Anticipatory systems and the philosophical foundations of futures studies



ISSN: 1463-6689

Article publication date: 1 June 2010


Miller, R. and Poli, R. (2010), "Anticipatory systems and the philosophical foundations of futures studies", Foresight, Vol. 12 No. 3.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2010, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Anticipatory systems and the philosophical foundations of futures studies

Article Type: Guest editorial From: foresight, Volume 12, Issue 3

First, a bit of history. This special issue is the fruit of a meeting on anticipatory systems that took place in Italy, at the University of Trento at Rovereto in April 2008. At this first meeting we did not know that FuMee (for Futures Meeting) would become a series. Although as futurists we might have had our suspicions since FuMee 1 followed another series of meetings, the COST A22 process on Foresight Methodologies. It is testimony to the inspirational nature of the subject and of the participants that FuMee 3 is slated for May 2010. What inspires, as is evident in this Special Issue, is the centrality of anticipatory systems for understanding both what is the future (ontologically) and how it enters into the processes of everyday life as part of the production of knowledge (epistemology).

Evoking and exploring anticipatory systems is an effective way to unpack the future and contribute to the foundations of “future studies” as a distinctive field of reflection. Roberto Poli, in the opening article, entitled “The many aspects of anticipation”, brings to the forefront the relationship between anticipatory systems and the philosophical foundations of foresight. As he underscores, a wide range of academic disciplines, from physics and biology to psychology and the various social sciences, address the issue of anticipation but without drawing out the distinction between the capacity to anticipate and the nature of the systems that make such anticipation possible. Poli’s distinction, illuminated in one way or another by all of the articles in this special issue, lays the foundation for clarifying the work of both researchers and practitioners in the foresight field.

Aloisius Louie’s article, “Robert Rosen’s anticipatory systems”, drills down into the question of defining anticipatory systems by providing an accessible and overarching presentation of the pioneering work of Robert Rosen. Louie, building on Rosen’s approach of a mathematical biologist, describes how even the most basic natural phenomena such as a tree that sheds its leaves can be understood as embodying an anticipatory system. As such “the future” becomes a constitutive part of the present, a “fact” produced by a model that is capable of accelerating time, placing the subject of the model in a not-yet existing future moment. What is striking about Louie’s overview of Rosen is how clearly the role of the model, the processor of the anticipatory system, is what “pulls the future into the present”. Here the focus is not on what is the future but critically how it is used.

Juan Ferret, in his article on “Anticipatory systems in physics”, tackles the question of what is the future from a specific angle – the inherent anticipatory nature of the universe. He argues that “all physical systems are anticipatory because they include final conditions in the constitution of the system itself and because motion requires the existence of external frames of reference”. From this vantage point anticipatory systems are not an accident and the meaning of the future as the “potential of the present” – a present that is in motion and is “frameable” – becomes more precise. This sets the stage for Vesselin Petrov’s article on the dynamic attributes of reality. In his article, “Dynamic ontology as an ontological framework of anticipatory systems”, Petrov argues that understanding reality as a process is a fundamental starting point for unified conceptualization of the future for both living and non-living systems. In sum, anticipatory systems are both basic building blocks of reality (Ferret) and constituent elements of a dynamic or changing universe.

The following article by Carlo Scognamiglio, “Anticipation and future vision in N. Hartmann’s ontology”, takes the next step, in a way building a bridge from the two preceding articles, that address “ideal” or eternal (a-temporal) categories like anticipatory systems and our dynamic universe, to the “actual” of the two subsequent articles, that treat anticipatory theories and practices in the current conjuncture as changed by time and history. Hartmann’s ontology helps situate the future as a “transcendent act”, a feature of subjective human consciousness. Scognamiglio points out:

… when we talk about the future, we are referring to nothing other than a representation of the future, an image, an idea. This image, which we conceive as a hope, a scenario, a forecast or a foresight, is always a “real” being, a present anticipation of the future. In spite of everything, the “future vision” is a “vision”, and is accordingly present in the mode of a mental act. The future, as such, does not have an ontological consistency. On the contrary, that “vision” has a very complex structure which can be found in the branch of Future Studies that analyses the phenomenon of anticipation and the nature of “anticipatory systems”.

