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Luhmann, Niklas, The Future Cannot Begin: Temporal Structures in Modern Society , Social

Research, 43:1 (1976:Spring) p.130

The Future Cannot
Begin: Temporal
Structures in
The History of the Future
THE history of the future does not reach back very far. Human
life, of course, provides always for an immediate future as well
as for an immediate past. This immediate time, this time at hand
of conditioned and conditioning events, has been distinguished
from a more distant past and a more distant future, both of which
tend to fuse in the darkness of a mythic time. Philosophy, later,
reconceptualized this view by a two-level theory of time, distin-
guishing eternal time and the time of changing events.
this conception of time, medieval philosophers felt no need to re-
flect a difference of existence and perpetuation, seeing creation and
preservation as one identical act of God. And they implied that
the mere succession of thoughts and events produced the idea of
time but could not change, as such, the relation between God and
His creatures.
It was only the structural change from traditional to bourgeois
society in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries which dissolved
this older notion and replaced it by a temporal structure that con-
1 For Neo-Platonic origins. cf. the texts edited by S. Sambursky and S. Pines.
The Concept of Time in Late Neoplatonism aerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences
and Humanities. 1971). Cf. also Pitirim A. Sorokin. Social and Cultural Dynamics,
of vols. (New York: Bedminster Press. 1937).2: 473 ff.
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Luhmann, Niklas, The Future Cannot Begin: Temporal Structures in Modern Society , Social
Research, 43:1 (1976:Spring) p.130
tains in itself the possibility of higher complexity. Arthur Love-
joy claims for the eighteenth century a "temporalizing of the chain
of being." 2 This means a restructuring of the "series rerum" in
the sense of a development from simple to complex forms. The
retrogressive time reckoning "before Christ" gained common ac-
ceptance in the eighteenth century.s By this invention the past
was delivered from the necessity of being grounded in a beginning
event. It then became open for limitless historical research. But
if the past no longer has a fixed time of beginning which sets into
motion time itself and creates the best of possible worlds and de-
fines the natural forms, what will happen to the future? If there
is any unity in time itself, any fundamental change in the concep-
tion of past cannot remain without consequences for the percep-
tion of future.
I have to add that this temporalization of being not only evapo-
rated the natural forms; with this, it destroyed the basis of the
Aristotelian conception of negation as deprivation (sleresis, pri-
valio) too." The problem of negativity had to be reformulated as
a universal category. Since then, any experience and any action
implies negation as a requisite of selective determination, and the
future becomes a storehouse of possibilities from which we can
choose only by means of negation.
Future itself, and this means past futures as well as the p r e s e ~ t
future, must now be conceived as possibly quite different from the
past. It can no longer be characterized as approaching a turning
point where it returns into the past or where the order of this
world or even time itself is changed. It may contain, as a func-
tional equivalent for the end of time, emergent properties and
not-yet-realized possibilities. It becomes an open future.
2 Cf. Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the HiJtory of an
Idea (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986).
8 Cf. Adalbert Klempt, Die Siikularisierung der universalhistorischen AuDassung
(G<>uingen: Musterschmidt, 1960), pp. 81 ~ .
4 This was, to be sure, only one of the traditional notions of negation (the dis-
cussion of different notions of negation was very complex in late medieval and early
modern times): but its abolition did necessitate, nevertheless, the reconstruction of
the meaning of negation as such.
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Luhmann, Niklas, The Future Cannot Begin: Temporal Structures in Modern Society , Social
Research, 43:1 (1976:Spring) p.130
There are controversies about the exact birth date of this mod-
ern conception of future." Some authors think of the seventeenth
century. others of the second half of the eighteenth.
This second
view seems to be geared to the fact that the second half of the
eighteenth century changes its expectations about coming events
from a pessimistic to an optimistic vision. from moral decay to
progress." The last possible date is the French Revolution. which
changed the meaning of revolution from turning back to moving
forward and put into common use the word avenir. In the pro-
ceedings of the Institut National. I found the phrase: Le temps
present est gras d'avenir,8 apparently current at that time (1798).
The wording temps present-present time-is interesting in it-
self. In what sense can time be present? One possible interpreta-
tion might be that the phrase "present time." by adding stress to
11 Cf. Robert Nisbert, Social Change and History (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1969), pp. 106 ff.
8 Cf. Reinhart Koselleck, "Historia Magistra Vitae," in Manfred Riedel, ed., Natur
und Geschichte (Stuttgart, 1967), pp. 196-220: and Reinhart KoseIleck, "Vergangene
Zukunft der frUhen Neuzeit," in Festgabe lilr Carl Schmitt (Berlin, 1968), pp. 551-
T Cf. Carl L. Becker, The Heavenly City 01 the Eighteenth Century Philosophers
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982).
8 So Hend Gregoire, Sur les moyens de perlectionner les sciences politiques,
de l'lnstitut National (Classe des sciences morales et politiques), Vol. I
(Paris, 1798), pp. 552-556. Future is perceived, in this political context at least,
as dose at hand (prochainementl). Actually, neither the word avenir nor the phrase
Le temps present est gros d'avenir had been invented during the French Revolution.
The phrase serves as motto in Louis Mercier's book rAn deux mille quatre
cent quarante: Rive s'il en lut jama;s (London, 1772). Mercier refers to Leibnlz.
