Fred L. Polak
A Science in the Making
Surveys and Creates the Future
Elsevier, London, 1971
HHC: Index added
It is extremely difficult to find a reliable path or guide, preferably a thread of Ariadne, through the confused and confusing maze of historical attitudes towards the future. In this introduction to the subject-matter I should therefore first like to apologize for the initial caution, perhaps even apparently unnecessary circumlocutions, with which I am feeling my way. Even then it is impossible to make matters clear enough as long as the problem proper is only touched on.
Attitudes of mind towards the future are, together with this future in the making, themselves subject to a constant process of subtle change, so that they are difficult to grasp or understand when viewed in the form of a random cross-section or snapshot from the course of time. However, a study of these inconstant attitudes towards the future and of their intellectual development processes, in their interrelation to the course of cultural history, is particularly fascinating. It might even be said that these evolving attitudes towards the future are characteristic of the evolution of the history of human civilization as such and vice versa. For this history of civilization only really begins when and through the fact that man starts to be clearly distinguishable from animals in particular. Such an essential difference - man really becoming human - is especially marked by the fact that he commences to think about time and future.
In the same way, biologically speaking, man’s liberation from the animal state is characterized by his purposefully forward-groping hand with the opposed thumb, his upright and forward-striding locomotion, his perspective vision enabling him to view the world to the horizon, his growing brainpower and shape of the skull, due in part to a gradually included future dimension. And probably a further characteristic was the possession for a sufficient length of time of an intuitively developed “sixth sense” of future dangers lurking in the inimical nature all around man and also in the eternal return of the barren autumn and the severe winter. In brief, the never-ceasing struggle for daily existence called for never-slackening vigilance in respect of tomorrow, extending and intensifying itself into a purposive foresight on behalf of the survival of the species as such. For the fact that man has on earth climbed to the summit of evolu-
tion is due above all to his own guiding of that process of evolution by an ever-improved, ever-extended existential orientation towards the future.
The great thinkers, the founders of our Western civilization, from Plato to Augustine, understood this very well. Consequently, as is known, both Plato and Augustine reflected most profoundly on the concept of time. It is definitely not a coincidence that both of them bequeathed to us classical pictures of the future, philosophical and religious respectively: Plato the completed Politeia and, in his Critias, his unfinished sketch of the arcadian Atlantis, Augustine the “De Civitate Dei”. In those striking heydays of Western civilization, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment (if I may be permitted to lead you in seven-league boots through history for a very broad preliminary survey), i.e. from about the 15th to far into the 18th century, human thinking about the future reached new intellectual heights via different routes. In the 18th and 19th century Kant, Hegel and Marx were in succession totally different titans among such thinkers. Philosophical reflection on time was continued in the first half of our century by, among others, Husserl and Bergson, and in our present day by - to mention only a few - Jaspers, Heidegger and Teilhard. I need hardly say that these philosophical time analyses were performed by the thinkers mentioned and by others in rather divergent ways and fashions.
Personally I should like to give my point of view here for the present with a variant of a statement by Buber: In the world now known to us there is only one being that knows a future as a future and knows itself to be the one aware of that knowledge.
On too many important points we still know very little indeed about the nature and the operation of thinking about the future in the oldest and not even so very old history of human civilization. The same may be said about the more earth-directed speculation about the future, and with respect to the supermundane, transcendental, metaphysical or mystic-magical thought about the future going far beyond the former category. What we do know is in our eyes sometimes surprising, and mostly singular. A small example which I believe is little known but is nonetheless a striking one, may be given of almost inextricably tangled, purely worldly and at the same time supermundane thinking about the future which may have been of considerable influence on the historical development of mankind, though this is something which we can no longer exactly establish. We know from the correspondence that Columbus conducted with the Portuguese and Spanish royal households to beg a sufficient sum of money for his costly maritime expeditions that a certain religio-eschatological picture of the future is a recurrent theme in that correspondence. It was argued that, since the end of the world was in sight, it would be of overwhelming importance before that event to convert as many heathen peoples as possible, so that they too could enter new heaven and earth at the right time. Now in this connection it is not of the slightest importance whether Columbus was the first man to set foot in the “New World”. Nor
does it matter to us here whether this argument really formed his genuine motive or was merely the perhaps rather hypocritical mask that had to be donned in his capacity as a “fund raiser” by the adventurous explorer who was convinced that he could sail round the globe. All that is important to us here is that evidently this argument was regarded as indubitably effective for the aristocratic elite in those days, in that mental climate and on the strength of a religious conviction anchored in the latter. Again of secondary importance, though significant, was Columbus’ fate; twice falsely accused between his voyages of discovery, ultimately not rehabilitated, and dying in poverty and oblivion. The discovery of America has been taken from him. 1 An attempt to have him beatified was turned down by the Vatican in 1873. After the eclipse of his feats by space travel, we may have almost forgotten his achievements by 1973. Except for the reminder of Columbus Day.
