Bertrand de Jouvenel-Nature 0f Future






This article is on pages 277 to 283 of Toffler's book "The



Futurists", which was published in 1972. Please see 
"Introduction-Flechtheim and deJouvenel" article posted
separately for intro of the author.



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ON THE NATURE OF THE FUTURE

Bertrand de Jouvenel

{No book has had a more powerful philosophical
influence on today's futurists than THE ART OF
CONJECTURE by Bertrand de Jouvenel, the gifted
French political economist and philosopher. For
de Jouvenel, there is never a single tomorrow--the
future consists of a fan-like array of possibilities,
alternative futures that man can shape. THE ART OF
CONJECTURE, a book written in classic essay form,
is the source of this article.- Alvin Toffler 1972}

There is a difference between the nature of the past and that of
the future. It should hardly be necessary to emphasize that I am
referring here to the difference that is perceived by the mind
of an active human being.

With regard to the past, man can exert his will only in vain; his
liberty is void, his power nonexistent. I could say: "I want to be a
former student of the Ecole Polytechnique" but this is utterly
absurd. The fact is that I did not go to the Ecole Polytechnique, and
nothing can change this fact. Imagine that I am a tyrant and that my
authority is sufficient to have the school records changed so that
they show me as a member of the class of 1922. This would merely
record a falsehood, not a fact. The fact that I did not go to the
Ecole Polytechnique cannot be changed. The fundamental impossibility
of changing the past accounts for those very important moral
sentiments--regret and remorse.

But if the past is the domain of facts over which I have no power,
it is also the domain of knowable facts. If I claim to be a graduate
of the Ecole Polytechnique, evidence is easily assembled to prove
me a liar. It is not always so easy to determine whether alleged
facts are true or false, but we always consider that they are in
principle verifiable. The impatience and irritation we feel when
faced with conflicting testimony bearing on the same fact are signs
of our deep conviction that this factum is knowable. And in such
a situation we do not hesitate to say that one of the witnesses who
presented testimony must have been lying or mistaken, even
though we may not know which one was actually at fault.

On the other hand, the future is a field of uncertainty. What will
be cannot be attested to and verified in the same way as an
accomplished fact. When I say: "I saw Peter on my way here," I am
testifying, but when I say: "I shall see Peter on my way back," I am
making a supposition. If we are faced with two conflicting opinions
regarding a past event, we try to determine which one is true: if we
are faced with two conflicting opinions regarding a future event,
we try to determine which one is more plausible. For, in the latter
case, we have no way of arriving at certainty.

It seems, then, that the expression "knowledge of the future" is
a contradiction in terms. Strictly speaking, only _facta can be known;
we can have positive knowledge only of the past.

On the other hand, the only "useful knowledge" we have relates
to the future. A man wishing to display his practical turn of mind
readily says: "I am only interested in facts," although quite the
opposite is the case. If his aim is to get to New York, the time at
which a plane left yesterday is of small concern to him: what
interests him is the takeoff time this evening (a' _futurum).
Similarly, if he wants to see somebody in New York, the fact that
this person was in his office yesterday hardly matters to him; what
interests him is whether this person will be in his office tomorrow.
Our man lives in a world of _futura rather than a world of _facta.

The real fact collector is at the opposite pole from the man of
action. One erudite scholar might spend years establishing the
facts about the assassination of Louis, duc d'Orleans, in 1407, while
another might devote his time to tracing Napoleon's itinerary day
by day. Here are _facta that could have no effect on our
judgments concerning the future and on our present decisions.

For this reason these _facta do not concern our practical man. If
he is interested in certain _facta, it is only because he uses them
in presuming a _futurum. For example, he may be worried about the
departure time of his plane. Tell him that this flight has left on
time for a long succession of days, and he will be reassured. He
regards these _facta as a guarantee of the _futurum, which is all
that matters to him. Now let us suppose that this man contemplates
buying a business that holds no interest for him except as an
investment. If the accounts show that sales have increased steadily
every year, he will derive from these figures a strong presumption
that this steady increase will be maintained in future sales.

