Counterfactualism and Anticipation
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Most attempts at forecasting the future depend, explicitly or implicitly, on knowledge about the past, whether this is then used to offer possible analogies or to support normative theories with data about past events and trends. This approach is open to criticism both on the grounds of its assumptions about continuity and a tendency towards deterministic thinking, and on the grounds that our knowledge of the past is less secure and more discursive than such attempts at prediction assume. Counterfactualism, the development and exploration of accounts of ‘what might have been’ – which can be focused on obtaining better understanding of the past, or on refining theories of the present, or on speculations about the future – offers an alternative approach that emphasises the openness of historical developments. Its primary role is not to improve forecasting but to highlight its limitations, to expand our knowledge of how humans think about the future and the cognitive biases that dominate such thinking, and to establish the ethical imperative of engaging with possible futures. The qualities which make counterfactualism a marginal and suspect activity within historiography and social science are precisely those whichmake it an essential aspect of the discipline of anticipation.
This is the author accepted manuscript.
In: Handbook of Anticipation - Theoretical and Applied Aspects of the Use of Future in Decision Making, edited by Roberto Poli