The Competitiveness of Nations

in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy

August 2002

AAP Homepage

Fred L. Polak


A Science in the Making

Surveys and Creates the Future

Elsevier, London, 1971


Chapter 4: Philosophical models of the future

a)       Pre-Socratics

b)       Socrates, Plato & Aristotle

c)       Renaissance

d)       Hegel & Marx

e)       Comte

f)        Nietzsche

g)       Bergson

h)       Teilhard de Chardin

i)         Heidegger

j)         Polak

HHC: Titling and Index added


Philosophical models of the future

As the reader is aware, at the cradle of our learning stood the philosophy of Asia Minor and Greece, itself influenced in turn by Indian and Oriental philosophical and religious conceptions.  It is the tragedy of this philosophy that, although it was traditionally directed towards the undogmatic acquisition of wisdom and virtue, always regarding the freedom of human rational thought in visionary fashion as the highest good, it nevertheless inevitably led to a mental hardening of the arteries into coercive thought models.  However, this repeatedly met with philosophical opposition from a renewed urge for liberty, which tried to break though this mental strait-jacket.  The history of philosophy reflects this alternating and largely repetitive movement: gradually developing intellectual freedom - imposed intellectual restraint - provocative protest - revival of independent research and so on.  Here, in the special context of models of the future, as far as my knowledge extends, are a few random instances.


a) Pre-Socratics

For a historically sound understanding of Greek philosophy one will in my opinion in any case have to go back to Pythagoras (6th century B.C.) and his school, i.e. to the founder of mathematics, of the theory of music and the theory of motion, to the religious reformer and architect of one of the first scientific associations.  To his thought models: the arithmetical number, the geometric shape, the cycle and the circle with centre (symbol of the divine circle without beginning and end, but with central emanations).  To his ideas concerning harmony (of music, of the spheres, of motion, of opposites), the multiplicity-in-unity and the unity-in-multiplicity, the essence of things and the natural order of the universe: the well-ordered cosmos and nature (physis).  Here we already clearly find an incentive to thought = reckoning and thought knowledge of the natural, cosmic laws or necessities.

Even before Pythagoras Ionic natural philosophy had in any case already begun to seek a rational explanation of the opposites and contradictions that confused thought.  Thales of Miletus, one of the seven wise men (born ca. 625 B.C.), is commonly considered as the first representative of this awakening and wondering thought.  The wonder always concentrated on understanding the contradictions, of the polarity or contradiction between light and dark, male and female (Chinese yin and yang), lasting and transitory, unlimited and limited, unity and multiplicity, thesis and antithesis.  This led to two types of thought model; either a model in which the contradiction was reconciled or a model in which one of the two sides was clearly chosen as the essential and thus the true one.


This then, was the origin of a philosophical parting of the ways, which for centuries was to lead to diametrically opposed thought and future models.  On the one hand there was the crowning of the Ionic trend with the two most powerful, progressive new thinkers, Xenophanes and Heraclitus.  On the other hand there were the two top figures, likewise head and shoulders above all the others, of the Eleatic school, which had developed from the Ionic one but was in essence more conservative, Parmenides and Zeno.

Xenophanes, one of the greatest and thus least known, was at the same time a transitional figure between Ionic and Eleatic philosophy in the 6th century B.C.  He was a religiously inspired philosopher, a poetic prophet, the opponent of polytheism and anthropomorphism, the founder of monotheism who may perhaps himself be described as pantheistic.  God is absolute Being: unique, eternal, unbecome, imperishable.  Oneness implies impassivity and essential immutability. God needs no treacherous sensory perception, nor movement from here to there.  His whole being is all-embracing Sight, Mind and Ear.  What is essential is the combining All-One (hen kai pan), the all-embracing One is the Perfect One, the Wise One is the almighty, all-seeing, all-hearing and all-knowing God (for the first time, as opposed to the Greek gods, in the singular).  Opposition to the ancient, traditional Greek cosmology and the Homeric, heroic mythology (from about the 9th century B.C.).  Despite his auditive, visual and cognitive powers, which are infinitely superior to those of man, God does not have a human shape, but plastically or optically that of the completely true and absolutely perfect globe (sphairos).  Motion and change (the very things that were usual among and characteristic of the mythological and Homeric deities) are, according to Xenophanes, at variance with God’s dignity and immutable perfection.