The case of the business concern differs from that of the airplane
in two immediately apparent ways: first, a much larger stretch of
time is considered; next, and more particularly, the investor counts
on the continuance of the same change, whereas the traveler
counts on a simple repetition of the same phenomenon.

In both cases, however, the only use of the known _facta is as
raw material out of which the mind makes estimates of _futura. The
unceasing transformation of _facta into _futura by summary processes
in the mind is part of our daily life, and thus the undertaking
of conscious and systematic forecasting is simply an attempt to
effect improvements in a natural activity of the mind.

The scrupulous student of fact brands assertions about the future
as intellectual "adventurism": they are, he claims, the business of
charlatans, into whose company the sober-minded scholar should
not venture. Another, sterner critic admits that must perforce,
divert some of our attention from intelligible essences to things
as they happen to be, but proscribes speculation about their future
aspects as too great a diversion. A third complains that our
appreciation of the present moment is impaired when we cast our mind
to the uncertainties ahead. In turn, a moralist warns against a
concern with the future, lest the clear and immediate prescriptions
of duty be supplanted by selfish calculations.

No doubt these objections have some foundation; but the
representation of future changes is nonetheless a necessary factor
in our activity .

Routines help to save us efforts of foresight: if I have an
operational recipe, guaranteed to yield certain results, all I need
do is follow the instructions faithfully. Who would be so foolish as
to waste time trying out ways of cooking an egg or solving a quadratic
equation? It is scarcely necessary to point out that the vast majority
of our actions at present, just as in the distant past conform
to recipes. Accordingly, it should not be difficult for us to imagine
a society tied even more closely to recipes. At school, when we
failed to do a sum, the teacher would say that we had not done it
the right way, meaning the way we had been shown: similarly, we
can assume that, in the past, failure and misfortune were readily
attributed to departures from or breaches of the "right" practices.

Since we cannot live except in a social group, nothing matters
more to us than our relations with other men, and nothing is more
important to foresee than the way other men will behave. The more
their conduct is governed by custom and conforms to routines, the
easier it is to foresee. A social order based on custom provides
the individual with optimal guarantees that his human environment
is foreseeable. It is hardly surprising that the maintenance of a
familiar social order has always been regarded as a Common Good
whose preservation was essential.

Hence, aberrations of conduct were condemned, and change
was feared and regarded as a corruption. The idea of the security
afforded by the routine and familiar was so deeply ingrained that
even extreme reformers appealed to this notion, saying they asked
for no more than a return to the "good old ways." .

Our positive knowledge of our social environment consists of
knowledge of the present state of affairs (or, more precisely, it
is a composite image of more or less recent past states of affairs).
It would remain valid in its entirety, and for always, if nothing ever
changed, but this is impossible. However, the fewer changes we
anticipate, the more we can continue to rely on our knowledge for
the future. If society tends on the whole to conserve the present
state of affairs, our present knowledge has a high chance of being
valid in the future. On the other hand, the future validity of our
knowledge becomes increasingly doubtful as the mood of society
inclines toward change and the changes promise to be more rapid.

We are in the position of a tourist who is planning a journey with
the help of a guidebook that is already out of date. Under these
conditions, it would be imprudent to trust the guidebook blindly,
and we would be better off if we had the intellectual courage to
figure out where it is wrong and how it needs to be revised. As
foreseeability is less and less granted to us and guaranteed by an
unchanging social system, we must put more and more effort into
foresight. A saving of effort is possible in a society whose life is
governed by routines, whereas the exertion of foresight must
increase in a society in movement.

When we foresee or forecast the future, we form opinions about
the future. When we speak of "a forecast," we simply mean an
opinion about the future (but a carefully formed one). When we
speak of "forecasting," we mean the intellectual activity of
forming such opinions (serious and considered ones. but with an
uncertain verification). This needs to be stated clearly and
emphatically, particularly since aspirations the forecaster does
not, and should not, have are often attributed to him.