Checking Lelbnlz, we find a characteristic difference. He does not speak about "the
present time" but only about the present as such and uses the phrase only to show
that monads have a temporal dimension. For example: Essais de Theodict!e 860
(In C.J. Gerhardt, ed., Die philosophischen Schrilten von Gottlried Wilhelm Leibniz
[Hfldesheim: Olms, 1961],6: 829): "C'est une des regles de mon systl!me de l'harmonle
que le present est gros de l'avenlr." Or Principes de la Nature et de la Grace,
fondt!es en raison 18 (Gerhardt 6: 604): "Le present est gros de l'avenir, le future
se pouvoit lire dans le est dans le prochain." Or Letter to
Bayle, without date (Gerhardl 8: 66): "Le present est toujours gros de l'avenir ou
chaque substance doit exprimer dl!s tous ses eslats futurs"-thus: no open
futurel Or Nouveaux essais sur l'entendement (Gerhardt 5: 48): "Le present esl
gros de l'avenlr el du
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Luhmann, Niklas, The Future Cannot Begin: Temporal Structures in Modern Society , Social
Research, 43:1 (1976:Spring) p.130
the notion of the present, compensates for a loss of meaning and
duration in the present itself.
In fact, if we have an almost in-
finite historical past, structured and limited only by our actual in-
terests, and if we have an open future, the present becomes the
turning point which switches the process of time from past into
future. The French Revolution symbolizes and proves the possi-
bility of this understanding by its practice. The Germans, on the
other hand, join by writing Zeitgedichte-time poems-in the
sense of poems of political actuality.IO
However, the punctualization of the present preceded the open
future by more than a hundred years; it was not its consequence.
Already in the early seventeenth century the unity of existence and
preservation was split and the present was conceived as discontinu-
ous, depending on secondary causes for its endurance. Hence-
forth, actuality has to be thought of as instantaneous change. The
transformation of time perspectives began by reconceptualizing
the present. It led, then, to a series of relief measures: to the con-
cept of system, to increasing interest in mechanisms and in security,
and, during the eighteenth century, to the interpretation of exis-
tence as sentiment. But only the economic and political break-
through of the bourgeois society provided the background for
solving time problems by temporal means: by extending the time
horizons of past and future and by orienting the present toward
their difference. To put it in the romantic way of Lamennais: "I
fly from the present by two routes, that of the past and that of the
If this is enough evidence-and it would be easy to produce
more-that with the rise of bourgeois society the structure of time
9 On the psychological level we have some evidence for this dual understanding
of the present: either as a very short or as a rather long duration. See Thomas J.
Cottle and Stephen L. Klineberg, The Present Of Things Future: Explorations of
Time in Human Experience (New York: Free Press, 1974), p. 108.
10 Cf. JUrgen Wilke, Das "Zeitgedicht": Seine Herkunft und frilhe Ausbildung
(Meisenheim am Glan: A. Hain, 1974).
11 I take this quotation from Georges Poulet, Studies in Human Time, translated
by Elliott Coleman (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1956), p. 26.
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Luhmann, Niklas, The Future Cannot Begin: Temporal Structures in Modern Society , Social
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has changed drastically in the direction of higher temporal com-
plexity. then we must expect that this change will have its impact
on every social structure and on every concept. Nothing will re-
tain its old meaning. If there is formal continuity in institutions
or terminologies. this only will conceal the fact that every single
form has gained higher contingency and higher selectivity.12
We have been reacting to the consequences of this change for
a long time. We observe the "loss of the stable state." 18 and we
know that a faster rate of change requires more anticipatory be-,
havior-Iiterally, more acting before the event, more future-ori-
ented planning.
However, we still do not have a satisfactory
concept of time. The prevailing "solution" to this problem is the
distinction of several different notions of t i m e . l ~ Still, we lack a
satisfactory theory that would be able to correlate variations in
social structure and variations in temporal structure. This de-
ficiency is not only a problem of functionalist theory; it has older
and deeper roots.
Toward a Concept of Time
It is now a very common view that time is an aspect of the social
construction of reality. This view suggests that there are several
12 In fact. a new Wiirterbuch Gescllichtliche GrundbegriDe which began to appear
in Germany in 1972 tries to make this point.
18 So the formula of Donald A. Sehon. Beyond the Stable State (New York: Norton.
14 See only F. E. Emery and E. L. Trist. Towards a Social Ecology: Contextual Ap-
preciation ot the Future in the Present (London and New York: Plenum Press. 1978).
lIS See. for example. the much discussed distinction of the linear dimension and
the modalitles of time by J. Ellis McTaggart, "The Unreality of Time." Mind 17
(1908): 457-474. reprinted in his Philosophical Stu.dies (New York and London:
Longmans. 1984). pp. 110-181. For the German historisch-geisteswissenschattliche
tradition. cf. Martin Heidegger. "Der Zeitbegriff in der Geschic:htswissenschaft,"
Zeitscllritt tilr Philosophie und philosophische Kf'itik 160 (1916): 178-188.
18 Cf. Hermlnio Martins. "Time and Theory in Sociology:' in John Rex, cd., AP-
proaches to Sociology: An Intf'oduction to Major Tf'ends in British Sociology (Lon-
don and Boston: Routledge Bc Kegan Paul, 1974), pp. 246-294.
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Luhmann, Niklas, The Future Cannot Begin: Temporal Structures in Modern Society , Social
Research, 43:1 (1976:Spring) p.130
times, a plurality of Temporalgestalten or of social times.
conception disconnects time and chronology. Accordingly, we
may have several times and one integrating chronology. But there
remain questions to be asked: Are we allowed to reduce the unity
of time to the unity of chronology? Don't we fall back, by as-
suming a plurality of times, upon the pre-Aristotelian notion of
time as movement or process? Is there any progress beyond the
classical definition of time as measure of movement?