However, the very special thing about this new religious view in Xenophanes is that it is in no way contradictory to an equally grandiose prophetic image of the future of human progress.  On the contrary, whilst he (as the first philosopher to do so) recognizes that human philosophical knowledge can never penetrate completely to the frontier, let alone the centre, of the all-dominating divine perfection and comprehensiveness, on the other hand he expressly states (likewise as the first one, and even as far as is known the only one to do so), his belief in possible human progress.  To mortal man - so his pronouncement runs - all that is divine has certainly not been revealed from the beginning, but by searching of time.  According to Xenophanes, man himself creates both his religion and the rest of his civilization.  Here in fact, more than twenty centuries beforehand, the Age of Enlightenment is already dawning, together with that of man’s determination of his future destiny by his own volitionally active endeavors.

However, the first very tight turn of the philosophical screw is applied in the 6th century B.C. by Parmenides, the recognized founder and leader of the Eleatic school.  In his own way he continues the ideas of both the Pythagoreans

58 Index

and Xenophanes.  However, the results are almost totally different, and often completely opposed.  The contrasts detached from the preceding philosophical study, and only partly bridged, between Being and Becoming, remaining and changing, between the extremes of Being and Non-Being, of divine and human, or those between eternity and temporality, are revived.  Such contrasts, with which are also connected those between cosmos and chaos, truth and pretence, idea and reality, or between objective and subjective, theoretical and practical, absolute and relative, universal and historical, abstract and concrete (to reproduce ancient concepts in modern terms), are for Parmenides insupportable, intolerable and therefore impossible.  For him and his followers all that exists is Being, unchangeable and imperishable for once and for all.  Non-Being, negation, is illogical, inconceivable, unimaginable and unreal.  This view - which of course has been given here in an extremely simplified form, reduced to its purest nucleus - recognizes exclusively as essentially true and positively existing only the eternally unchangeable, immovable Here and Now.  This way of thought automatically and radically closes the door to a changeable Future that might ever be different.  The one Being is all the Being and at the same time in advance all the Beings.

Parmenides no longer recognizes, in the slightest respect, a polarity of pairs of concepts.  In his philosophy the One is literally absolutized, i.e. at the same time banishes the Other, the opposite.  The One is now the same as the absolute, the total, the infinite and unbounded and - also or precisely - as the naturally necessary.  This is the beginning of all ontology and metaphysics - but unfortunately it is equally the forerunner of dogmatism and exclusive orthodoxy.  The extreme antipole is this essential Oneness of existentialist Nothingness.  The latter is the purely antipodal but equally apodictic premise of the absolute negation of all essence (except one’s own) about 25 centuries later by Sartre, thus demonstrating that extremes meet.  In its poetic form Parmenides’ philosophy is a religious doctrine of salvation - borrowed from the Orphic mysteries and Indian mysticism - but in its essence and content it is a strictly logical path - i.e. a path made obligatory as the only true one -to the sole and sole existing Kingdom of Truth, Light and Justice.

Parmenides - recognized by Plato as the “father of philosophy” - states most definitely that Nothingness or Non-Being cannot be.  And he therefore speaks scornfully of the “double heads” who believe this to be possible.  Being resides in itself as unchanging, continuous unity and is kept by strict necessity within the narrow bounds of a divine circle.  Rational thought and this unchanging Being are identical.  And therefore, logically and consistently, neither Being nor the Thought coinciding or consonant with it are subject to time and place, to a multiplicity of forms, to a change of place, to external or internal transformation.  In this way becoming and passing away, i.e. by definition all future changes, phenomena and metamorphoses, are excluded from Thought as irrelevant or non-existent, or are denied by it.


For centuries this thought model was to hold good as a coercive model of the future without a future.  But first it was to be further intensified, extended beyond itself and oddly transformed, though without its essence being affected.

