Ossip K. Flechtheim- Futurology


This article is on pages 264 to 276 of Toffler's book "The Futurists", which was published in 1972.  See "Introduction-Flechtheim and deJouvenel" article posted separately for intro of the author.






Ossip K. Flechtheim



{The founding father of modern futurism, if there is one, may well be a mild-mannered German professor who, as early as the mid-1940s, began speaking and writing about the need for what he termed "futurology." Almost thirty years ago [i.e. 60 years ago, as Toffler wrote this preface in 1972, SamG], Flechtheim argued that universities ought to teach about the future. In this essay, he refers to "futurology" as a new "science." Even if systematic forecasting did no more than unveil the inevitable, he asserts, it would still be of crucial value. Alvin Toffler 1972}


Man's concern with the destiny of his tribe, city, or nation is perhaps as old as his preoccupation with the future of his soul and body. Many primitive peoples were fully absorbed in the problem of death and after-life. Of the ancient Egyptians we know that they attempted to preserve the bodies of their rulers for eternity. The hope of the early Christians for the Millennium is no less known.  However, as part of the secularization of Western thought the theological conception of human history as a brief chapter in the eternal book of God's creation, beginning with the Fall of Man and ending either with the Millennium or the Last Judgment, has long since been replaced by the this-world theory of progress. Divine perfection and human salvation were transplanted from the realm of a transcendent Heaven to a future Kingdom of God on Earth, toward which the historical process was aiming. This Millennium was no longer to be reached through death and salvation, but rather through the striving of mankind for improvement in time and space.  What Carl L. Becker calls "The Heavenly City of Eighteenth-Century Philosophers" was built with many earthly bricks.


If proof  is  needed,  we  have  the  enduring  testimony of the  Marquis de Condorcet who, when in 1793-1794 facing death, proclaimed his undying faith in both "the future progress of mankind" and the predictability of the "future destiny of mankind from the results of history":


The friend of humanity cannot receive unmixed pleasure but by abandoning himself to the endearing hope of the future. . . . If man can predict, almost with certainty, those appearances of which he understands the laws; if, even when the laws are unknown to him, experience of the past enables him to foresee, with considerable probability, future appearances, why should we suppose it a chimerical undertaking to delineate with some degree of truth, the picture of the future destiny of mankind from the results of history?...


In short, as opinions formed from experience, relative to the same class of objects, are the only rule by which men of soundest understanding are governed in their conduct, why should the philosopher be proscribed from supporting his conjectures upon a similar basis, provided he attributes to them no greater certainty than the number, the consistency, and the accuracy of actual observations  shall  authorize?  Our hopes,  as  to  the  future  condition  of  the human species, may be reduced to three points: the destruction of Inequality between different nations: the progress of equality in one and the same nation, and lastly, the real improvement of man.


Condorcet's voice echoes the radical ideology of the period Of the French Revolution, which in the nineteenth century Gradually changed into the more sedate and scientific theory of evolution. To Darwin and Spencer, the future appeared as gradually and unnoticeably evolving from the past; and as the present became ever more acceptable to the prospering middle-classes, the intellectual spokesmen of the age conceived of the future as constituting but a bigger and better present. Hence, the growing number of scientists naturally limited their investigations to the past of man or to the ever-recurrent present of nature. Though Comte might concern himself with the future, most scholars of the positivistic century consistently barred such concern from the halls of respectable learning; and it was only natural that the future should come to be monopolized by the "lunatic fringe" of the academic and literary world.


With all its scientific and technical dynamism, the Victorian period was an era of social stability when fundamental social change occurred too slowly for most people to be aware of it. As Whitehead puts it, down into the nineteenth century "the time-span of important change was considerably longer than that of a single human life." Small wonder then that the age-old view according to which the past, present, and future of society constitute but so many links in an unbroken chain, called human history, was slow to disappear.


We who were born into the Atomic Age are living through an up- heaval possibly surpassing in its impact the Neolithic and Urban Revolutions which, some 6000 years ago, opened the chapter of historic civilization. This is the first period in human history when universal basic change occurs within less than one generation. The rate of such change is increasing so rapidly that its effects Have already become extremely disquieting. At the same time science, one of the revolutionary factors, has been forever expanding regard- less of any signs of disintegration discernible in the social and political sphere. Increased concern about the future combined with the ability of science to deal with an ever-widening range of materials combine to create a condition generally favorable toward a scientific study of the future.