In this way Scognamiglio connects, on the basis of a typology developed by Roberto Poli elsewhere (Poli, 2009), the ideal to the actual. The focus shifts to the human pursuit of goals, the interaction of intention and freedom in the present. Citing Bertalanffy, Scognamiglio notes that “true” anticipation is about human behaviour. But reconciling the spiritual and material through anticipation at the level of the individual does not mean that humans live in perfect freedom, imagining and then acting unimpeded to achieve their goal. Humans are social creatures, only partially in control of what we imagine and do. Unable to fully know the consequences of our actions or to accurately predict/anticipate the obstacles/opportunities that will occur along the path towards our intended ends; we turn to broader theories of change in the world around us.

Which is where the article by Jan Erik Karlsen and Erik F. Øverland, “Sociological contributions to futures’ theory building”, picks up the story. Human futures are social futures. On this basis they draw a strong parallel between sociology and future studies, arguing specifically for the reflexive-constructivist potential of the sociological imagination, a concept pioneered by C. Wright Mills some 50 years ago. Karlsen and Øverland see both a shared ambition and shared failure as sociology and foresight attempt to think about, debate and shape the order of things. And not surprisingly both fields suffer from conflicts within and between their ontological and epistemological wings. Foresight-as-prediction lives uncomfortably, sometimes very uncomfortably, with foresight-as-invention.

In the end, in a way that echoes Scognamiglio, Karlsen and Øverland detect elements of a way forward in the teleological realm of why, how and what people construct as they interact. But, this intentionality does not always occur in the same context. For Karlsen and Øverland it is critical to distinguish complex, uncertain and ambiguous situations and to not forget that this also means that the definition of time, its specific pace and duration, also varies across contexts and intentions. Their point is that both foresight and sociology need to tailor the tools to the context, a point that is made clearly in Pierre Rossel’s closing article, “Making anticipatory systems more robust”.

Rossel’s analysis starts with a different approach than the prior articles, using the example of a well-established foresight practice, the detection of weak signals, to nevertheless arrive at the same conclusion regarding the philosophical weakness of futures studies. He points out the severe limitations of the empiricist and deterministic conceit that the future is sending signals back to the present and all we need to do is become better at detecting and interpreting them. Then, continuing with the practical inspiration for his analysis, Rossel discusses the utility of framing (sense making assumptions) and meta-framing (criteria for sense making assumptions) at both the individual and collective levels. He does not however, fall into the trap of believing that this makes the future anything more than the real manifestation of what our imaginations can produce.

Which brings the discussion back to the search for methods that serve our anticipatory needs and are consistent with the nature of our universe. But, as Rossel stresses, even the most sophisticated tools for constructing or “running” the models within anticipatory systems cannot escape the limitations of our boundedness, our inability to be outside ourselves. And he reminds us of the fact that the concept of anticipatory systems is just another way of framing reality. In the end this Special Issue poses more questions than it answers. Is there a consistent, coherent, useful and verifiable way of understanding the future? What are the implications of different ways of defining the future for the practical challenges of intention and action? And as with any debate about “paradigmatic” foundations, what difference does it make?

One observation, to close off this introduction, is that we believe that this Special Issue may be one of many harbingers of a renaissance in the philosophical foundations of futures studies. One way to put this Special Issue in perspective is to look at the development of futures studies as a field of research over the past 50 years. Like with many fields it has gone through different phases and cycles. Without straying into a detailed discussion of why and how different aspects of the field fade and others come to the forefront, the editors of this Special Issue detect a resurgence of interest in the theoretical bases of futures studies. One that is reminiscent, if we look at the history of thought in the field, of the early days of futures studies in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Back then part of the motivation and opportunity to think about the philosophical foundations of futures studies arose from the urgency and scale of the tasks at hand. As articulated by the German philosopher Ossip Flechtheim, the role of futures studies should be to “eliminate war and establish a state of peace, to stabilize population growth, eliminate hunger, misery, oppression and exploitation, to democratize states and communities, to stop exploitation of nature and protect it from humans, to work against alienation and for the creation of a new homo humanus” (Ketonen, 2009). With such tasks in mind it is no wonder that Flechtheim paid close attention to the theory of the future and even proposed that schools should teach about the future (Flechtheim, 1972; Barbieri Masini, 2009).

