Historians on the future

19:51 by Cornelius Holtorf

I am reading what historians have got to say about the future. Robin G. Collingwood (1956: 54) famously stated that

“The historian’s business is to know the past, not to know the future, and whenever historians claim to be able to determine the future in advance of its happening we may know with certainty that something has gone wrong with their fundamental conception of history.”

Behind this pessimism appears to be a rather narrow view of historians’ working methods, as Collingwood expressed elsewhere:

“We cannot know the future, just because the future has not happened and therefore cannot leave its traces in the present. The historian who tries to forecast the future is like a tracker anxiously peering at a muddy road in order to descry the footsteps of the next person who is going to pass that way.” (Collingwood 2009: 247-8)

But as a matter of fact, the past is not happening now either but exactly as the name suggests: past. The present contains clues of both past and future deserving to be studied, analyzed and interpreted in equal measure, says David Staley:

“We gain access to the future through a similar means by which we gain access to the past: indirectly, through an examination of evidence. […] Like evidence of the past, evidence of the future makes some future state or condition evident. If we wish to inquire into the future, we have little choice but to examine objects and processes that exist in the present, for all evidence—of both past and future—resides in the present.” (Staley 2007: 58)

Past and future are both equally material and elusive, real and imagined. Indeed, they are not polar opposites but closely connected. In the end, I am with Zoltán Simon who recently reminded his fellow historians that

“history – the very possibility of history – begins with the formulation of a vision of the future, that is, with the postulation of a future different from the present and the past.” (Simon 2018: 198)


Collingwood, Robin G. (1994) The Idea of History [1946]. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Collingwood, Robin G. (2009) Oswald Spengler and the Theory of Historical Cycles [1927]. In: A. Budd (ed.) The Modern Historiography Reader. Western Sources, pp. 245-250. London and New York: Routledge.

Simon, Zoltán B. (2018) History Begins in the Future. On Historical Sensibility in the Age of Technology. In: S. Helgesson and J. Svenungsson (eds) The Ethos of History: Time and Responsibility, pp. 192-209. Oxford and New York: Berghahn.

Staley, David J. (2007) History and Future. Using Historical Thinking to Imagine the Future. Plymouth: Lexington.

Cornelius Holtorf
In 2017, Linnaeus University in Kalmar, Sweden, was awarded a UNESCO Chair on Heritage Futures. This is one of eight Chairs in Sweden, and the only one within the cultural sector. Cornelius Holtorf, holder of the UNESCO Chair, alongside his team, will continue to generate ideas through this forum.

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