To avoid an uncontrolled fusion of the notions of time and of
movement._ I propose to define time as the interpretation of reality
with regard to the difference between past and future. This defini-
tion presupposes, of course, that daily life gives the experience of
change and contains in itself the point of departure for its own
"timing." I could prove this presupposition by phenomenological
analyses. This experience of change, however, is not yet really
time, as Husserl himself came to see in his later years. It is per-
vasive and unavoidable. If you do not see or hear any change, you
will feel it in yourself. It is the dowry of organic life for its mar-
riage with culture. And it predetermines the universality of time
on the cultural level. But it remains by and large open for
cultural elaboration and variation, precisely because it is a uni-
versal predisposition for temporalizing experience.
This conceptual approach offers several important advantages:
It begins by making a clear distinction between movement,
process, or experience of change on the one hand, and the cultural
constitution of time as a generalized dimension of meaningful
reality on the other .
Thus, chronology can be conceived as a standardized scheme
of movement and of time. It fulfills several functions at once:
first, comparing and integrating movements that are not simul-
1'1 Cf. Pitirim A. Sorokin and Robert K. Merton, "Social Time: A Methodological
and Functional Analysis," American Journal of Sociology 42 (1937): 615-629; Pitirim
A: Sorokin, Sociocultural Causality, Space, Time (New York: Russell Bc Russell, 1964),
pp. 171 ff.; Georges Gurvitch, The Spectrum of Social Time, translated by Myrtle
Korenbaum (Dordrecht, Holland: D. Rcidel, 1964), esp. pp. 20 ff on multiple times.
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Luhmann, Niklas, The Future Cannot Begin: Temporal Structures in Modern Society , Social
Research, 43:1 (1976:Spring) p.130
taneously present; 18 second, establishing relations between past
and future in the double sense of fixed and unchangeable distances
and movement of chronological units (dates, not eventsl) from
future to past; and third, linking the experience of change in daily
life to the relational structure of time. These multiple functions
are interconnected by the use of one standardized movement for
creating distance between dates. Not time, as Aristotle would
have it, but chronology makes distance. It serves as an evolution-
ary universal which combines very simple rules for its use with
highly complex functions-like money .
We should avoid, then, any confusion of chronology and time.
The approach that I would like to propose articulates the temporal
dimension as the relation between past and future. Thereby, the
current conceptions of past and future come to be regarded as the
decisive factors in the constitution of time. Complexity-in-time,
for example, correlates with the possible divergence of past states
and future states. Increasing complexity-in-time will, then, have
its impact on the prevailing interpretations of past and of fu-
ture. The history of the future, outlined in the beginning of this
paper, illustrates this point .
.. The relation of past and future will not have the same form
in every society. We can suppose that there are correlations be-
tween this relation and other variables of the societal system. We
may formulate the hypothesis that increasing system differentiation
correlates with increasing dissociation of past and future. High
discontinuity may, on the other hand, shorten the time perspective
in the sense that a more distant past and a more distant future
become irrelevant. There is some empirical evidence to support
this proposition 1-much to the surprise of students to whom the
18 The primary functiQn of primitive time-reckoning seems to be the integration
of recurrent ecological changes and social norms regulating behavior. Cf. Daniel M.
Maltz, "Primitive TimeReckoning as a Symbolic System," Cornell Journal 01 Social
Relations 8 (1968): 85-112.
19 Cf. Lucien Bernot and R e n ~ Blancard, Notlville: Un village franrais (Paris:
Institut d'ethnologie, 1953), pp. 321-332: Johan Galtung, "Images of the World in
the Year 2000: A Synthesis of the Marginals of the Ten Nations Study," 7th World
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Luhmann, Niklas, The Future Cannot Begin: Temporal Structures in Modern Society , Social
Research, 43:1 (1976:Spring) p.130
growing importance of time in modern society means simply an
extension of time in the chronological sense.
This brings us back to my central thesis and suggests the
formulation that the relevance of time (in fact, I would maintain:
relevance as such) depends upon the capacity to mediate relations
between past and future in a present.
All temporal structures
relate to a present. The endurance of the present had to be
shaken, as we have seen, before modern society could reconstruct
its own temporality.
The Future as Temporal Horizon
Time itself and its conceptualization are changed by the mech-
anisms of sociocultural evolution. This fact has consequences for
the way we see and conceptualize our f u t u r e ~ Sociological analy-
sis, therefore, finds itself facing a problem that has two sides: Its
concept of future should be reasonably adequate for scientific
procedures and it should be adequate in respect to its own his-
torical situation. Both conditions of adequacy define diverging
requirements, particularly for our own very late and highly com-
plex society.
To work out the complexities of this problem it will be useful to
distinguish three different ways of conceptualizing the future: the
chronological conception, the theory of modalities, and phenom-
enological analysis.
The chronological conception presupposes identity and con-
tinuity of time and knows of only one principle of differentiation:
Congress of Sociology. Varna. 1970 (Ms.); Margaret J. Zube. "Changing Concepts of
Morality 1948-1969." Social Forces 50 (1972): 385-393.
20 This does not mean that the present can be explained by its function. There
is always the primordial fact of a specious present mediating time and reality. We
have. therefore. following George Herbert Mead. The Philosophy of the Present
(Chicago: Open Court. 1932). p. 88. to distinguish functional presents and the
specious present. A present without function (i.e . without context) is by that fact
reduced to a specious present.
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Research, 43:1 (1976:Spring) p.130
dates. The future is the series of dates which will come after the
present. This chronological conception suggests that the future
will begin where the present ends. A thorough analysis shows,
however, that we cannot think of two immediately connected in
stants of time without thinking an interval separating them.
ready medieval authors concluded that beginning and ending can-
not be, except as a property of the instantaneous present.
know, furthermore, from cultural comparison as well as from em-
pirical investigations that in daily life we experience time as rather
discontinuous, that future is disconnected from the present and
that only a few societies and in those societies only a fraction of
their members feel obliged to gloss over these discontinuities and
to level them out by a kind of mathematical calculation.