To be sure, the gravity of the crisis which science itself has in large measure produced is erecting new barriers of resistance against objective and uncompromising forecasting. For in the face of such uncertainty the average person is likely to repress his curiosity and concern by withdrawing into supposedly safer though probably illusionary shelters. Some retire, indeed, into what Walter Lippmann once called "the peace of human privacy"; others attempt to forget the present by burying themselves in the archives of a dead past. Again there are those who spend themselves in meaningless pursuit of an episodic present. Others who do look at the future view it through glasses colored by their own subjective expectation and desires.


Yet, the nature of science induces its disciples to continue their search regardless of the outcome. They have been conditioned by temperament and training to devote their lives to knowledge for knowledge's sake with the prime purpose of widening the area of human comprehension. Pure social science is becoming almost as self-propelling and accumulative as pure natural science. Conse- quently, the ever-increasing pace of scientific exertion of all kinds is resulting in the accumulation of an impressive body of material dealing not only with the present and the past, but also with the future. During the last hundred years, the birth and growth of a scientific natural history, sociology, and anthropology have yielded a series of significant and serious predictions. Still more recently, the development of a dynamic psychology with its application to the problems of society is removing another obstacle toward the understanding of the present and future of man and his world.


Naturally, the social sciences automatically reflect our general unrest and uncertainty. At the same time, the natural sciences are undergoing a crisis of their own. Inasmuch as specialization has led to contradictory conclusions, basic assumptions have become doubtful and are being re-examined. From the coincidence of these two crises, the need for a rigorous and thorough re-integration of all  knowledge is felt more keenly than ever.  To meet this need, attempts in three directions are under way. First, we can discern a renewed interest in philosophy which, drawing upon the exact sciences, is once more attempting to integrate the universe sub specie aeternitatis. Second, a philosophically minded school of history is now using the past to focus upon the totality of all human endeavor. Third, philosophically oriented sociology and anthropology are laboring to encompass the entire human reality from the standpoint of the present. Closing the last remaining gap, "Futurology" will undertake to discuss man and his world in the hitherto forbidden future tense.


The question, of course, arises whether such an undertaking should be characterized as a new science when it probably suggests to the reader only a congeries of claims, based upon broad generalizations and fragmentary findings, which lack the unity of content and method of organization of more established sciences. It is therefore imperative to examine the peculiarities of Futurology. While no attempt will be made to present those findings which already exist, the following basic issues are to be considered: What is the exact meaning of Futurology? What is its contents? What are its methods? How reliable is it? What function does it have, and what are its prospects?


The present author having suggested the term "Futurology," prefers to leave it up to the reader to think of Futurology either as a science or as a "prescientific" branch of knowledge. For much will depend upon our definition of the term "science." If we think of the term only in the original meaning of "exact science," Futurology will, no doubt, not qualify as a science. On the other hand, we may well accept J. H. Robinson's broad definition of science: "Science is nothing more or less than the most accurate and best authenticated information that exists, subject to constant rectification and amplification, of man and his world. . . . Science, in short, includes all the careful and critical knowledge we have about anything of which we can know something."' If we thus define science broadly as a system of organized knowledge concerning the facts of a particular subject, Futurology may pass as a science not so different from some of the humanities (for instance, musicology) or from the social sciences (for instance, history or political science).


But what distinguishes Futurology from the other disciplines? We know that the borderline between the various branches of knowledge is not a hard and fast one; it is subject to permanent change. In time new insights lead to new sciences. Sometimes the discovery of new material causes a branch of learning to split off the common tree. When information about the physical world began to increase, the sciences of nature separated from their mother discipline philosophy. Much later as a result of revealing investigations about the specific functions of the human mind, psychology emancipated itself from philosophy. Contrariwise, time and again hitherto dispersed findings are brought together and integrated into a new discipline which treats the same materials in a new way.  Thus sociology, the generalized study of society, or history are younger than some of the more special sciences upon which they draw. Since Futurology does not so much deal with a new and special segment of knowledge, but rather represents a new synthesis of varied materials, it is closely related to history and could indeed be pictured as a projection of history into a new time dimension.  In the absence of written or unwritten records, however, Futurology must make use of a different method of approach. It cannot work with the chronological sequence of detailed facts: instead it will avail itself of interpretation, generalization, and speculation to a considerably higher degree. In this respect, its kinship to cultural anthropology, theoretical sociology, and social philosophy becomes apparent.