It is important to return for a moment to the main theme of religious conviction applied to the future. Fanatical religious zeal was largely a zeal with reference to the future marked in one certain way. For instance, the Conquistadores were animated against the Incas, who, on account of their other-directed belief in the future, did not defend themselves against their downfall through systematic genocide. The same was true of the active participants elsewhere in the world in the Inquisition, heresy-hunting, witch-burning, the religious wars, the extermination of apostatical or rebellious sects, etc., etc. At the bottom of all this was their unshakable belief in their present and future election and their consequent exclusive, strictly delineated possession of the only true doctrine of future salvation. Despite its initial protests against this, the Reformation ultimately was also to proclaim and to defend at any price its own, sometimes equally implacable doctrines of future salvation, though these did branch off in a number of directions.
For this reason I should already like to state once and for all, in a very provisional form as yet, that, even for a convinced thinker about the future, enthusiasm is not enough; one also needs a reasonable dose of scepticism and to preserve a certain distance. Thinking about the future is not just by definition and thus automatically salutary, true and good, let alone, forbearing fine. Once again each individual case depends on: what, how, where and whither? In addition there is the decisive matter of conscience: how much freedom is left to people who think differently, after this has hardened into a strict dogmatics of the future?
Thinking about the future will as a rule include something definite, but it is inclined to exclude all the rest and anything that differs from it. All speculation on the future calls for a critical judgment on what it contains but also on what it may forbid. If application of the free process of thought is formally forbidden, thought about the future is transformed into material dogmatics of the future. With regard to this thought content the clear difference between a free “may” and a compulsory “must” has therefore to be more closely
examined. Finally, the “must” breaks down in turn into an authoritative prescription and a scrupulous sense of the fitness of things, the difference between “must” and “should”.
The motto from Fichte that heads this introduction, “der Mensch kann was er soil”, is therefore correct in itself, and certainly the same is true of the conclusion drawn from it, which designates the inability to do something as the rationalization covering the desire not to do something. However, this once again covers and immures something else, namely that we usually do not know of man “was er soil”, or in other words what he ought to do, how and whither he should proceed. To this extent, therefore, Kant’s celebrated three-forked question: “Was kann ich wissen, was darf ich hoffen, was soli ich tun?” digs deeper. The Kantian “do” comprises a voluntarism and activism in the ethical humanistic sense.
Nevertheless, in conclusion, the historian and the sociologist will have to dig yet another layer deeper that the philosopher to find out why (or at least to understand that) these three questions have been answered in the course of the history of human civilization not only in a manner which has repeatedly varied considerably, but moreover in a closely entangled, practically inextricable relation between knowledge, belief and willing or assiduous action, or conversely in a systematic abstention from or neglect of action.
It would require a very extensive study to elucidate these relations adequately, going far beyond the scope of this explanation of dogmatics of the future. For these relations are much more complicated than might be derived from the single illustrative example given above of the religious conviction determining future action or awaiting what the future brings. And yet I should like to explain them to the extent that something of an elucidation is given of how much attitudes of mind towards the future are neither fixed for ever nor ever exist in their own right. Not only do they change according to place and time, but they are also attached by countless threads to a temporal and spatial network of complicated, ever-shifting relations of belief, knowledge and volition, of morals, customs and habits, of thought, commission and omission. They form part of an in turn variable, complex totality of ideas, attitudes of mind, starting-points, prevailing conceptions, codes and norms, patterns of behavior, ways of life and styles of culture. These again could be labeled as for instance resulting in, reflecting by or crystallized into a certain view of God and man, and also a view of the world and society, which in turn are recognizable by or expressed in the matrices or mythology, ideology, habitus of thought, social mentality or also in all four: dogmatics. However, this classification barely offers a firm grasp, since these four ways of thinking form the field of operations of more than four philosophic-scientific approaches, each of which illuminates different aspects of them. But on the other hand another, more differentiated approach comes up against the difficulty that only one aspect is illuminated at a time.