More than anyone else economists have made forecasting into
an important industry. They commonly use the term "prediction,"
which presents no drawbacks so long as it is correctly understood.
My colleague N. "predicts" that the sale of automobiles will
increase next year by so many thousand units: this means that after
mature consideration of all the relevant factors he could find, he
thinks this figure more likely than any other. But the strength of
the term is suggestive, and there is a danger of misapprehension:
the word seems to provide a completely certain verdict.

Any such misapprehension on the part of the forecaster's
audience is, I think, very dangerous. The persiflage that sometimes
greets the forecaster's work may madden him, but he must fear
skepticism far less than credulity. In all ages men have gathered
about fortunetellers, and when these persons achieve a recognized
position and are able to back their pronouncements with figures,
they will attract a rash of customers who accept their words as
"what science says." The forecaster who takes care to give his
best opinion does not want to make others believe that there is a
"science of the future" able to set forth with assurance what will
be. He is apprehensive of letting this misunderstanding arise. .

Our actions, properly so called, seek to validate appealing images
and invalidate repugnant ones. But where do we store these
images? For example, I "see myself" visiting China, yet I know I
have never been there and am not in China now. There is no room
for the image in the past or the present, but there is room for it in
the future. Time future is the domain able to receive as "possibles"
those representations which elsewhere would be "false." And from
the future in which we now place them, these possibles "beckon"
to us to make them real.

. the future is the domain into which a man has projected, and
in which he now contemplates, the possible he wishes to make real,
the image that is and will be, as long as it subsists in the mind, the
determining reason for his actions.

An assertion about the future is a perfectly ordinary occurrence.
In the bus, I overhear a stranger saying: "I will be in Saint-Tropez
in August." He "sees himself" in Saint-Tropez, although he is now
in Paris, as I could testify; couched in the present tense his
assertion would be an obvious untruth. But the future is available,
allowing him to assert something that is not now the case, but is a
future possibility. In August, an observer will be able to determine
whether the assertion has been proven.

It would be naive to think that over-all progress automatically
leads to progress in our knowledge of the future. On the contrary,
the future state of society would be perfectly known only in a
perfectly static society--a society whose structure would always be
identical and whose "Map of the Present" would remain valid for all
time! All the traits of such a society at any future time could be
foreknown. But as soon as a society is in movement, its familiar
traits are perishable: they disappear, some more rapidly than
others--though we cannot date their disappearance in advance
while new traits appear--traits not "given" beforehand to our
minds. To say the movement is accelerating is to say that the
length of time for which our Map of the Present remains more or
less valid grows shorter. Thus our knowledge of the future is
inversely proportional to the rate of progress.

Now let us consider public decisions. Suppose change is
accelerating: that is to say, an increasing number of new problems
arises in each unit of time (a year or a legislative session), and
questions calling for decisions are exerting increasing pressure on
the responsible men. It seems natural and even reasonable in such a
case to take the questions in order of urgency--but the results
show that this is a vicious practice. No problem is put on the
agenda until it is a "burning" issue, when things are at such a pass
that our hand is forced. No longer is any choice possible between
different determining acts designed to shape a stilt-flexible
situation. There is only one possible response, only one way out of
the problem hemming us in. The powers that happen to be submit to
this necessity, and will justify themselves after the event by
saying they had no choice to decide otherwise. What is actually true is
that they no longer had any choice, which is something quite
different: for if they cannot be blamed for a decision that was in
fact inevitable, they can hardly escape censure for letting the
situation go until they had no freedom to choose. The proof of
improvidence lies in falling under the empire of necessity. The means
of avoiding this lies in acquainting oneself with emerging situations
while they can still be molded, before they have become imperatively
compelling. In other words, without forecasting, there is effectively
no freedom of decision.