Mons, 21 October 2021 [1]


In his History of the Origin of Representative Government in Europe, a series of lectures given two centuries ago, from the end of 1820 to 1822, but published thirty years later, François Guizot (1787-1874) criticised partial opinions conceived before examining the facts. Guizot, a professor at the Sorbonne and future Minister of Education under Louis-Philippe, believed that this attitude distorted the rectitude of judgments and introduced a deplorable frivolity into research. He thought that erudition would suffer as a result of inadequate investigation and cursory judgments. Although, in 2021, European democratic concepts have evolved fundamentally since Guizot’s time, particularly in favour of educational progress and especially higher education, heuristics as a tool for discovering facts remains a serious concern for researchers in all disciplines, and also for citizens in a digital world. European universities, through their process, and above all through their ambition, are arguably one of the best responses to these genuine concerns.


A Professor of history at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1812 and then a senior civil servant under the Restoration, François Guizot alarmed the authorities with his liberal ideas and was suspended from teaching from 1822 to 1824. It was during this period that he wrote his major historical works, entitled History of the English Revolution, General History of Civilisation in Europe, and Histoire de la civilisation en France, works which brought him recognition as one of the finest historians of his time [2]. With his scientific mindset, he was one of the first historians – notably after the Liège scholar of the 16th century, Jean Chapeaville (1551-1617) [3] – to use the footnote, in other words, a reference to sources, and to develop an apparatus criticus, using primary sources [4]. After being elected deputy at the beginning of 1830, Guizot became Minister of the Interior in the government that arose out of the July Revolution, which resulted in Louis-Philippe becoming king of the French. As Minister of Public Education from 1832 to 1837, then of Foreign Affairs, he played a key political role, even serving as President of the Council. Conservative by nature and opposed to universal suffrage, he fell from power, along with the king, during the Revolution of 1848 and devoted himself to writing until the end of his life [5].

1. Questions concerning the relationship between a subject and an object

In 1820, while his political friends were excluded from the business of government and he was teaching in Paris, his audiences compiled their notes with a view to publishing his lectures on The History of the Origins of the Representative Government in Europe. Guizot did not perform the necessary revision work until much later, as his lectures were not published until 1851, and then shortly thereafter in London, in English, the following year. During the opening discourse of his lecture of 7 December 1820, which is reproduced in the work, Guizot starts by addressing the relativity of historical facts, which, if they have not gained or lost any of their content over the time they have spanned, will reveal their meaning only gradually, and analysing their significance will reveal new dimensions: and man thus learns, he writes, that in the infinitude of space opened to his knowledge, everything remains constantly fresh and inexhaustible, in regard to his ever-active and ever-limited intelligence [6]. The problem which Professor Guizot imparts to his students lies at the very heart of the objective he has set for his lecture: to describe the history of the public institutions in Europe based on reading about the particular moment of the new political order that had emerged in 1815. For Guizot, this means we have to reconnect what we now are with what we formerly were, and even – and he expresses it so beautifully –, gather together the links in that chain of time.

The problem, observes Guizot, is that studying the old institutions using modern ideas and institutions to explain or judge them has been largely neglected. And when it has happened, he says, it has been approached with such a strong preoccupation of mind, or with such a determined purpose, that the fruits of our labour have been damaged at the outset.

 Opinions which are partial and adopted before facts have been fairly examined, not only have the effect of vitiating the rectitude of judgment, but they moreover introduce a deplorable frivolity into researches which we may call material. As soon as the prejudiced mind has collected a few documents and proofs in support of its cherished notion, it is contented, and concludes its inquiry. On the one hand, it beholds in facts that which is not really contained in them; on the other hand, when it believes that the amount of information it already possesses will suffice, it does not seek further knowledge. Now, such has been the force of circumstances and passions among us, that they have disturbed even erudition itself. It has become a party weapon, an instrument of attack or defence; and facts themselves, inflexible and immutable facts, have been by turns invited or repulsed, perverted or mutilated, according to the interest or sentiment in favour of which they were summoned to appear [7].

Guizot’s analysis is still valid: the problem of discussing political issues that are relatively close in time but perceived as distant due to the scale of the changes that have occurred in the institutional conditions, changes which can be drastic in the case of a revolution or a profound regime change.