The theory of modalities has been used since the Middle Ages
to formulate a two-level conception of reality, reflecting different
modes in which being and nonbeing can present themselves. The
temporal modes are: past, present, and future. They are distinct
modes, of course, but there is again a kind of idealizing and equal-
izing at work. It is presupposed that these three modes of time,
at least as modes, are on an equal footing. This may be due to
linguistic requirements. We have the choice between these three
tenses. Whereas chronology depends on mathematical calculation,
the theory of modalities depends on language. Its prototype seems
to be: speaking about something. However, in our historical sit-
uation-at the "present time"f-it may be required not only to
question the u gali1ean" idealizations 24 but also the linguistic
schemes which we use and on which we continue to depend. The
theory of temporal modalities leaves as open and undecidable the
21 Aristotle, Physics, Book VI, 236a.
22 See the chapter De incipit et desinit of thc Regule Solvendi Sophismata of
WflIiam Heytesbury (14th century) as presented by Curtis Wilson, William Heytes-
bury: Medieval Logic and the Rise 01 Mathematical Physics (Madison: Univcrsity of
Wisconsin Press, 1956), pp. 29 ff.
28 Cf. Sorokin and Mcrton. "Social Timc"; Cottlc and Klineberg. The Present 01
Things Future, pp. 108 ff .
Cf. Edmund Husserl. Die Krisis der europliischen Wissensclzalten und die trans-
%endentale Philosophie, in Hus.rerliana, Vol. IV (Dcn Haag: Nijhoff, 1954).
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Research, 43:1 (1976:Spring) p.130
question whether the beginning should be conceived of as remotio
of the past and positio of the present or as remotio of the present
and positio of the future.
And the main question would be
whether the treatment of the present as one of the modes of time
is adequate.
The theory of modalities seems to offer a rational model for the
fact that meaning is always something which preserves its identity
by referring into horizons of further exploration and modifica-
t i o n . 2 ~ If this is true, we shall have to use phenomenological analy-
sis to find our way back to the origins of time. This means to con-
ceive of future as well as of past as time horizons of the present.
The present, then, gets a special status by its function of inte-
grating time and reality and of representing a set of constraints for
temporal integration of future and past.
Now, this conceptual redisposition makes it necessary to state
more clearly what it means to conceive of the future as a temporal
horizon of the present. The most important consequence is sig-
III See again William Heytesbury in Wilson. William Heytesbury.
28 There are close parallels to the difficulties Kant ran into by equalizing the three
<I> modalities of necessity. possibility. and actuality (substituting this for the tradi-
tional pairs of necessarium/contingens and possibile/impossibile) as different modes
of cognition. The problem consists in the differentiation of completely conditioned
possibility and actuality. Cf. Ingetrud Pape. Tradition und Transformation der
Modalit6t (Hamburg: Meiner. 1966). I: 224 ff. See also Nfcolai Hartmann. Moglicll-
heit und Wirklichkeit, 2nd ed. (Meisenheim am Glan: Westkulturverlag A. Hain.
1949). esp. pp. 228 ff. Kant felt unable to think of the possible as becoming actual
by the addition of something. because the addition would then be something which
is not possible (Kritih der reinen "'ernunft B. pp. 283 ff). For the same reasons we
feel unable to think of the future as beginning to become a present.
27 For the notion of horizon. see Edmund Husserl. Ideen %u einer reinen Phlinom-
enologie und Phiinomenologiscllen Philosophia, Vol. I. in Husserliana Vol. III (Den
Haag: Nijhoff. 1950). pp. 48 ff. lOO ff. 199 ff; Erfahrung und Urteil: Untersucllungen
%ur Genealogie der Logik (Hamburg: Claassen Bc Goverts. 1948); Erste Philosophie,
Vol. 11. in Husserliana, Vol. VIII (Den Haag: Nijhoff. 1959). pp. 146 If; Analysen %ur
passiven Synthesis, in Husserliana, Vol. XI (Den Haag: Nijhoff. 1966), pp. 3 ft.
George Herbert Mead hits upon this metaphor without mentioning Husserl; cf.
Mead, The Philosophy of the Present, p. 26: "There is nothing transcendent about
this powerlessness of our minds to exhaust any situation. Any advance which makes
toward greater knQwledge simply extends the horizon of experience, but all remains
within conceivable experience."
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naled by the title of this paper :The future cannot begin. Indeed,
the essential characteristic of an horizon is that we can never touch
it, never get at it, never surpass it, but that in spite of that, it con-
tributes to the definition of the situation. Any movement and any
operation of thought only shifts the guiding horizon but never at-
tains it.
If we characterize processes or activities as beginning or end-
ing, we use a terminology which belongs to the present. If we use
these expressions to refer to distant dates-for example: the Roman
Empire began to fall-we refer to a past present or to a future
present. This iterative use of temporal modalities which goes back
at least to Augustine is necessary for a theory of time that differ-
entiates time and chronology. But this is not enough. .We can,
in addition, formulate a distinction between future presents and
the present future; and we can speak, if necessary, about the future
of future presents, the future of past presents (modo fttturi exacti),
and so on.
This iterative use of modal forms has always been a
problem for the theory of modalities; 20 for example: why not "the
future of futures" like "the heaven of heavens" (coelum coeli)?
Only phenomenological analysis can justify the selection of mean-
ingful combinations of modal forms. It shows that all iteration
of temporal forms has to have its base in a present.
If we accept this distinction of the present future and future
presents, we can define an open future as present future which has
room for several mutually exclusive future presents. Open future
is, of course, only a vague metaphor. In a sense, the openness of
the future was a topic of logical and theological discussions since
Aristotle's famous chapter IX peri hermeneias.
