Polak‘s Pull from the Future

The Dutch sociologist Fred Polak was one of the most important driving forces behind European futures studies in the mid-20th century.

He published his essential work ‘The Image of the Future’ in 1955 in two volumes in Dutch, before Elise Boulding translated it in 1961 and then published it again in 1973 in an abridged version. The Image of the Future examines social images of the future throughout history and their influence on cultural development.

Fun fact: The abridged version is freely available as a PDF. But it seems to be based on a bad OCR scanning with lots of errors. The world is still waiting for a hero to find one of those rare print versions and do a proper scan.

Polak’s starting thesis in ‘The Image of the Future’ is the ability of human beings to live mentally in two worlds: the experienced present (“the self”) and the image of the future (“the other”).

All of man’s thinking involves a conscious process of dividing his perceptions, feelings, and responses and sorting them into categories on the time- continuum. His mental capacity to categorize and reorder reality within the self (present reality) and in relation to perceptions of the not-self (the Other) enables him to be a citizen of two worlds: the present and the imagined. Out of this antithesis, the future is born.

But human beings do not only live with this dualism because the future emerges from the dynamics between these two worlds. From Polak’s point of view, human beings can readjust their perception of the present by imagining the future and change their actions accordingly:

Man’s dualism is thus the indispensable prerequisite to the movement of events in time, and to the dynamics of historical change.

For Polak, however, not all members of a society are equally involved in this process. Instead, he sees the ability to receive images and ideas in dreams, visions, and other “imaginary encounters with the Other” only among elites. According to Polak, to broadcast the images of the future to the masses, they have to be translated. Legends, myths, and art play a significant role here.

Even the past can become a future imagination if it is imagined as an unattainable ideal:

The aching nostalgia for the time of unspoiled beginnings represents a kind of vision of the future—an image of unattainability.

Nevertheless, Polak sees the decisive reference point of Other in the future. For the future is the great unknown. And for Polak, exploring the unknown results from the primal instinct of human beings to survive and reproduce.

This spiritual overstepping of the boundaries of the unknown is the source of all human creativity; […] crossing frontiers is both man’s heritage and man’s task, and the image of the future is his propelling power.

Van der Helm summarizes Polak’s findings as follows:

[…] the present and past are no longer the predecessors of an unknown future, but on the contrary, the future is to a large extent the shaping source of the present and the past. The future pulls past and present as a magnet towards its realisation. The essence of man, therefore, has to be found in his ability to continuously renew his images of the future, which will push culture to move forward.

van der Helm, R. (2005). The future according to Frederik Lodewijk Polak: finding the roots of contemporary futures studies. Futures, 37(6), 505–519.

Herein lies the revolutionary understanding of the role of images of the future in his time. The general understanding to this day is that the future is formed from the past and the present. This is the basis for forecasts and scenarios and most other methods for dealing with an open future.

Polak, however, propagates a reverse understanding. In his understanding, the images of the future are the shaping force. They pull the present into the future.

It should be noted that Polak did not derive this understanding of the future from empirical studies but rather acquired it primarily through (historical) philosophy. Furthermore, in ‘The Image of the Future’ he focuses on images of the future in society:

We do not discuss private images of the future, but only shared public ones, not because there is a difference in the operational principles involved, but because we are primarily concerned with the Iarger social and cultural processes.

Polak describes various characteristics and aspects of images of the future, which he derives in particular from historical analysis.

The starting point for images of the future is the values they are based on.

Awareness of ideal values is the first step in the conscious creation of images of the future and therefore in the conscious creation of culture, for a value is by definition that which guides toward a “valued” future. The image of the future reflects and reinforces these values.

Accordingly, the images of the future express these ideal values of a society and reinforce them every time they are repeatedly conveyed (performativity). The decisive factor for Polak is that the nature of future images is not rational but, above all emotional. This gives them their power to change society:

The force that drives the image of the future is only in part rational and intellectual; a much larger part is emotional, aesthetic, and spiritual.

The performative aspect of future images ensures their “self-elimination.” The change they bring about in society alters the values as well as their dialectics and thus ensures the further development and re-emergence of future images.

From this premise, Polak examines in the further course of ‘The Image of the Future’ different eras for their dynamics between prevailing images of the future and cultural change.

For his understanding of images of the future, he cites two typical examples right at the beginning, which still have a lasting influence today: the ‘resurrection of Israel’ in the Old Testament and ‘the kingdom of heaven’ proclaimed by Jesus. He continues this consideration through various epochs up to the 20th century and comes to the following conclusion:

The rise and fall of images of the future precedes or accompanies the rise and fall of cultures. As long as a society’s image is positive and flourishing, the flower of culture is in full bloom. Once the image begins to decay and lose its vitality, however, the culture does not long survive.

As a sociologist, Polak derives from this thesis a necessity for a sociology of the future, which focuses on the question of how the interplay of images of the future and society functions over time, if, in his view, this leads to the rise and fall of cultures.

Stated in sociological terms, the problems are these: what is the relationship between fundamental changes in the social structure and changes in the reigning images of the future? Is there interaction between images of the future and the future itself?

In the first question in particular, parallels can be seen with other analysis models on the directions of impact between society and futures:

[…] we must examine and be as fully aware as possible of the influence on society of those images of the future already existing in the minds of political planners, scientists, and professional practitioners in every field.

This call can be read as a fundamental research task for critical futures studies, which analyzes existing images of the future and their impact on society.

‘The Image of the Future’ is characterized by Polak’s critique of the culture of his time. His main motivation to deal with the role of images of the future is the lack of positive images of the future he diagnoses in society. Again and again, he writes of a “culture crisis” or locates a vacuum where previously the images of the future were. In this way, a tendency can be observed to selectively seek evidence for his theses instead of weighing the pros and cons. Dennis R. Morgan points out that…

…the image of the future, as a vibrant, dynamic force pulling society forward, is truly a modern-born phenomenon, whose utopian nature forms a dialectical relationship within the idea of progress.

Morgan, D. R. (2015). The dialectic of utopian images of the future within the idea of progress. Futures, 66, 106–119.

In this respect, Polak‘s consideration of images of the future and their impact on ancient and medieval history can be classified rather as ideological. ‘The Image of the Future’ is thus to be understood primarily as a modern “manifest for active cultural politics.”

This text is an excerpt from my master’s thesis on future imaginaries. You can also find this text in the garden.

By Johannes Kleske

A critical futurist with a master's in futures research, partner at foresight studio Third Wave, lives in Berlin, Germany – more at linktr.ee/jkleske