Is the Future a Foreign Country?



The notion of the past as a foreign country has become a standard trope in contextual approaches to the study of history, emphasizing specificity, particularity and contingency. The logic of these approaches suggests that the future is equally foreign. While not dismissing the idea of context as useful and important in the study of history, politics, anthropology, sociology and most other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences for that matter, this article offers a critique of certain aspects of contextual approaches. More specifically, the discussion demonstrates that contextualist approaches posit an essential incommensurability between past and present, and by implication the future, that has quite profound implications for both normative theory and methodology. By way of illustration, the article considers the matter of responsibility or accountability for the past, present and future in relation to some specific examples. In concluding, it suggests a “project of commensuration” of past, present and future as both methodologically more coherent as well as more tenable in normative terms.