to the other, but we interpolate this with a perfectly good conscience.”

“This act of interpolation has two significant characteristics. First, it is in no way arbitrary or merely fanciful: it is necessary or, in Kantian language, a priori. If we filled up the narrative of Caesar’s doings with fanciful details such as the names of the persons he met on the way, and what he said to them, the construction would be arbitrary: it would be in fact the kind of construction which is done by an historical novelist. But if our construction involves nothing that is not necessitated by the evidence, it is a legitimate historical construction of a kind without which there can be no history at all.”

“Secondly, what is in this way inferred is essentially something imagined. If we look out over the sea and perceive a ship, and five minutes later look again and perceive it in a different place, we find ourselves obliged to imagine it as having occupied intermediate positions when we were not looking. That is already an example of historical thinking ; and it is not otherwise that we find ourselves obliged to imagine Caesar as having travelled from Rome to Gaul when we are told that he was in these different places at these successive times.”

“This activity, with this double character, I shall call a priori imagination; and, though I shall have more to say of it hereafter, for the present I shall be content to remark that, however unconscious we may be of its operation, it is this activity which, bridging the gaps between what our authorities tell us, gives the historical narrative or description its continuity. That the historian must use his imagination is a commonplace; to quote Macaulay’s Essay on History, ‘a perfect historian must possess an imagination sufficiently powerful to make his narrative affecting and picturesque’; but this is to underestimate the part played by the historical imagination, which is properly not ornamental but structural. Without it the historian would have no narrative to adorn. The imagination, that ‘blind but indispensable faculty’ without which, as Kant has shown, we could never perceive the world around us, is indispensable in the same way to history: it is this which, operating not capriciously as fancy but in its a priori form, does the entire work of historical construction.”

The Idea of History, Epilegomena: 2: The Historical Imagination, R. G. Collingwood, Oxford: Oxford University Press (1946)

This is more than I have quoted from Collingwood previously, because I wanted to give a better sense of his exposition. Collingwood calls his method “constructive” (in contradistinction to being “analytic”), but from a formal point of view it is the antithesis of constructive, it is a non-constructive inference of what must be, made on the basis of what is known to be the case.

But I think that Collingwood wanted to call his method “constructive” because he wanted to bring attention to the essentially conservative and traditional aspect of historical thought that he felt himself to be describing. It is one of the remarkable aspects of Collingwood’s conception that it is both metaphysically bold and methodologically conservative. As Collingwood notes, we have no scruples in deducing that when Caesar traveled from Rome to Gaul that he covered the intervening geographical region. This is, in a sense, a necessary truth, and in so far as it is a necessary truth, it is an a priori truth — furnished by imagination.

In works of history, we can make logical deductions as to what must have happened on the basis of connecting two points in history separated by the discrete period of time. In works of futurism, we cannot do this. We have only one point at which the facts are know, and this is the present. And often the present is known far more imperfectly than we would like to admit. As time passes, and we learn more and more about the past, we realize how little we knew of the present when it was in fact present.

Thus futurism labors under a double burden of knowing only half of what is needed to logically extrapolate the historical a priori imaginative narrative, as well as knowing this half highly imperfectly. Despite these substantial handicaps, we can still stand on the firm ground of methodological naturalism in making necessary deductions about the future.

We know that the future must follow from the present as the present has followed from the past. We know furthermore that there will be some future, and that it will be filled with some content, even if we don’t know what that content is. This makes futurism profoundly non-constructive.

Beyond these logical deductions from the very structure of time itself, we know empirically and inductively that things never quite develop as we expect things to develop, meaning that trends that seem to be important in the present often come to nothing, while world-historical events often seem to emerge suddenly if not violently from subtle trends in the present that are often evident only in hindsight.

A better appreciation of non-constructivism as a method of formal reasoning, as well as of subtle trends in the present that are neglected in favor of more obvious trends, would give us a better picture of the content of history that will shape the future. Both of these are highly difficult intellectual undertakings. Despite the fact (which you will know if you are familiar with the literature of formal reasoning) that constructivism is considered a marginal if not ideological mode of thought, I find it remarkable that constructivism has been given several systematic expositions, for example, in the work of Brouwer, Heyting, Dummett, and Beeson, among many others, while non-constructivism, the default form of formal reasoning that makes no special stipulations, has been given no explicit formulation. This is an ellipsis that not only is felt in formal thought, but as we can see here is also felt in historical thought.

As for the empirical and inductive dimension of futurism, a thorough and dispassionate survey of the present, undertaken in a frame of mind informed by parallels with past neglected trends, might reveal a number of threads of historical trends in the present which might hold the key to unexpected developments in the future.

While futurism remains marginal, it is not beyond hope in being given a firmer intellectual basis than it has enjoyed to date. What I have suggested above may be taken as a research program for putting futurism on a more solid footing.

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