Indeed, if the relationship between sociology and the other social sciences was better established, we could be tempted to think of Futurology as a division of sociology resembling that branch of sociology sometimes called "historical sociology" and summarized by Howard Becker as "an aspect of sociology in which data from the past, ordinarily defined as history, are utilized for predictive generalization rather than for the presentation of unique, particular- ized wholes." Historical sociology and Futurology differ, however, primarily in so far as historical sociology stresses retrospective and hypothetical predictions, whereas Futurology limits itself to actual prospective developments trying to establish the degree of their credibility or mathematical probability.


These two crucial concepts are defined by Bertrand Russell as follows:


... Two different concepts each, on the basis of usage, have an equal claim to be called "probability." The first of these is mathematical probability, which is numerically measurable and satisfies the axioms of the probability calculus: this is the sort that is involved in the use of statistics. . . . This sort of probability has to do always with classes, not with single cases except when they can be considered merely as instances. But there is another sort, which I call "degree of credibility." This sort applies to single propositions, and takes account always of all relevant evidence. . . . In some cases the degree of credibility can be inferred from mathematical probability, in others it cannot; but even when it can it is important to remember that it is a different  concept.  Though "degree of credibility" is a wider and vaguer conception than mathematical probability, it is not purely subjective . . . it is objective in the sense that it is the degree of credence that a rational man will give... In relation to any proposition about which there  is  evidence, however inadequate, there is a corresponding degree of credibility, which is the same as the degree of credence given by a man who is rational.'


For an illustration of the difference between a prognosis with a high degree of credibility and an accidentally accurate prophecy, let us contrast two forecasts concerning the first and the second world wars. Frederick Engels ingeniously combined decisive trends in interrelated systems when, a generation before the outbreak of World War I, he predicted prolonged two-front trench warfare and a stalemate in the West as well as a Russian defeat and revolution in the East. On the other hand, H. G. Wells, who in 1933 prophesied the outbreak of World War II with only a few months' margin of error and quite correctly as an outgrowth of a German-Polish conflict about the Free City of Danzig, may have stepped beyond the limits of more or less reliable forecasting into the twilight of pure chance.


Mathematical probability is the tool used for the understanding of that segment of future social reality which, in its structure, resembles the world of nature. Wherever actions and relationships of relatively large numbers of analogous persons or groups are under investigation which are recurrent and unchanging over a certain period of time, the quantitative method typical of the exact sciences can be applied and the probability of future occurrences can be numerically determined. According to Professor Phelps, "predictions improve in accuracy when they are based upon trend- lines and probable error and reach their highest validity in the statistics of the insurance actuary."


More recently, trend predictions have been ventured with increasing accuracy in the fields of population movement and business fluctuation, and they are making headway in education, psychology, and criminology. With the help of statistics, changes in public opinion and election results are now forecast regularly.' In many instances, such mass phenomena can be correctly predicted by statistical means though the future behavior of the individual component of the mass may be completely unpredictable.


Nevertheless only part of the data concerning the future can be reduced to numerical series. In all social sciences, significant phenomena must be understood in their relative uniqueness, their complexity, and their interrelatedness with the whole fabric of culture. Wherever we deal with unique phenomena, we have to be satisfied with a qualitative statement of credibility which results from a combination of inductive and deductive reasoning.


"Objective (developmental) thinking." to use Harold Lasswell's term, "includes the evaluation of newly invented ways of moving toward the goal, and embraces the products of creative imagination about the ways and means of policy." Thus particular elements must be viewed in their functional relationship to the whole; specific qualitative  regularities  must  be  discovered  that  reveal  the growth of a social phenomenon. In attempting to establish such patterns, the scholar constructs, within a relatively closed system, a pure type of the phenomenon under investigation, which shows both the enduring design of a social structure and its capacity for organic change.


The sociologist MacIver intimates that "all prediction . . . is based on the assumption of a relatively closed system." "the continuance of which we can reasonably predict on the assumption that no invading or eruptive factor breaks or thwarts the prevailing routine." "It is this type of prediction not the prediction of sheer novelty that belongs within the realm of science." Unquestionably, the anticipation of totally new single facts and isolated processes remains impossible as it is dependent on our sense perception which operates only in the present.