In addition to the imperatives of reconstruction, on less horror prone foundations, there were the challenges posed by changing post-war societies. The context for thinking about change was changing, as noted by the French philosopher Gaston Berger. One of the founders, along with Bertrand De Jouvenel, of the French school of futures studies (“La Prospective”), Berger was attuned to the magnitude of the economic, social and technological changes taking place and how efforts to predict the future based on the past were not only inaccurate but at odds with the aspirations for freedom and diversity. As the French current in future studies argued, the real question is not how to foresee the future but how to be ready for a constantly changing world and how to make decisions that advance our preferred aims (Cournand and Levy, 1973).

Although they did not see predictive forecasting as a solution, they nevertheless found it difficult to escape from the idea the future is already in the present and hence the task of foresight is to discover “future bearing facts”. With hindsight this in-between position, rejecting determinism but finding only weak alternatives in practice, was also developing in the USA. Americans, at places like the Rand Corporation and the Hudson Institute led by Herman Kahn, worked hard to find ways to connect imagined futures and present choices. This was a fertile period for foresight techniques, like the Delphi method, but also over time for philosophers such as Nicolas Rescher, who started out at the RAND Corporation (Rescher, 1998, p. 28) and later became a leading exponent of process philosophy.

The untimely death of Berger, the passing away of Flechtheim, the move of Rescher to Pittsburgh all contributed to what can be seen as a relative hiatus in the development of the philosophical underpinnings of foresight. Between the time of De Jouvenel’s The Art of Conjecture in the latter half of the 1960s and end of the twentieth century the attention in futures studies was elsewhere. However during the past decade there has been a renewed interest. Thinkers such as Jay Ogilvy (2002), Bell (2003), Slaughter (2004), Inayatullah (2004), Adam and Groves (2007), Aaltonen (2007), and Malaska and Masini (2009) have all engaged in developing the philosophical foundations of future studies. We hope that this special issue will be considered a contribution to their worthy efforts.

Riel MillerFounder of XperidoX Futures Consulting, and a faculty member, Masters of Public Affairs, Sciences Po, Paris, France.

Roberto Poli Teaches Ethics and Futures Studies at the Department of Sociology and Social Research, University of Trento, Trento, Italy.

About the Guest Editors

Riel Miller is the founder of XperidoX Futures Consulting, and a faculty member, Master of Public Affairs, Sciences Po, Paris, France. Riel is a global specialist in designing and implementing strategic foresight projects. For over 28 years his work has concentrated on how to assess and direct the potential for socio-economic transformation in the private and public sectors. His clients range from Cisco Systems and Philips to the government of Ireland, the state of Catalonia, the government of Canada and the European Commission. Riel is widely published on topics ranging from the future of the financial sector and the internet to the future of schooling and social equity. He teaches around the world and is currently a faculty member of the Masters in Public Affairs, Institut de Sciences Politique (Sciences-Po), Paris, France. Riel is also currently a board member of the Association of Professional Futurists; a Fellow of the World Futures Studies Federation; a member of the board of Strax, The Research Unit for Strategic Intelligence and Exploration of the Future, Helsinki University of Technology; Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, UK; and a member of the American Economics Association and the European Economics Association.

Roberto Poli (PhD Utrecht) is editor-in-chief of Axiomathes (Springer), a peer-reviewed academic journal devoted to the study of ontology and cognitive systems, member of the editorial advisory board of Cognitive Semiotics and of the editorial board of Meinong Studies, editor of Categories (Ontos Verlag), member of the editorial board of Process Thought (Ontos Verlag), and the Academic Board of Directors of the Metanexus Institute, Philadelphia (see His research interests include ontology, in both its traditional philosophical understanding and the new, computer-oriented, understanding; the theory of values and the concept of person; and anticipatory systems, i.e. systems able to take decisions according to their possible future development. Poli has published four books, edited or co-edited more than 20 books or journal special issues and published more than 150 scientific papers. it. Poli teaches Applied Ethics, Philosophy of the Social Sciences, and Futures Studies at the Faculty of Sociology of the University of Trento.



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