The Categorial Structure of the Future

We can retrieve (fragments of) the past from its traces. Can we do the same for the future? Otherwise stated: can we categorially analyze the tendencies actively present in actually existing entities in order to foresee (fragments of) the future?

Unfortunately, the task of providing a categorial analysis of the future is absent from the agenda of mainstream philosophy. On the other hand, there have been and are thinkers trying to describe the future. Utopian thinkers, fantasy writers, cyber literates do so. Leaving aside their literary merits, which are not my concern here, I may try to consider them as sources for categorial analyses of what is not. Unfortunately, from a categorial viewpoint, such literature is usually poor, fragmented and astonishingly boring.

As a mental experiment, let us suppose that reality is open. This means that the ontological nature of entities is not thoroughly established. Something new can always happen. Entities are never totally given in advance. All of them present some kind of tendency toward the future.

Understanding the past often helps understanding of actually given situations. Likewise, prefiguring the future may also help in understanding actually given situations.


Not many thinkers have tried to clarify these issues. A number of sociologists and psychologists, generally gathered under the heading of field and dynamic thinkers, have done some preliminary work. I have in mind scholars like Sorokin, Coutu, and Dewey. The concepts of invitation-character (Lewin), demand-character (Koffka), affordance (Gibson) and implicit order and its unfoldings (Bohm) are all relevant. From a philosophical viewpoint, Uschenko did some good work. Important hints can occasionally be found in Leibniz (the concept of tendency is his), Husserl, Bergson, Hartmann, Peirce and Whitehead. But the thinker that developed the most extensive categorical analyses of the future has undoubtedly been Ernst Bloch. His The Principle of Hope is an encyclopaedia of the categories of the future. In the following I shall present a minimal selection of some aspects of Bloch’s work.

Ontology, as opposed to epistemology, is what interests me. This implies that the problem of missing information (the entity is imperfectly or only partially known) must be distinguished from the problem of the entity’s categorial openness. The former is an epistemological problem, one which does not concern us. The latter is a truly ontological problem.

“Categorial openness” means that the entity is only partially determined, some of its aspects are still hidden. Better: some of its determination may be latent. The difference between being hidden and being latent can be clarified as follows: hidden components are there, waiting for proper triggers to activate them. On the other hand, latent components do not exist at all in the entity’s actual state. Hidden and open components interact with each other. They form the entity’s space of possibilities.

Latent components relate to incompletely present conditions and aspects. Their incompleteness may be ascribed either to still maturing conditions or to new conditions that may subsequently arise. The constantly open space of potentialities is constructed around them.

The whole of the entity therefore comprises both tendencies and latencies, possibilities and potentialities.

On submitting the category of potentiality to closer scrutiny, a number of new categories emerge, the most important being those of horizon and front. Everything that is, being temporal, tends towards something else. From the point of view of the space of possibilities the development is towards the entity’s stable points, if any. On the other hand, from the point of view of the space of potentialities, the existence of something like stable points cannot be accepted. What is needed is the idea of something that is neither reachable nor crossable. The concept of horizon – as opposed to the concept of boundary, used to distinguish the system of the entity from its environment – suits our purpose precisely.

The entity’s horizon sketches that fragment of the space of potentialities whose conditions are maturing. As its conditions mature, the entity’s horizon moves ahead. The category of horizon is a structurally teleological category. It encompasses the whole of the entity, its entelechy. Without horizons, entities are dead. They may still continue along their trajectories, but no real novelty can ever appear: everything is forever fixed. Horizons have fronts, “areas” where novelties appear. The front is the growing, maturing, changing section of the horizon.

In many respects, Bloch’s theory of what I have called potentiality (real possibility, in his terms) fades into obscurity. In my understanding, it may be given a chance to develop into a more tenable theory only if it is conjugated with a theory of the levels of reality.  In a nutshell, the main tenet of the theory foresees a categorical segmentation of entities into three main strata (material, psychological, social). The various strata are subsequently segmented into a number of sublevels, called layers. The organization of the layers of each stratum differs as we pass from one stratum to the next. A complex network of laws of dependence and independence structures the connections between strata and within strata.

In this framework, emergence intervenes in at least two different fashions:

  • Forward emergence: the interplay of phenomena at one level of reality gives birth to categorically new (emergent) phenomena at the same level of reality.
  • Upward emergence: the interplay of phenomena at one level of reality gives birth to categorically new (emergent) phenomena at a higher level of reality.

These two forms of emergence can be translated into two different forms of causation. This means that causation can be creative and open to novelty. The last step is to add the idea that higher levels of reality can possibly constrain lower levels of reality, what is nowadays known as downward causation. This third form of causation closes the circle, reorienting forward causation into a cycle. All this amounts to saying that the idea of causality should be properly updated: the traditional understanding of causation as only forward causation should be enriched with (at least) upward causation and downward forms of causation. This circle of causes may therefore throw some light on at least some of the features of potentiality.

All things considered, we are falling back on the Aristotelian idea that there are different types of causes, variously interrelated and reciprocally dependent on each another. The deplorable lack of an adequate conceptual framework, and in particular of a theory of the levels of reality, has made it almost impossible to work on themes of this kind.



Andersen, P.B., C. Emmeche, N. O. Finnemann, P.V. Christiansen, eds. (2000). Downward Causation: Minds, Bodies and Matter. Aarhus: University Press.

Bloch, E. (1995). The Principle of Hope. 3 vols. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Poli, R. (2001). The Basic Problem of the Theory of Levels of Reality. Axiomathes 12 (3/4), 261–283.

Poli, R. (2006). Levels of Reality and the Psychological Stratum. Revue Internazionale de Philosophie, 165–182.

Rummel, R. J. (1975–1981). Understanding Conflict and War. (5 vols.) NY: J. Wiley and Sons.



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