The most celebrated pupil of Parmenides, Zeno the Eleatic, tried to prove his master’s doctrine as undeniably true by explicitly developing its extreme logical implications.  Down to our day his indirect demonstrations and in particular the aporias have preserved an indestructible vitality.  In particular Zeno extends precisely those lines directed towards the complete exclusion of motion and future change.  “The arrow in flight stands still” and “The fleet-footed Achilles can never catch up the provocatively slow tortoise” are the classical aphoristic illustrations of his argument.

To be fair, this struggle to eliminate the contradiction (in itself really a contradiction in terms) should be viewed in the light of what was at stake and in the background for these logical thinkers.  For if changing Becoming and a possibly different future ought to be regarded as part of the essence of things, how was one to arrive at a fixed, thinking order of things?  How could one penetrate to a systematic, creative examination of the deepest essence of Being, of matter, nature and the cosmos, of eternity or of divine, indeed of rational wisdom itself?  There had to be unchangeable basic principles, essentials and constants, magnitudes of order offering something to go by and laws providing absolute certainty, i.e. operating and recognizable in accordance with strict necessity, which, if comprehended, would lead man to exalted virtue and supreme happiness.  It was therefore anything but stubborn “Rechthaberei” but a pursuit, as profound as it was spiritually ennobled, of what was thought to be the only passable way to banishing from thought illogical multiplicity and inexplicable change.  But at the same time it was believed that this would lead to the elevation of man, with heart, soul and mind, to the highest peaks of this Being to be discovered, the only true and eternal lasting one.  However, this penetration to the very heart of truth was possible only after elimination of all contradiction, change and decay, of every aberration and denaturization, of false appearance and (as we would say today) of optical illusion, but equally of evolution, illusions about the future and delusions about progress.

Nevertheless, there was one who spoke out against this firmly anchored and unshakable doctrinal structure.  This was possibly one of the greatest - and again least understood - thinkers of all times, Heraclitus of Ephesus (Ca. 540-480 B.C.).  Even Socrates did not entirely understand him, and hence he acquired the nickname of “the dark philosopher”.  Indeed he compared himself to “the sibyl oracling in ecstasy who, possessed by God, proclaims the hard, unadorned truth”.  He was a champion of free philosophical thought, the forerunner of the later critical Sophists, Cynics and Sceptics, the inspirer of the Socratic, dialogical method of thought, a grand master of the paradox, the founder of the philosophical dialectics of motion, the inventor of the logos - later borrowed by Christian theology and, after a flood of conflicting commentary, still extremely complicated.

60 Index

Some of his celebrated pronouncements, recorded in preserved fragments of the oldest known Greek philosophy, this time in prose form, have been handed down to our day.  “Everything flows” (panta rhei), “one does not bathe twice in the same stream”, “struggle is the father of all things”, “nothing is permanent except change”, “day and night, youth and age, waking and sleeping are the same”, “unity through conflicting endeavor” and “discord produces the greatest harmony” are among his most celebrated aphorisms.  They re-establish the reconciled unity of opposites (coincidentia oppositorum), the union of each thing with its own counter-thing, stress with counter-stress, efforts pro with efforts con, action with reaction, recognition with denial, by elevating them jointly and upholding them as a high, comprehensive order of nature or the universe.  The eternal struggle of things, the constant changing Becoming and the lasting transciency are not the product of chance but in turn themselves obey the eternal basic law of the true and essential supreme harmony.

To quote another of his finest paradoxes, “the finest cosmos is like a dung heap thrown up by chance”.  For, though pure beauty and justice prevail in a universe governed by divine reason, in our earthly human reflection of this ordered scheme of the universe beautiful and ugly, good and evil, justice and injustice, Being and Becoming are de facto interwoven.  The wise, infinitely deep reason of the human soul can and must try to follow and to grasp the eternally existing, unearthly reality, and thus try to substantiate it ultimately as alikewise earthly harmony.  This is, at the same time, one of the oldest and most elevated attempts to reconcile divine and human power.