But it has been
118 For further elaboration. see Niklas Luhmann. "Weltzcit und Systemgeschichte."
in his Soziologische AutkUirung (Opladen. 1975). 2: 150-169.
29 See only Alexis Meinong. Ober Moglichke;t und Wahrsche;nlichkeit: Beitriige
zur Gegenslandstheor;e und Erkenntn;stheor;e (Leipzig: Barth. 19I!S).
80 This is. of course. the main idea of George Herbert Mead. Mead himself uses
the formulation "past pasts" in the sense of pasts of past presents. Cf. Mead. The
PhilosoPhy 01 the Present, p. 7.
81 For the medieval discussion de futuris cont;ngePltibus and its importance for
church policy. see Thomas Aquinas. In I. Per; Hermeneias lect. XIII, XIV: Qua-
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discussed with respect to the limits of logic and human cognition
in its application to future events-and not as the technique of
defuturizing the future by the binary code of logic.
Whereas the ancients started with generalizations of their every-
day world by means of cosmological and theological assumptions
and thought not of "the" future but of coming events and the possi-
bility of their privative negation.
we experience our future as a
generalized horizon of surplus possibilities that have to be reduced
as we approach them. We can think of degrees of openness and
call /utur;zat;on increasing and de/uturizat;on decreasing the
openness of a present future. Defuturization may lead to the
limiting condition where the present future merges with the fu-
ture presents and only one future is possible. Actually. the struc-
ture of our society prevents defuturization from going this far.
But there are techniques of deflIturization which react exactly to
this condition. Leon Brunschvicg has drawn our attention to
the fact that the statistic calculus defuturizes the future without
identifying it with only one chain of events.
And indeed. the
new interest in chance. games of hazard. and statistics coming up
in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries corresponds closely
to an emerging interest in the future and to the idea that it may
be a rational and even a secure strategy to prefer the insecure over
the secure.
There are ways to make use of the future without
beginning it and without reducing it to one chain of datable future
estiones disputatae de Veritate q. 11, art. 12; Summa Theologiae I q. 14 art. 15;
William Ockham, Tractatus de praedestinatione et de praescientia Dei et de futurls
contingentibus, edited by Philotheus Boehner (St. Bonaventure, N.Y.: Francisc:an
Institute, St. Bonaventure College, 1945); Leon Baudry, ed., La Querelle des futurs
contingents (Louvain 1465-1475) (Paris: J. Vrin, 1950).
a8 Cf. Paulu8 Engelhardt, "Der Mensch und seine Zukunft: Zur Frage nach dem
Menschen bei Thomas von Aquin," in Festchrift fur Max Muller (Freiburg-
Munchen, 1966), pp. 852-874.
aa Leon Brunschvicg, L'experience humaine et la causalite physique (Paris: Alcan,
1949), p. 855
.. Cf. Ernest Coumet, "La T h ~ o r i e du Hasard est-eUe nee par Hasard?," Annales:
Economies, Sodetes, Civilisations 25 (1970): 574-598.
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Temporal Integration Redefined: Technology and
Utopian Schemes
By now
we are advanced far enough to redefine the problem of
temporal integration. One possible interpretation would be that
integration is achieved by changing wishful thinking and
fanciful perspectives into more realistic ones, adapting to the out-
come of the past so far as it has structured the present.
This view
evaluates realism as maturity. But why so? If lower-class children
abandon certain educational and occupational aspirations, this
may be so much the better for them. It would be rational, how-
ever, only insofar as reality itself is rational. To identify temporal
integration with realistic orientation presupposes a perfect world
-realitas sive perfectio. This is a well known traditional premise,
but it does not differentiate time and reality far enough to use
temporal integration as a means to control-not necessarily to
There have been societies which had to use reality as rationality
control. Our society, however, has to use rationality as reality
control. Its structure and its environment are too complex for
adaptive procedures,86 and there is not enough time available for
adjustment. Under the condition of high complexity, time be-
comes scarce. Time has to be substituted for reality as the pre-
dominant dimension while future obtrudes itself as the predom-
inant horizon. Such a society will need forms and procedures of
temporal integration which, above all, combine the present future
and future presents and consider the past only as th.e set of facts
which we are no longer able to prevent from existing or becoming.
The prevailing conception of the present future seems to be a
utopian one 8T with an optimistic or a pessimistic overtone. The
1111 See, for example, Cottle andKlineberg, The Present of Things Future, pp. 70 If.
lie Russel L. Ackolf and Fred E. Emery, On Purposeful Systems (London and Chi
cago: Aldine, 1972), esp. pp. 80 If, pursue a similar intention by distinguishing goal.
seeking and purposeful systems.
liT In one important sense the reference to "utopias" is misleading here because
originally the literary device of a utopia was invented Just because critics were 9101
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future serves as a projection screen for hopes and fears. Its uto-
pian formulation warrants rational behavior toward different
(predictable and unpredictable) future presents, at least in the
form of coherent negation. The future is expected to bring about
the communist society or the ecological disaster, emancipation
from domination or l' homme integrale discussed by Sartre and
Merleau-Ponty.38 This is the future that cannot begin. It re-
mains a present future and at least an infallible sign of the pres-
ence of critics. It moves away if we try to approach it. It does not
vanish, however, as long as the structural conditions of the present
society endure, but it may resettle with new symbols and meanings,
if the old ones are worn out by disappointments and new experi-
ences. Our recent experiences seem to show that these utopian
futures speed up their change and may change so quickly that they
never will have a chance to be tested and to get confirmation in a
Technologies, on the other hand, orient themselves to future
presents. They transform them into a string of anticipated pres-
ents. They postulate and anticipate causal or stochastic links be-
tween future events in order to incorporate them into the present
present. This implies two important reductions of complexity.