"Sheer novelty" is. however, less frequent than MacIver's statement might suggest. For what appears to be an erupting factor in one relatively closed system may be discovered to constitute an integral and, therefore, predictable factor in another connected system. Thus the organization and judicial policies of the United States Supreme Court, once explored, can be projected into the future, and a range of possible or even more or less probable changes can be deducted. We cannot, however, state in terms of mathematical probability who will sit on its bench or what particular decisions will be handed down a decade hence.


Our age is characterized by the beginnings of social and economic planning, undertaken more comprehensively than was possible in earlier periods of our civilization. Theorists of planning like the late Karl Mannheim have claimed that our society is about to become planned in all decisive socio-cultural aspects. In reality, however, planning is practiced not in all regions of the world and in most instances, it does not cover all spheres of public life. As long as the world continues to be divided into a multiplicity of contending sovereign states, crucial complexes such as industry or agriculture, population or education are not yet subjected to world-wide planning. Hence, an all-inclusive science of global planning cannot yet develop. To the extent, however, that large segments of social reality are either partially planned or at least routinized, intelligent prediction can be ventured about the outcome of the interplay of the planned and unplanned complexes. In other words, while the world society of today is not yet subject to the universal unified control of any system, it is rationalized and stereotyped in sufficient areas to permit scientific prognoses that need not merely be guesswork or intuition.


Next the field to be covered by Futurology must be delineated. Because of its broadness, only the barest outlines can be drawn. Since Futurology encompasses the destiny of man, the future of his society, and the tomorrow of his culture, it must deal not only with his prospective biological and psychological evolution, but also with the entire range of his future cultural activities. Moreover, it includes all the natural (physical, geographical, etc.) factors and processes which will have a bearing on man and his culture in the times to come. In the exact sciences the bulk of investigations is concerned with quantitative determination of an infinite number of recurrent, and in that sense, "timeless" phenomena. Futurology can take in only the long-range hypotheses and theories concerning the prospects of the universe, the future evolution of the Earth, the tomorrow of its climate, flora, and fauna.


Second, Futurology tries to answer, as objectively as possible, the problem of the destiny of our civilization within the next cen- turies. Ever since the writings of Marx and Nietzsche this set of topics has increasingly stirred the imagination of the general public. Ever more frequently the following issues have been raised: Can we anticipate an uninterrupted growth of Western civilization along lines firmly drawn throughout its millennial history? More specifically, will the history of the future corroborate the theory that the class structure, the cultural exclusiveness, the power pyramid of previous periods will be retained in our own development?


Or will our civilization be characterized by a new functional organization, by the elimination of power, and by the growth of an inclusive world culture? Will the so-called "Civilizational Process," i.e., the developments in science, technology, and industry, a proc- ess which in the past has proven cumulative and progressive, irreversibly persist until it will have, for the first time in human history, transformed the planet into a single rationalistic and technological world civilization?


Or will the so-called social and cultural lag, which has become so painfully evident since Hiroshima, stop or even reverse this civilizational process? Is our Western civilization irrevocably doomed to decline as the result of economic crises and social upheavals, of bloody revolutions and deadly wars, leading up to a complete relapse into another Dark Age of primitivism and ruralism, localism and bestialism? In other words, will war and want, hunger and servitude prove passing clouds on a bright horizon or will they reveal themselves as the long shadows of death?


Over and above the long-range forecasts of natural history and the  middle-range prognosis of broad socio-cultural processes, Futurology is also interested in predictions of important short- term developments. Predictions of the growth of population in America or anticipations of the political trends during the next decades, analyses of business cycles and conditions during the coming months and years belong to the many themes of Futurology. Speculations about "The Dwarfing of Europe." "Whither France?," "The Prospects of Peace" are the inexhaustible topics of an age of rapid political change. A distinguished historian tried to answer the question: "How New Will the Better World Be?" while the director of a research institute discusses "The Future of Your Job and The Future of America's Classes during The Rest of Your Life." Conjectures concerning the "Religion of Tomorrow" or "The Future Independence and Progress of American Medicine" are as much a part of Futurology as a description of "What's in Store for Children."