Heraclitus uses in his aphorisms “die Magie des Extrems”, to borrow a description which his fellow spirit Nietzsche applied to his own philosophy.  In this way he links in concentrated fashion the rational and the irrational, the logical and the illogical, the capricious fluctuations of reality with the laws or rules which in turn apply to these fluctuations too.  He effortlessly combines the “from everything one” with the “one from everything”.  The whole and the parts, Being and Non-Being form one homogeneous, all-embracing totality.  In brief, Heraclitus sets against the static world of Parmenides and Zeno dynamic reality.  Thanks to a synthesis of opposed predicates he creates the dynamics which, in his own words, is an “eternally living reality, which at once embraces birth and death, Being and Becoming, and the perfection of God”.  It is this synthetic view of “Ganzheit” that contains “satiation and hunger”, “war and peace” and welds these, just like other antipoles, into a significant twofold unity.  Also or precisely to the extent that war and hunger in themselves are entirely pointless and therefore ought to be abolished in the future.

However, Heraclitus knew in advance that he would not be heeded as a philosopher.  His work begins with the sad but wise words: “This logos exists for all eternity - but people are not prepared to follow it, neither before nor after they have once listened to it”.  People, he argues, must listen and under-


stand what they hear, but they willfully avoid doing so.  In this way Heraclitus posits indirectly both the dogmatic attitude of mind and the fundamental freedom of man, and he appeals to the task which they are obliged to fulfil as a result of the latter intellectual freedom, which has repeatedly to be regained.  This is an ethical task, above all in respect of the other and better human existence on earth to be aimed at in the future, which he reliberated philosophically from the stifling strait-jacket all around it.

There are three reasons why I went somewhat more deeply into this philosophical prehistory.  The first is because it is perhaps the most instructive and the least known.  Secondly, because the principal philosophical contrasts that come to the fore in it have dominated thinking, but then mainly in the Eleatic direction of Parmenides and Zeno, which was deliberately preferred to that of Xenophanes and Heraclitus.

But there is a third reason which I personally consider so important that it will repeatedly thrust itself into the foreground in this work in changing contexts.  Why was there, from of old, this repeated return to, and then election of, the unchangeable, immobile Eleatism?  The principal explanation lies in the insatiable, uncheckable human urge for philosophical and scientific certainty.  Certainty is ultimately preferred to and more highly valued than the truth.  The longing for indubitable certainty is always at the bottom of every dogmatics.  The fear of uncertainty forms its strongest protestation, lack of intellectual courage its cover, inner weakness its fortress.


b) Socrates, Plato & Aristotle

Fortunately, in the course of history critical judgment could not be silenced always or for good.  After the Sophists had initially continued or exaggerated the theories of Heraclitus to such an extent that everything flowed and not the slightest certain knowledge or fixed moral standard remained, Socrates went back to the beginning to seek a refoundation for the lastingly good, just and true human values to be realized in liberty.  As is well known, he paid for this freedom with his life by draining the cup of hemlock.  Plato carried on the work.  He included elements from his predecessors, from Parmenides, Heraclitus, the Pythagoreans (Timaeus) and from Socrates, in his mathematical, scientific and philosophical system.  He also, as he admitted, committed “parricide” with respect to Parmenides by at the same time incorporating Non-Being.  However, Plato too was obsessed by the Eleatic hunt for the essentially permanent and the absolutely constant.  It was from this source, among others, that his eternally valid ideas and his doctrine of the universalia sprang.

In his turn Aristotle again rebelled against his teacher Plato.  But he too ultimately adopted, in somewhat amended form, precisely what he had initially attacked most fiercely.  I mean his doctrine of eternal substance, of fixed categories and of immovable syllogisms - in short his entire doctrinal system.  For centuries this was to have both a vigorously stimulating effect on continued philosophical thought and an equally vigorous inhibiting influence through his coercive thought models - on free scientific thought.  Inter-


twined with older theological thought models, such as Augustine’s, it dominated the religious thought systems evolved in particular from the 12th to the 14th century, culminating in Thomas Aquinas.  The essential Being and the divine norm, the true and perfect, Sein und Sollen, Christianized philosophy and Christian revelation coincide in these for over three centuries.


c) Renaissance

However, to win new freedom of philosophical thought, new blood had to flow.  Three main streams of development were finally to intersect and meet in the person of the Dominican Giordano Bruno, who was burnt at the stake in Rome in 1600.  One of these streams began with a revival of natural philosophy in Paracelsus, at the same time a start of a renovation of medical science and chemistry, among other things.  A second stream began with a renewed mysticism, especially in Meister Eckhart, who in turn exerted considerable influence on Nicholas Cusanus.  A third commenced with free empirical research, continued against tremendous opposition by Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo, vigorously advocated by Bacon and crowned with success by Newton’s synthesis.