To give an example of the latter, it is obvious - although far too little specific research has been done up to now on this very point - that one should start from a plausible working hypothesis, viz, the assumption that the special nature of attitudes towards the future must be in particularly close relation to certain other characteristic facets of time. For instance, the characteristics of certain historical periods (e.g. more static or more dynamic), of certain peoples (e.g. more contemplative, i.e. devoted to theory and reflection, or more expansive and therefore more practical and pragmatic), of a given social situation (e.g. a relatively stable established order as against a revolutionary, entirely newly constructed social organization). Likewise it is almost a truism (though not yet demonstrated as such) that the historical fluctuation of attitudes towards the future must be closely connected with the change characteristic of that time in religious, philosophical, cultural, ethical, scientific and social ideas or psychological ways of thought which are themselves influenced by the changes in thought about the future and, in turn fructify, transform or temporarily fix this thoughts.
The reason why research into this is relatively scarce and in my opinion is still very incomplete is doubtless the fact that this material is so comprehensive and is so widespread. Upon closer consideration this spread proves to relate to at least six main fields which, though closely connected in this matter, are usually trodden separately. Each of these is in addition often subdivided into countless separate specialisms and generally isolated (not to say sealed off) from the others in a practically watertight, airtight and lighttight compartment.
These main fields are: 1. theology in the widest sense of the word (notably here the comparative history of religion, the philosophy of religion, religious phenomenology and religious psychology); 2. philosophy (in particular the history of philosophy, and also cultural philosophy); 3. the science of history (in particular the history of culture, social history, including secularized projections, and the history of science); 4. the natural sciences (notably the successive revolutions of the prevailing cosmographies and of scientific methods brought about by these sciences); 5. sociology (in particular the sociology of knowledge or science, the sociology of religion, philosophical sociology and cultural sociology, which has hardly got off the ground or been recognized); 6. psychology (besides religious and social psychology, above all the psychology of thought and the too little developed psychology of science).
Now that I have tried to make it clear in broad outline what I shall not or cannot do, either because it would take us much too far or, an even more likely reason, because I do not have a sufficient knowledge of this comprehensive material, I have now at last advanced at any rate to such a point in this virgin forest that I can state which way I could, I trust, hack through it.
In the following Chapters 3 to 7, and also Chapter 9, I shall try to show in somewhat more concrete terms the interaction of the intellectual trends in the six above fields in general and attitudes towards the future in particular.
Besides these interrelations, with their many sides and their many threads, the historical changes in or even complete reversals of prevailing attitudes towards the future touched on above will automatically come more clearly to the fore. However, I must first add a few comments to this last point, which is by far the most important for the essence of my argument.
In his imagination man hovers between hope and fear. Hope and fear both relate to the future. Hope of future salvation, fear of future disaster. Man is obliged to live between the two poles of hope for and fear of the future. Man lives by hope, but fear is ever-present in the background. Where does the stress lie for the future?
The resultant ambivalent attitude to life, the constant oscillation between these extremes, cannot ultimately be borne by everyone. Then in turn extreme tendencies are born, either to flee or to want to know for certain. Flight from the future, certainly about the future. It is not difficult to summarize a number of typical attitudes of flight - I shall do so very briefly - but my principal attention will be devoted to the second type of reaction, the longing for certainty. For it is due above all to this that thought models of certainty (mostly with the pretention of the truth, but often revealing themselves as pseudo-truth, or at least proving invalid as exclusive truth) will try to claim to their coercive sole right - in each case until the moment when their apparent certainty is unmasked as an untenable monopoly on too shaky a basis.
Mental attitudes of flight may of course end in mental disease. For Freud, for instance (if I may generalize in that way) the twin concepts of hope and fear were in themselves really rather suspect with regard to the individual (patient): hope as concealed fear, and on the other hand fear as a supplanted wish. Since then we have learnt with increasing skill to see through the increasing uncertainty characteristic of our present consciousness of time and of the future (“the age of anxiety”) as one of the strongest driving forces in the continued neuroticization of contemporary man (“the neurotic personality of our time”).
A very common attitude of flight is of course the return to and entrenchment in the present. There, from moment to moment, one can find certainty and also enjoy the fulfilment in pleasure (carpe diem). The future (hoped for or feared) does not enter into consideration; it is eliminated with a stroke of the pen.
In a related manner, but not entirely equivalent, since the future is admitted in principle, one can try to find in the present an equanimous equilibrium between all possible futures: both the favorable (hoped for) and the unfavor-
able (feared), or, to put it differently, by eliminating both hope for and fear of the future in commensurate fashion and with complete peace of mind, as it were allowing them fully to compensate one another. This has been aimed at in various ways in philosophical views or systems, going from the Stoa to Spinoza, if I may forgo further gradations here (i.e. of differences between these philosophical schools and both those that followed them and those that preceded them). Without hope and without fear - or letting these cancel each other out - one can set aside the future as aproblematic or await it in impassive, calm piety and trust in God as soon as it becomes the present (“let us cross our bridges when we come to them”).