The first transforms the character of events which are emerging
recombinations of independent contingencies into a carrier func-
tion of the process of determination. The second brings into re-
lief a sequential pattern, a chain of interconnected events; it se-
quentializes complexity by abstracting more or less from inter-
fering processes.
A future defuturized by technology can be
able to use the future of their own society as projection screen. The turning point
can be dated exactly: in 1768 Mercier began to write his l'An deux mille quatre cent
88 A comprehensive presentation of such imaginary approaches to future is Fred
L. Polak, The Image of the Future, 2 vols. (New York: Oceana Publications, 1961).
However, it does not pay enough attention to the historical variability of time itself.
Cf. also Wendell Bell and James A. Mau, "Images of the Future: Theory and Re
search Strategies:' in Bell and Mau, eds., The Sociology of the Future: Theory, Cases,
and Annotated Bibliography (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1971), pp. ~ .
89 A harsh criticism of the technocratic conception of time has been formulated by
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used as a feigned present from which we choose our present present
to make it a possible past for future presents. To justify the
choice and, more important, to justify this whole procedure of
technical defuturization we use values. Values, then, have the
function of guaranteeing the quality of present choice in spite of
technical defuturization. Any refinement, however, of techno-
logical forecasting and control will make future presents so much
more surprising, because it multiplies defeasible assumptions about
the present future. It requires, therefore, in its present, corre-
sponding mechanisms of coping with surprise: learning potential,
planned and the generalized ability to substitute
functional equivalents.
Technology and utopian schemes are, of course, very different
approaches to the future. Their difference suggests options and
polemical behavior. Many ideological discussions and political
confrontations of our day draw their resources from this bifurca-
tion. If you embark on the vessel named Utopia, you will be-
come highly critical in respect to technology, and rightly so, even
if you are prepared to use technology to get your vessel off the
shores. If, on the other hand, you set out to improve technology
you may get annoyed, and again rightly so, with people who use
the future as a substitute for reality and interfere with your work
without contributing to it. Each side tries to totalize its own
perspective on the future and suppress the other.40 But the totality
Herbert G. Reid, "The Politics of Time: Conflicting Philosophical Perspectives and
Trends," The Human Context 4 (1972): 456-483; "American Social Science in the
Politics of Time and the Crisis of Technocorporate Society: Toward a Critical Phe-
nomenology," Politics and Society 3 (1973): 207-243.
40 This is, of course, what Habermas has in mind when he unveils the use of tech-
nology and systems theory as ideology. Cf. JUrgen Habermas, Tec/mik und W;ssen-
schaft als "Ideologie" (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1968); Jtirgen Habermas and Niklas
Luhmann, Theorie der Gesellscllaft oder Sozialtechnologie-Was leistet die System-
forschung1 (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1971). See also Robert Boguslaw, Tile New
Utopians: A Study of System Design and Social Change (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:
Prentice-Hall, 1965); Joseph Bensman and Robert Lilienfeld, Craft and Con-
sciousness: Occupational Technique and the Development of World Images (New
York: Wiley, 1973), pp. 282 ff; Robert Lilienfeld, "Systems Theory as an Ideology,"
Social Research 42 (Winter 1975):
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is the difference itself: the difference of the present future and
future presents. This difference itself is a historical fact, pro-
duced and reproduced by the structure of our society. We cannot
avoid it or circumvent it as long as we continue to live in this
highly complex society. But this does not mean that we have to
pursue these pointless polemics.
Still, critical discussion and polemics have the important ad-
vantage of being present behavior. Any attempt to replace them
by posing the problem of temporal integration would defer the
solution of this problem into the future and would, thereby, slide
off into either utopian or technical channels. Again, the prob-
lem of temporal integration, too, would become either a utopian
or a technical problem and, thus, perpetuate itself.
An open and indeterminate future seems to suggest a shift from
cognition to action, as Marx would have it, or today from pre-
dicting to creating the future.
This sounds like: If you can-
not see, you have to actl But both, prediction and action, have
their utopian and their technical aspects. Substituting the one
for the other does not solve the problem of temporal integration.
The complex society of our day has to use both ways for reducing
the complexity of its future; it has rather to sequentialize predic-
tions and actions into complex self-referential patterns. There is
no problem of choice between prediction and action, but there
may be a problem of social and structural limitations for the com-
bination of predictions and actions.
Social Communication as a Nontemporal Extension of Time
It should be clear by now that we can expect temporal integra-
tion and, for that matter, integration of utopian schemes and tech-
nology only as a present performance. Therefore, older societies
which thought of themselves as living in an enduring or even
U So Bettina J. Huber, "Some Thoughts on Creating the Future," Sociological In-
quiry 44 (1974): 29-39.
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eternal present did not experience our problem. Only in modern
times. and only by shortening the time span of the present. does
the problem of perseverance. or conservatio, get its actuality.42 and
only then do utopian schemes and technology diverge. By re-
structuring time in the last 200 years. the present has become
specialized in the function of temporal integration; however. it
does not have enough time to do this job.
It is at this point that we can grasp the importance of the
theoretical contributions of George Herbert Mead 48 and Alfred
Schutz 44 concerning the interrelations between temporal and
social experience. Both authors were aware of the fact that social
communication defines the present lor the actors (because it com-
mits the actors to the premise of simultaneity) and provides in
addition the chance lor a non temporal extension 01 time. "The
field of mind." in the words of Mead. "is the temporal extension
of the environment of the organism." and the mechanisms which
accomplish this are social ones.
But then. the environment of
systems can be also used as a non temporal extension of time.
Other persons are socially relevant only insofar as they present.
in communication. different pasts and/or different futures. They
transform in a highly selective way distant temporal relevances
into present social ones. And it is this selectivity that can be sub-
mitted to social control-for example. by the twin mechanisms of
trust and distrust.