Their repercussion on current philosophy too reflected the enormous influence of these new ideas.  For Descartes freedom to indulge in critically thinking doubt was basic.  Cusanus was to emanate his emancipated and liberating spirit to deep into the Renaissance, especially with his work “De docta ignorantia” (1440) (“Of learned ignorance”), in part indirectly via Bruno, and his influence was still to be felt two centuries later by Spinoza (who in 1656 was condemned in his own circle and banished from Amsterdam).  Many lines finally met in the universal genius of Leibnitz, who simultaneously embodies much of Aristotle as well as more modern religious, philosophical and scientific insights.

Even in Kant, the All-Zermalmer in the field of religious dogma, the idea of divine laws of nature still lived on more or less unimpaired.  However, this did not prevent him from, ethically speaking, drawing up a categorical imperative - recalling Heraclitus - and thinking ahead in daring fashion to a future of eternal peace attainable by man.


d) Hegel & Marx

But it was not until Hegel that there was a real recovery or rather breakthrough of the dynamic-dialectical movement in philosophy.  In him the rational world spirit traversed world history in spiral form, sometimes descending, then rising, via the repeated triad thesis-antithesis-synthesis.  In his theory this spirit, ultimately striving heavenwards, left its marks in that history in dual, interconnected fashion.  Firstly, in accordance with the law discovered by Hegel (in aphoristic form): “die Weltgeschichte ist das Weltgericht”.  That is to say, as the stairway still ascending from the past, despite - or thanks to punished irrationally, nonsense and immorality, leaving this past permanently behind it.  Secondly, as the gradual climb to an ever-higher level of mankind, by means of a rational self-awareness developing, with dialectical counter-movements, towards the future.  Unfortunately Hegel himself put an abrupt


stop to that historically progressing idealism, proclaiming that the highest plane of perfection of this rising and falling process of intellectual evolution had been or would soon be reached in his own time in his native Prussia, as the completion of metaphysics.  With him and through him, still during his lifetime, this grandiose, rational course of development would, Hegel asserted, have broken through to the final state of complete fulfilment and immutable perfection and would then be brought to a final halt.

As is known, Marx adopted dialectics, merely reversing the philosophical signs and converting it into a historical materialism active in the successive economic systems of production.  I shall return separately, to this in a later chapter. 1  What is principally of importance here is the much cited pronouncement by Marx (in one of his propositions on Feuerbach’s work): “Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert; es kommt darauf an, sie zu verändern”. Philosophy must therefore, in his view, not only examine, but also create and re-create. 2  Nobody will deny today Marx has in fact changed the world.  And yet in his system of strictly natural laws of motion, operating with necessary dialectics, a principle of immobility and fossilization was also inherent.  I shall leave open the question whether Marx intended this himself, or whether interpretation of his theory as a realization and thus termination of philosophy could not but lead to this.  After the complete fulfilment of the law, i.e. after the expropriation of the expropriators, after the assumption of power by the formerly exploited proletariat, after the introduction of the classless society and after the abolition of the State, and also of capitalism, private property and the profit motive - what motion could then still be initiated by what law?  Marx himself did not wish to fill in this future.


e) Comte

Such contradictions were equally contained, and found increasing expression, in the great philosophical system of Comte.  Once again his great merit is that, beside and against the artificially fixed statics, he devoted very great attention to a theory for building up social dynamics, for which he had in particular predestined the brand-new sociology that was to be created.  However, to put it briefly, he halted between two main lines of thought, which were irreconcilable with each other.  On the one hand for this dynamics he gave a central place to a tripartite law of development (“loi des trois états”), which in his view developed from the past to the future in accordance with the triptych theology - metaphysics - positivism.  However, this in itself eminently progressive positivism (which after all deliberately wrested itself free from all former dogmatic prescriptions of theology and metaphysics choking off free science) ultimately - and indeed inevitably - entailed a new, coercive theory of science.  A renewed scientific theory, according to which the practice of science, as is known, was from then on permitted to be founded only on the processing of experimentally verifiable empirical facts.  On the other hand his own (and in actual fact his only) main law of such as three-stage development


could not possibly be derived from experience; it was and remained mainly speculative, in fact even dogmatic.  No wonder that Comte, initially going ahead with great intellectual power, finally himself became the conservative founder of a new metaphysics and even religion.  With this reversion to the two theological and metaphysical scientific stages, which he initially overcame and eliminated respectively, he too largely closed the door again on free thinking for the future.