Both more paradoxical and more cogent is a third attitude, to be found for instance among French atheistic existentialists like Sartre, Camus and Simone de Beauvoir. There is no God and there is neither prospect nor hope in man’s earthly life; nor is there anything after death. There is only despair and fear. But precisely in that man ought to find happiness. The endless struggle of Sisyphus is for ever in vain. He will never succeed in rolling the stone to the top of the hill and keeping it there. Repeatedly rejected, he must taste the sweetness of precisely this bitter misfortune. Consequently, he may not withdraw from the desperate, revolting struggle for daily existence by committing suicide. The futureless, existential today is - here too - the last line. Eternal despair is by definition and par excellence the only hope; in the dignified and voluntary acceptance of fate in its absurdity, approaching that of the Attic, heroic tragedy in respect of the curse of the gods, once pronounced, lies man’s allotted happiness.
However, there is also an entirely different attitude of flight, which brings us much closer to the subject of this section. For the attitudes of mind outlined above still have in them elements of freedom, or at least of a reaction in freedom, with a free choice, in an area which has admittedly very narrow limits (the present, destiny, death, etc.), coinciding with the extreme limits of bondage, which are after all given.
But now we come to two thought models, quite different in themselves, which in fact - though with certain historical gradations - may proceed to assume an equally coercive and absolutistic character.
One of them is the product of philosophical meditation. Neither the present nor the future is in itself interesting and relevant there. Only the permanent timelessness and timeless, universal validity are of value. The first beginnings are already to be found in the universally and eternally applicable Platonic theory of ideas or forms. Not the here and now, nor a certain time, i.e. the future coming in human history, can be “apprehended”, but the true, the good, the beautiful and the just in an absolute sense. This implies serenity and also to a certain extent (in respect of both the concrete present and the unfolding future) resignation or an “amor fati”, a loving attitude of mind towards every
possible determination of one’s destiny, an attitude which, following these lines, can also come close to the Spinozistic view of life.
However, this idea of timelessness can assume an entirely different function or play a completely divergent role as soon as it also penetrates science and, on the promise of lasting certainty, encloses it as it were in this strait-jacket, so that the practitioner of science also falls under the spell of this magic circle - or if necessary is banished via the judgment of science. Of particular danger is the escapism bound up with this fixation or absolutization, if it infiltrates into the practice of social science, which then misleads itself and others under false pretences, while nothing is so temporary and changeable, especially in the future, as socio-dynamic reality.
A second form develops again as a separate variation on the same theme, since it likewise originally proceeds from or is related to the same idea of timelessness or eternity. However, in this form hope and fear are both fixed and reduced to one single point of view. For then in certain circumstances a religious expectation for the future, or rather a promise for the future, guarantees one absolute certainty for all eternity. Either in the form of eternally blessed (or damned) life after this earthly life or in the form of one elect future on earth for the people of good will, designated by selective criteria.
In the case referred to here the future is no longer open but closed; mankind is in principle no longer free to determine his own destiny but broadly subject to an unchangeable predestination. Human endeavour may no longer be volitionally active, but is in essence powerless and largely passive. Rebellious human might must give way to divine supremacy and to God’s all-wise dispensation. However, the latter is apparently always known to a number of wise men to the extent that on the strength of it they feel obliged to impose in all ways and at all times their imperative commandments and ordinances on mankind for ever - without tolerating any departure or exception. These commandments and prohibitions are now coded and compulsorily prescribed as eternal, invariable thought models. But, and this is the point, the future itself, and the only way to that future, are likewise compulsorily prescribed in that manner.
We then have a law of the Medes and Persians, an iron law which cannot be altered by anyone. Those who obey it to the letter may hope with a clear conscience; those who do not must fear with great trembling. The present and death are transcended along fixed lines. There is a future, true, but it is subjected and subordinated to a coercive thought model. The attitude of flight has been replaced here by a confrontation with the future in the certainty of faith or of knowing for certain. Here, then, our study proper begins. For science had its schooling from religious belief, became just rigid in its faith, just as dogmatic in its attitude towards the future, where it is a matter of gaining and retaining that most valuable and purest of all jewels: certainty. Here too on payment of the same particularly high price: bondage.