Will the Future Understand Us?

In historiography, a common idea is that we should describe and explain the past in its own terms. People have had different beliefs, values, and problems to be solved, and the social and cultural dynamics surrounding them have been different – not to mention the material realities of the past. We should not expect that every human action and activity can be described by using similar schemas and categories. For example, Kepler attempted to formulate a priori foundations for Copernican system in terms of five regular solids. This attempt would make no sense if we were to think that Kepler operated in a similar context as the current physicists with their recent educations.

Of course, the idea that people act differently in different contexts is not something that historians alone have conceived. It is something we learn in our every-day lives. To spice up the view and to make it historiographically significant, a commitment to historicism is often made:

Historicism. There are no permanent invariant properties. All objects and properties are temporal and subject to variation. (Kuukkanen 2016, 5.)

Historicism implies that, even given all possible categories and schemas we can use to make sense of the activities and actions of our contemporaries, there still remain difficulties in understanding the activities of people in the past.

This gap between the past and the present and how and to what extent it can be bridged is one of the most fundamental and most difficult questions in the philosophy of historiography. The structure of the problem is the following: Given the gap between the past and the present, we need to postulate some principles that allow us to write a description of the past. The epistemic significance and ontological depth of the description depends on these principles. For example, we could assume semi-Historicism which would be the position that while most of the properties are subject to variation, some fundamental categories and schemas are present in every human activity. For example, in the case of history of knowledge, we could assume that every human society has (i) made the distinction between the categories of knowledge and false belief, (ii) had the notion of epistemic problem, (i.e. understanding that something needs to be known), and (iii) had basic patterns of causal inference, etc. Then we can debate whether the principles used in the historiographical approach should be interpreted realistically, instrumentally, or in a Kantian way or what have you. If they are interpreted realistically, we can say that the historiographical description captures the past as it was. If they are interpreted instrumentally, we can say that the historiographical description is one that fits our purposes. If they are interpreted in a Kantian way, we can say that the description matches the reality as it appears through our conceptual system but does not correspond to reality-as-such.

Personally, I think that different historiographical studies have different levels of epistemic significance and ontological depth (i.e. that different historical descriptions can match the reality to a different degree or have different philosophical interpretations – a description of Millikan´s oil-drop experiment and a description of Pythagoras’ life differ with respect to our epistemic-ontological attitude towards them). Be that as it may, there always remains the question whether the past can be understood from a later point of view. And even if it could be understood by a historians, whether it can be communicated to their contemporaries (Hull 1979).

An interesting consequence of our (presumed) inability to understand the past is that the people of the future will not be able to understand us. Or so it seems. If historicism is a general truth [oh the irony] and if the future generations will not be able to figure out principles that enable them to write realistically interpretable historiography, then the future generations will not understand us in the same way as we ourselves do. Of course, they will probably be able to make sense of our actions within their conceptual schemes or interpret our actions to serve their purposes but that does not capture what we thought we were doing.

That we will disappear into the darkness of history is not the academic problem here. The problem is that we attempt to estimate the future. Moreover, these estimations are built in order to create desirable futures. Given that these activities have an effect on future, can the historians of future approach the activities in any other but realistic way? There is also a related issue: Given these future-oriented goals, the idea that historians “are now calling for a historicist approach which will seek to understand the past in its own terms, not in terms of its relation to later events which happen to interest certain investigators” (Murphey 1973, 120 [emphasis added]) looks odd. How could the history of the study of the future be understood without reference to later events? Of course, the future is not the cause of the present estimating of it, but a few puzzles remain:

1. If the future generations will not understand us, how does this affect our ability to estimate the future? It is clear that we cannot estimate the future in detail because we do not know exactly what the future generations will know. However, the problem gets even worse if it is unclear to us what the future people will think about our efforts of estimating their actions, societies, values and goals. In that case, we would not be able to assume that the people of the future will continue the search for plausible and desirable futures.[1] And if the future people were not oriented towards the future, it seems unlikely that futurists of today would be in a position to say anything about the world of such people due to the great difference in the temporal orientation between the future people and current futurists.

2. A related problem is that if we think that the way the future is thought in the future will change, how can we judge whether we should create a future where the (next) futures will be open? Will the future people continue the activity of analyzing plausible and desirable futures or will they be happy with only one scenario they think will happen (presumably) inevitably?

3. Another (more mundane) problem is that it is unclear how the future generations could improve the estimating of futures by learning from our mistakes. Given that they will not understand us, how can they understand our mistakes? How they can even know what counts as a mistake for us?

4. How can the future people understand their own historical situation if they are not able to understand even the most explicit attempts of the past [i.e. past from their perspective] to create that situation? The problem is not how they could understand us but how they could understand themselves. For example, assume (to cheer up in these difficult times) that we are able to build a morally balanced and materially satisfactory future. Given that the people of the future would be able to compare their historical situation with those of the past (even very crudely and without understanding what past really was like [one can know that life in WW1 trenches was unbearable without deep historical knowledge]), it seems obvious that they would track down the historical roots of their situation to the decisions and actions of the past. They would understand us because they would recognize the historical uniqueness of their situation and the fact that such conditions would not arise in the absence of a very specific set of mind (unfortunately, only time will  tell whether such set of mind is currently available).

There are some possible conclusions to be drawn. One could be that we accept that the future will not understand us and therefore themselves. We could also add that we do not understand the past nor ourselves. Another conclusion could be that despite the meta-knowledge about historicism, we as human beings cannot but continue our activities as if the world was a neat continuum from past to present to future. The question of self-deception does not really arise due to our deep-rooted ways of thinking. The third possible conclusion – and the one I tend to accept – is to point out that our relationship with the future reveals the inadequacy of full-blown historicism. That we are able to learn from the past; that we are able to orient ourselves between past and future generations; that we are able to understand ourselves by understanding the past all indicate that historical ruptures do not pose an unsolvable problem for our conception of and orientation in history.


Hull, L. (1979). “In Defense of Presentism”. History and Theory 18 (1):1-15.

Kuukkanen, Jouni-Matti (2016). “Historicism and the failure of HPS”. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 55:3-11.

Murphey David, Murray G. (1973). Our Knowledge of the Historical Past.

[1] (I would also like to point out that this probably is an argument against historicism: in all human societies people have had a conception of plausible and desirable futures

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