f) Nietzsche

It proves particularly problematical to draw up new thought and future models which are not later reconverted into coercive formulas.  A further typical instance of this may be found in Nietzsche, a rebellious spirit and a nihilistic break-through specialist.  And yet even he throws speculation about the future into irons again, notably by his invention, which he himself so boundlessly admired, of the “ewige Wiederkehr des Gleichen”, which repeatedly thrusts the future back into the past.


g) Bergson

Another example. In his “Evolution Créatrice” Bergson gives an iron-clad refutation of Zeno and his Eleatic school.  With his “élan vital” he breaks through the absolutization of the eternal present and again gives priority to the motion of fluid Becoming.  He absorbs the latter in duration (“durée”).  However, it almost seems as if the future as a separate entity nevertheless sinks like a stone in this infinitely progressing duration.  Indeed, Bergson says in so many words that the future of mankind is not determined but dependent on itself, and also that mankind needs a “supplement d’âme” for the favorable development of that future.  However, it cannot be said that in this philosophy the future acquires as such a clear shape, let alone a dimension of its own.


h) Teilhard de Chardin

In Teilhard de Chardin, on the other hand, the primary orientation towards the future is very much in the forefront.  But this fascinating view is so intermingled with a specifically Catholic, partly mystical and perhaps even, for the outsider, deliberately dogmatic metaphysics and theology (philosophy of history and salvation theology respectively), that as a result the pure philosophical and scientific intentions are rather pushed into second place or even obscured.


i) Heidegger

Meanwhile the systems of Heidegger and Teilhard themselves are in danger of contributing building blocks to new, compulsory thought models.  A complicating factor here is the break-up of existentialist or related philosophy into entirely different trends (Heidegger, Jaspers, Sartre, Marchel, Le Senne, Merleau-Ponty, and others).


j) Polak

My own philosophical position, if I may put it that way, is very briefly as follows 3 :

(1) I think about the future, therefore I am and can be a human being;

(2) The future is partly knowable for man: thinking back = thinking forward;

(3) Anyone who ponders the future will learn that this is still open to a


considerable extent that can be further determined from case to case, and that consequently man can determine his own future destiny to a considerable extent and in collective fashion.  He can do so by appropriate control and if necessary redirection or even purposeful re-creation of the future;

(4) Determining one’s own destiny implies two things: ready acceptance of a stewardship for the future and of the duty to make a choice;

(5) Everyone must therefore be able to have access, as soon and as completely as possible, to all available data for, and possible consequences of, this choice to be made.  This must include its most probable favorable and unfavorable possibilities, its good chances, its threatening danger, its adventurous results and inevitable risks;

(6) For this purpose everyone, choosing in complete freedom and on his own responsibility, must be able and permitted to utilize all the philosophical and scientific thought models useful for this vital choice;

(7) Thought models, or models of the future, are useful insofar as they can reasonably contribute towards the optimum realization of man’s future-directed wishes and actions in a given situation or period;

(8) Optimum realization aims at a harmonious synthesis of effectiveness and justice in the furthest possible surveyable part of future time;

(9) The effectiveness to be aimed at calls for the application and refinement of all conceivable prognostic techniques for adding to knowledge of the future, including those which can be effectively developed over an ever-wider time scale.  The justice to be sought calls for constant reflection on the desirable, realistic objectives that are capable of realization in any given temporal and spatial force field.  However, this reflection cannot be dissociated from simultaneous research into the highest objectives planned long-term and for the time being completely unrealistic;

(10) All objectives meet in the endlessly continued approach to and progress towards the ideal “summum bonum”, though this, the most valuable humanistic good of a full human society, may perhaps never be capable of realization in total perfection.



The Competitiveness of Nations

in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy

August 2002

AAP Homepage