Future-forming interdisciplinary research

Horizons and the significance of historical context


One of the notions that is central to German historian Reinhardt Koselleck’s exploration of the relationship between the past and the future is what he called a horizon of expectation (Erwartungs-horizont), that is, the imagined domain that structures action in the present in the interest of a vision of the future which is often kept in check by a monopoly, call it religious, political, economic, cultural or otherwise.[1] An important part of what we do here in the ISF is to think about multiple ways in which we can involve multiple publics so that we develop a plurality of views about the future. Not one horizon, but many, however conflicting.

Historical context gives us important clues about how to handle divergent horizons of expectation, in the interest of opening up futures, which are inclusive and do justice to the pasts that precede them.

  • First, historical context is essential to understand what the meanings of the trends and the probabilities that forecasters identify in the past are. Trends do exist, but the circumstances and conditions under which they emerge differ across space and over time.
  • Second, historical context enables us to better connect past trends to actions in the present and the future, largely as a result of specifying their relevance as well as their limitations.
  • A third essential yet overlooked aspect of historical context concerns the routes not taken, that is, ideas and visions which were compelling, sought to change, for example, cities in the benefit of the poor and less privileged, but which were sidelined by other more powerful visions, or, perhaps more accurately, visions put forward by powerful interests.

One consequence of the transformation that Paris experienced in the 1850s and 1860s, for example, was the displacement of circa 350,000 people, largely the working classes and the poor. The displacement was caused by the vision of the emperor, Napoléon III and his prefect George E. Haussmann, who favoured housing speculation and wide boulevards, a model that underpins a good number of examples of what we now call gentrification and regeneration worldwide. Studying the historical context of that transformation, including the routes not taken, leaves us in a better position to understand how Paris changed then and with what consequences for Paris and other cities today and in future.

By Carlos López Galviz

[1] R. Koselleck, Futures Past On the Semantics of Historical Time. Translated and with an Introduction by Keith Tribe (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004 [1979])

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