This non temporal extension of time by com-
munication constitutes time horizons for selective behavior-that
is. a past that can never be reproduced because it is too complex
and a future that cannot begin. And it is again this temporal com-
42 Cf. Hans Blumenberg. Selbsterhaltung und Beharrung: Zur Konstitution der
neu%eitlichen Rationalitiit (Abhandlungen der Akademie der Wissenschaften und der
Literature in Mainz. Wiesbaden, 1970).
48 Mead, The Philosophy 0/ the Present.
44 See above all Alfred Schutz, Der sinnha/te Au/bau der so%ialen Welt (Vienna:
J. Springer, 1982).
411 Mead, The Philosophy 0/ the Present, p. 25.
40 For a more extensive treatment, see Niklas Luhmann, P'ertrauen: Ein Mech-
anismus der Reduktion so%ialer Komplexiliit, 2nd ed. (Stuttgart: F. Enke, 1978).
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plexity that makes selectivity necessary for meaningful behavior
and communication.
These considerations bring us back to the roots of evolutionary
interdependencies between social and temporal structures. Since
this can be regarded as achieved knowledge, we cannot afford to
fall back on much simpler notions of the future as most social fore-
casting does. The conception of interdependency, however, is in
itself too vague and indeterminate to serve as a framework for
further analysis. Neither Mead nor Schutz had adequate suc-
cessors. The next step, indeed, is a difficult one. It requires the
conceptualization of limitations and of gains that might result
from novel combinations.
In view of the facts our society has produced in its bourgeois
phase we should be able to calculate the limits of the meaningful
extension of time; we should know the social correlates of a high
differentiation of temporal horizons; we should be able to antici-
pate a change in temporal structures as a consequence of social
change-for example, as a consequence of an eventual decline of
the monetary mechanism; we should be able to estimate the degree
of heterogeneity of temporal structures we can tolerate in different
subsystems of our society; we should know how the shrinking
temporal horizons of families affect the economy, and how we can
avoid the well known negative impact which the time perspectives
of a growing economy have on the political system; 47 and, last but
not least, we should know what is implied if we rely on clocks and
dates to integrate the different time perspectives of different sectors
of the society and what dysfunctional consequences we have to
expect if we use chronology to fulfill this important function.
It is sure that we cannot reduce this set of complex questions,
involving the future, to a single one: how to begin the future.
It is difficult to see how we could proceed in elaborating these
questions or even answering them. Systems theory seems to be
the only conceptual framework which has sufficient complexity.
61 For a classical statement, see Alexis de Tocqueville, L'Ancien regime et la revolu-
tion. 5th ed. (Paris, 1866).
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So far, however, systems theory has used only very simple, chrono-
logical notions of time and future, conceiving of the future simply
as the state of the system at a later time.
Only environment, but
not time, is recognized as a set of possible restraints on system
states. Abstracting from time is, of course, quite legitimate as a
scientific procedure; but then we must refrain from using tempo-
ral notions in presenting the results.
In comparison with the conceptual elaboration of problems of
time, systems theory 'is much more advanced in its conceptual com-
plexity. It is the theory of time that is lagging behind, not the
theory of systems. Not only social science but also the theory of
history suffers from this deficiency. If the theory of time could
be advanced, there Inight appear highly suggestive possibilities of
research in correlations between system structures and temporal
The theory of time has to transform its vague idea of "every-
thing is possible in the long run," based on a chronological con-
ception of time, into a concept of temporal structures with limited
possibilities of change. It is a prerequisite of correlations that
both variables are reduced contingencies in the sense that they
cannot assume any shape whatever. We have, therefore, to look
for time-inherent restrictions of possible correlations (substituting
this for older notions of the substance or essence of time) before
we set out to establish correlations between system structures and
temporal structures. These time-inherent restrictions are, never-
theless, results of sociocultural evolution and not a priori as-
sumptions about the nature of the world or conditions of cogni-
If we conceive of time as the relation between (more or less
differentiated) temporal horizons and if we use a conceptual lan-
guage that allows for iterative modalizations (present future, fu-
ture presents, future of past presents, etc.) and define the function
of the present and the function of chronology in these terms, we
48 See as a rather typical example Ervin Laszlo, A Strategy for tile Future: The
Systems Approach to World Order (New York: Braziller, 1974).
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may have a sufficient base to start this kind of research. But we
have to remain aware of the fact that a commitment to these con-
ceptualizations is a commitment to "modern times." Older so-
cieties did not produce such an elaborated framework, and they
did not need it to understand themselves. They lived, for struc-
tural reasons we may be able to explain, within a less differentiated
The Future of Systems
Social systems are nontemporal extensions of tilne. They make
the time horizons of other actors available within one contempo-
rary present. This requires for social systems a double relation to
time: a sequential one conceivable as process or as action in terms
of means and ends, and a structural one conceivable as the differ-
ence between system and environment. With respect to time, the
difference of system and environment means that no complex sys-
tem can rely exclusively on point-to-point relations to its environ-
ment-that is, on instantaneous adjustment by immediate experi-
ence and immediate reaction.
It needs time for its own opera-
tions. This presupposes that under normal conditions no single
event will change the whole system at once. Changing everything
at once amounts to destruction. In other words: There is no con-
ceivable state of a complex system which could be achieved by
changing everything at once. The structural technique by which
a system avoids this condition of changing everything at once is
differentiation-or more exactly: a matching of internal and ex-
ternal differentiation.
It is only at this rather taxing theoretical
level of the relation between the relations of system/environment
49 Cf. Talcott Parsons, "Some Problems of General Theory in Sociology:' in John
C. McKinney and Edward A. Tiryakian, eds., Theoretical Sociology: Perspectives and
Developments (New York: AppletonCenturyCrofts, 1970), pp. 27-68.
