Epistemes and the Long Term Future (2002)

By Sohail Inayatullah

Forecasts of the future often assume that the larger epistemological context for events and trends are stable. However, taking a macrohistorical perspective – drawn from Johan Galtung’s and Sohail Inayatullah’s, Macrohistory and Macrohistorians and Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things – forecasts themselves are understood by the episteme that shapes them. For example, the likelihood of a particular technological development has a greater or lessor likelihood of occurrence depending on the nature of the episteme – the knowledge boundaries – that is current.

Epistemes are the larger and deeper paradigms of knowledge – reality – that contextualize the boundaries of what can be known. They interact with social, economic, technological and intellectual developments. At the most simple, epistemic history is seen in three stages: ancient (Greek or Roman), medieval (Christian middle ages) and modern (rise of the West), with the postmodern (the collapse of grand narratives) being the next likely stage.  In the Indian context, this is read as ancient (Hindu), medieval (Muslim) and modern (British/nationalism).

Economy and technology

Alternatively, more focused on economy as pivotal, grand thinkers argue for an agricultural, industrial and postindustrial schema, with these categories created by the means of production and the types of work done in each historical stage. This division allows theorists to argue for future stages such as a services age or even an artistic age.  Likewise, Comte and Spencer, whose categories of history and future are those that we live today, gave us primitive, modern and scientific (positivism) as historical stages, with the latter for all practical purposes being the final stage when truth is known, and all that is left to is to implement social and scientific laws.  It is this latter assumption of a unified historical and future framework, an unbroken grand narrative of social evolution, that guides many forecasts – probable, plausible, possible. They do not take into account the possibility of the entire framework of what is we consider nature and truth changing, of the emergence of new nominations of significance, of fundamental discontinuity.  Believing that the future will be data-led – focused only on current dominant drivers (economy or technology), we get logical scenarios based on short-run current understandings.

Alas, if only history and future were so simple. A macrohistorical view shows us quite the opposite, that all attempts to postulate the end of history, or the unending continuation of a particular social formation – whether capitalism or liberalism or modernism or communism or the religious vision of “heaven on earth” – are doomed to fail.

This is partly because the mechanisms of civilizational change are not only exogenous (planet change, asteroids) and endogenous (creativity, drive to dominate, dialectics) but interactive and mysterious, that is, unknown, epistemologically discontinuous.  Seen from this perspective the shape of the future of knowledge comes out quite differently.

Cyclical history and futures

The Indian philosopher P. R. Sarkar is perhaps most instructive. He finds evidence for four stages: worker, warrior, intellectual (priest) and merchant. Each social stage defines what is truth, the natural and the beautiful, more so each stage defines what is of significance. After the merchant stage, the cycle starts over. Thus to forecasts which assert that economic globalization will continue unabated, Sarkar points out that historically all systems exaggerate a particular type of power. Thinking forward 1000 years, we can well imagine the cycle going through many stages, with the current globalization of capital eventually leading to a globalization of labor, which will possibly lead to a more disciplined unified martial society (which will likely expand to outerspace, as martial civilizations tend to do, expand outward, that is). This stage of World Empire will then lead to another era where ideas about God and truth will flourish. Overtime, there will be a decline since intellectual ideals will not be able to deal with other factors of reality, leading to yet another focus on economics and wealth creation.

Sorokin also finds evidence of non-linearity in history. He posits that historical change follows the pattern of the pendulum. Civilizations move backward and forward between ideational societies focused only on the nature of truth to sensate civilizations focused on pleasure and capital accumulation. Each one swings too far, with integrative stages appearing on occasion. Thus, we should expect to see in the next hundred or so years, a swing away from the sensate to the ideational. In a 1000 years, there will be additional swings, a few hundreds year of each.

Emergence and evolution

The main point is that all systems are to some extent patterned and change is intrinsic in them. This is far more complex then the lay view that the decline follows the rise (although certainly there is historical truth to this) since there is novelty, emergence. As Vico wrote hundreds of years ago, the laws of social change are soft, the past never repeats in the same way.

Certainly then there is a role for individuals, for new technologies, for grand social movements, for bifurcation as Ilya Prigogine and other modern scientists have argued. However, is as well, argues Arnold Toynbee, imitation and thus eventual decline. But with all generational decline, a new era can be ushered in by a creative minority.  However, there are not endless possibilities to social structure, to the shape of the new era. There are only a few possible evolutionary structures (at this stage, at least): local, self-reliant culture systems; a new world church (ideational); a new world empire; or the “Wallersteinian” mixture of local polities and a world economy – the capitalist world economy we have today. There are not an endless array of social choices, just as for humans, biology and genetics “determine” the shape of what we are.

As with modern/postmodern thinkers, for grand cyclical historians, novelty too is part of the macroscope of time. For Sarkar and Sorokin, the pattern of history can change through directed leadership, directed social evolution. The cycle of history can be transformed to the spiral, the progressive movement of social evolution toward a more ideal society. However, the basic evolutionary pattern of the cycle – in Sarkar’s theory of worker/martial/intellectual/merchant – cannot change since these are evolutionary, historically developed.  Exploitation and human misery, war and domination can be ended but history does not end, there are always new challenges.

For Sorokin, there are only five ways to answer the question of what is real, what is true. Either the ideational world is truth; the sensate world is truth; both are true; the question is not important; or one can never know. Of the latter two categories, no civilization can be created.  From the former three, we get the ideational, sensate and integrated epochs. Johan Galtung has added the notion of contraction and expansion arguing that civilizations are often in different phases to each other. For example, the West and Islam are in counter-cyclical phases, taking turns being in contraction and expansion modes.  Chinese philosopher Ssu-Ma Chi’en, in contrast, saw history and future less in the context of bifurcation, of transformation, and more in terms of a harmony cycle. When the leader follows the tao, that which is essentially natural, then civilization flourishes, virtue reigns, however, overtime leaders degenerate and move away from learning. Virtue degenerates and harmony disappears.  Eventually, however, a new leader appears, a sage-king, and equilibrium is restored. The future then for Ssu-ma Chi’en can best be understand by examining how closely leadership is virtuous.

There are thus structural limitations as to what is possible, there are historical evolutionary patterns. But what is crucial of this discussion is that it is not just new technologies or human creativity that will create the future, but that these stages are the larger epistemes which define what is the true, the good and the beautiful, that frames how we think about the future. Epistemes do change – great humans create new discourses that change the nature of what it is to be; new technologies transform the nature of reality; and grand natural events as well change reality.   Thus, while macrohistorians give us patterns which will structure the future of society, these structures evolve interactively with the new (and many times the “new” is merely ephemeral, an old form that looks different because the epistemic basis of intelligibility, of recognition have changed).

Contextualizing factors

Often, however, we investigate the latter, and not the former, creating realities, that while interesting, do not give us insight into the mechanisms of past and future, since they do not account for the grant structures in history – the patterns of social and civilizational change. The factors analysed are done so from a short term data-heavy perspective, forgetting the overall episteme that shapes what constitutes data.  Instead of breaking new ground into the long-term factors impacting the future, forecasts merely restate the current politics of reality. While they assume that there will be fantastic new technologies or events they hold stable the foundational nature of reality, not contesting the epistemological and civilizational basis of political, economics and society.

However, by focusing on episteme we can gain a sense of what will be the overall paradigm of what it means to be human. The future nature of epistemes thus becomes a factor that interacts with forecasts of new technologies (external nature-domination or internal self-domination, for example), new movements, and new societies.

The best tack then is to develop a complex knowledge base of the future that is data, value and episteme oriented, that is thus inclusive of structure and agency, at individual, national, civilizational and planetary levels.