Is the future a foreign country?

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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. Considering the relationship not simply between past and present, but past, present and future obviously adds a further dimension to the problem. If the past is a foreign country, what about the future? This question is addressed first by examining the notion of incommensurability. I shall demonstrate that contextualist approaches, at least in the more radical versions, posit an essential incommensurability between past and present that has quite profound implications for both normative theory and methodology – and indeed for the relationship between norms and methods in the pursuit of social scientific knowledge about past, present and future. The second part of the paper considers the matter of responsibility and/or accountability for the past, present and future. More generally I shall argue a case for the commensurability of past, present and future as methodologically more coherent and certainly more tenable in normative terms. Finally, I consider certain policy implications with particular reference to aspects of responsibility and accountability borne by any present generation for both the past and the future.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationISA 50th Annual Convention
Subtitle of host publicationexploring the past, anticipating the future
PublisherInternational Studies Association
Number of pages20
Publication statusPublished - 2009
EventInternational Studies Association (50th : 2009) - New York
Duration: 15 Feb 200918 Feb 2009


ConferenceInternational Studies Association (50th : 2009)
CityNew York


  • historiography
  • contextualism
  • incommensurability
  • normative theory
  • international relations


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