It is evident that in this sphere of short-term forecasting the topics tend to become more numerous and more specific. In contrast to the more abstract and general speculations marking middle- and long-range developments, the immediate future in its concreteness and its nearness easily appeals to the public. At the same time, it is the fate of many short-term predictions to become outmoded before the scholar has had a chance to evaluate them in the light of more comprehensive and enduring trends. Under these circumstances all he can do is to verify retroactively the forecasts that had been made beforehand.  Unfortunately, material used in making short-range predictions is treated most unevenly. Some phenomena receive thorough and expert attention while others are left to sensation-craving journalists. Hence this area is at present the least integrated of all three segments of Futurology.


The function of Futurology will become fully evident only as it Grows, since its findings, even more than those of other social sciences, contain elements of considerable uncertainty. We do know that, in our utilitarian age when the utility of all rational knowledge is becoming increasingly doubtful, many will immediately question the need for a science of the future. Gone is the optimism of the Enlightenment and the Century of Science when the conviction prevailed that knowledge was power, and that it would in time enable man to become the master of his fate by giving him control over nature and society. In those days the findings of "pure science" no less than those of applied science were appreciated primarily for their contribution to the happiness and progress of humankind.


Today Ecclesiastes'age-old lament that "in much wisdom is much grief" and that "he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow" sounds in our ears with renewed vigor. It becomes ever harder to prove that increased knowledge inevitably leads to greater happiness or goodness. The pure sciences, so we are beginning to realize, reveal not only our potentialities, but also our limitations. Thanks to the applied sciences we possess not only the tractor, but also the tank. And while we are sure that the latter is a bane, we are by no means certain that the former is an un-mixed blessing. Hence all signs point toward the continued strength of the unscientific major ideologies of the day. Engaged in a gigantic struggle between institutions and systems, between ultimate valuations and ways of life, the great majority are likely to continue to interpret the present and future in terms of their parochial short-lived interests in wealth, power, and security.


True. it is theoretically possible that the total crisis will Reach such proportions that the antagonistic forces-mass ideologies, social movements, and world powers-will be evenly and precariously balanced. In that unique constellation an authoritative prognosis could be imagined to turn the course of events in the predicted direction, transforming itself thereby into an active force in world history. But whereas in a therapeutic relationship the prediction of the psychiatrist will frequently be instrumental in producing the predicted result, the socio-historical scene is characterized by forces of such magnitude and complexity that a perfectly stable equilibrium can hardly ever be achieved.


Supposing then that it is beyond the power of Futurology to shape the future nearer to our heart's desire, we must proceed on the assumption that it will have to restrict itself to telling us what is in store for us. In so doing, it will base its forecasts among other things upon our fears and hopes, our omissions and actions.  Still, if it were to show that our civilization was doomed, if it were to demonstrate that a new global war was inevitable, if it were to establish that a rejected ideology had the best chance of success, we would have no way of preventing these developments. Possibly many a friend of humanity will, under these circumstances, oppose a systematic attempt to lift the veil that hides tomorrow.


Concealing this truth would equal outright intellectual dishonesty, however. Moreover, even if it were true that complete ignorance is preferable to all knowledge, the fact remains that ours is not the choice between knowing and not knowing. There is no way of returning to a condition of "blessed innocence" our real and only choice lies between less knowledge and more knowledge.  And more knowledge about the days to come may, after all, help dispel some of the worst fears that are plaguing us. In this case, Futurology would on its part corroborate Pope's dictum that "a little learning is a dangerous thing." But even if Futurology were to confirm the gloomiest expectations of the pessimist, it could at least, like meteorology, serve the personal welfare of some favored individuals. As the weather forecast helps people to protect themselves against storms and floods, so futurological predictions might enable some to escape the social tempests, cultural deluges, and historical catastrophes. And if this lucky minority were to preserve not only their lives, but also some of the best social achievements and cultural values of the past, Futurology would have rendered some service to the future. By the same token, a knowledge of the future could help avoid disappointment which springs from vain and futile venture. Furthermore, a clear knowledge of the impending collapse of our society might be accompanied by the consolation that the Western civilization, in its disintegration, will become the seed of a new "higher" civilization.


To this future civilization and its intellectual equipment. Futurology would contribute its part, a part analogous to that played by the youthful sciences of nature in the Hellenistic world when, though unable to prevent the general breakdown, they nevertheless served as a foundation for the scientific advancement of subsequent civilizations. Finally, in our days a clearcut and unequivocal picture of the future could turn into a sublime personal challenge to those who are ready to withstand the inevitable with courage and conviction.