110 Cf. W. Ross Ashby, Design for a Drain (New York: WHey, 1952). Cf. also Uriel
G. Foa, Terence R. Mitchell, and Fred E. Ficdlcr, "Differentiation Matching," Be-
hav;oral Science 16 (1971): 130-142.
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and structure/process that we are able to locate our problem.
Systems, then, in relation to their environment, depend for tem-
poral reasons on a differentiation of structure and process. The
time perspective of modern society, on the other hand, project,s
the difference of the present future and future presents. Both
distinctions, worked out in very different intellectual traditions,
seem to converge. If this is true, we can bring together systems
theory and phenomenological research.
In fact, the process of continuing communication in social sys-
tems under the condition of contemporaneity is the prospect of
sequential social presents that will constitute forever new futures
and new pasts. They are and will remain presents because they
require a simultaneous integration of the perspectives of different
actors. Structure, on the other hand, establishes for our society
an open future in the sense that it provides for the selectivity of
future presents.
Stated in more concrete terms, structure makes it possible and
even necessary to postpone choices and to use the present future
as a kind of storehouse for decisions to be made later. At the same
time, the present system operates on the premise of continuing its
processes. As a system it reproduces its present step by step. This
sequentializing of presents, however, is meaningful only as a chain
of choices, not as a chain of facts. The process of communication
has its effect in producing and reproducing choice situations.
Going further, we have to break up this general notion of post-
ponement of choices and have to distinguish two essentially differ-
ent forms: (I) deferment of gratification and (2) deferment of ne-
gation. Both have their functional and institutional correlates.
Deferment of gratification is a main prerequisite for the economic
system as a condition for capital investment. Deferment of nega-
tion is a main prerequisite of the political system as a condition of
trust in political power. Both require institutional support, both
require a present future for their present motivation. Both re-
quire a working integration of utopian schemes and technology
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and a kind of security base for trust. III Both would not survive
a considerable shrinkage of time horizons. Both may be endan-
gered by too high a fluctuation rate of utopian schemes and tech-
nological innovations. And, last but not least, do we not take too
much for granted that it is and will remain possible, in spite of
changing structural conditions, to separate deferment of gratifica-
tion and deferment of negation and to avoid spill-over effects? Or
will a refusal to defer gratifications any longer amount to a re-
fusal to defer negations; and finally, will the shrinking of time
horizons in the economy endanger trust in politics, political ideol-
ogies, value schemes, etc?
All of these questions pertain to what we have come to call
bilrgerliche Gesellschaft and relate to the continuity or discon-
tinuity of its structures under changing conditions. The bilrger-
liche Gesellschaft has been a revolutionary society with a strong
structural emphasis on time and corresponding simplifications of
social and environmental relations. The principle of its future
was simply the denial of its past 112 by the antistructural postulate
of equality.lls The self-conception of this society"in its bourgeois
variant did rely heavily on time-using and time-binding mecha-
nisms like money and legal procedure. By now, we are aware of
111 For the function of security bases in relation to generalized media.of communi-
cation. see Talcott Parsons, "On the Concept of Power" ~ m d "On the Concept of
InOuence." in his Sociological Theory and Modern Society (New York: Free Press,
1967). pp. 297-354. 355-382. Furthermore, Niklas Luhmann. "Symbiotische Mech-
anismen," in Otthein Rammstedt, ed., Gewaltverhiiltnisse und die Ohnmacht der
Kritik (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1974), pp. 107-131.
112 Cf. Joachim Ritter, Hegel und die franzosische Revolution (Koln: West
deutscher Verlag, 1957).
113 A well known statement is Antoine de Condorcet, Esquisse d'un tableau his-
torique des progres de l'esprit humain (1794). For the continuing impact of this
idea and for empirical correlations between future orientation and emphasis on
equality. see James A. Mau. Social Change and Images of the Future: A Study of
the Pursuit of Progress in Jamaica (Cambridge: Schenkman. 1968). Since equality
implies freedom and freedom implies inequality. the postulate of equality cannot
refer to reality. but only to time. Its only function is to deny the relevance of the
past--e.g., the relevance of biographies and ascribed status for the access to educa-
tion (equality of opportunity) or to political elections.
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highly complex operating conditions and of the narrow limits
of effectiveness these mechanisms are subject to. In its Marxist
or dialectical variant, the theory of society has to build its concept
of future on negations of the present; but there is much more
to negate in our present society than dialecticians could ever use
for constructing or even bringing about one and only one de-
sirable future: They have to focus on one central problem, thus
overstating centralization, and to discount complexity in order to
design a strictly linear theory which can be used to reconstruct or
even to change the "process of history."
There are many reasons, then, to suspect that the burgerliche
Gesellschaft went very far in temporalizing reality and that the
twin conceptions of bourgeois and Marxist theory were based on
this. common presupposition. This does not decide the question
whether this is a temporary distortion characteristic of the period
of transition into a new type of world society, or whether this
reflects lasting prerequisites of highly complex societies and/or an
acceleration of the evolutionary process without parallels in pre-
vious history. We are certainly not prepared to decide this ques-
tion without further research on the conceptual as well as on the
empirical level. But we have the intellectual resources to go be-
yond the boring controversies of Marxist versus- bourgeois or
utopian versus technocratic theory, and the starting positions are
available for working out a systems theory of society which recog-
nizes the fact that the future cannot begin and which compensates
by the higher complexity of its conception of time for what might
appear as a loss of future.
-I am indebted to S. Ho)mes. S. Seldman. and A. J. Vidich for comments on an
earlier draft of this paper.
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