He highlights the danger facing teachers, researchers and « intellectuals » – I am aware that it is anachronistic for me to use this word in 1820 or even in 1850 –, the difficulty they have in speaking or writing neutrally, objectively and dispassionately, with the distance that is expected of the role or profession of the person expressing their opinion and getting close to the truth or even telling the truth. The issues surrounding analysis of sources, the ethics of the scientist, and logic as conditions of the truth, along with questions concerning the relationship between a subject and the object they are addressing [8] and historical criticism are at the heart of this self-reflection.


2. A Cognitive Apocalypse

In his lecture to his students, Guizot highlights the risk of being contented too quickly with a sparse collection of sources which appear to support a previously stated assumption without truly substantiating it. When faced with the ambitions and requirements of proof, scant data produces incorrect interpretation of documents. Passion and commitment based on a flimsy argument threaten quality of knowledge, while erudition becomes a partisan instrument. How often do we encounter this situation in a world in which, however, education – and particularly higher education – is becoming increasingly democratised?

Guizot, who, as a minister, had previously resurrected the Académie des Sciences morales et politiques (Academy of Moral and Political Sciences), would today find support for his views from another scientist, a member of the Académie des Technologies (National Academy of Technologies of France) and the Académie nationale française de Médecine (French Academy of Medicine). Just over two centuries after the declarations we have highlighted, Gérald Bronner, professor of sociology at the University of Paris, observes in his remarkable work Apocalypse cognitive (Cognitive Apocalypse) that the first twenty years of the 21st century have introduced massive deregulation in the marketplace for ideas. We note, as does Bronner, that this cognitive market is characterised both by the vast amount of information available, which is unprecedented in the history of humanity, and also by the fact that everyone is able to contribute their own representation of the world. Furthermore, Bronner believes that this evolution has weakened the role of the traditional gatekeepers, namely the academics, experts, journalists, and so on, all those who were previously regarded as rightfully able to participate in public debate and perform a beneficial regulatory role [9].

Bronner’s analyses display a degree of pessimism concerning our ability to cope with this situation. At least three reasons are cited: firstly, the famous Brandolini’s Law or Bullshit Asymmetry Principle. The Italian programmer Alberto Brandolini observed, in 2013, that the amount of energy needed to refute nonsense is far greater than that required to produce it [10]. Will we all be able to find the time, strength and courage to deal with waffle, simplistic analyses and even fake news? Many academics on social media have stopped doing so.

In his fine work on Le courage de la nuance (The courage of nuance), the essayist Jean Birnbaum wisely recalls the presentation made by Raymond Aron (1905-1983) at the Société française de Philosophie in June 1939. Faced with the increasing dangers, the great French intellectual called on his colleagues to assess their commitment: I think, said the author of Introduction à la philosophie de l’histoire [11], that teachers like us are likely to play a minor role in this effort to save our deeply held values. Instead of shouting with the parties, we could strive to define, in the utmost good faith, the problems facing us and the way to solve them [12].

Next, Bronner calls on a great mind of the mid-19th century: Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859). More resolutely democratic than his contemporary Guizot, Tocqueville writes, in his book Democracy in America (1835), that in general, only simple conceptions take hold of the minds of the people. A false idea, but one clear and precise, will always have more power in the world than a true, but complex, idea [13]. Some of you may still recall the excellent cartoon by Wiley Miller, published in The Intellectualist, in 2015, which shows a crowd of people approaching a ravine on a path marked Answers, simple but wrong » while one or two are making their way along a winding path, book in hand, having chosen the direction « Complex but right ».

Wiley Miller, The Intellectualist, 2015

Beyond the common meaning of the words, complex systems analysis, so dear to William Ross Ashby (1903-1972), Norbert Wiener (1894-1964), Herbert Simon (1916-2001), Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1901-1972), Jean Ladrière (1921-2007), Edgar Morin, Jean-Louis Le Moigne, Ilya Prigogine (1917-2003) and Isabelle Stengers, to name but a few, often remains outside the field of knowledge of our university chairs and, therefore, of our students.

Lastly, Bronner notes that our voracious brains do not automatically lead us to scientific models. Even where we have an appetite for knowledge, he adds, this can easily be distracted by the way in which the cognitive market is editorialised. This is the case, for example, with the confusion between correlation and causality, which is clearly illustrated by the Nazi slogan, “500,000 unemployed: 400,000 Jews” [14]. This device seems to crop up repeatedly. But there are other examples, and in all fields. For example, in 1978, the French fascist party, the Front national, stated: « A million unemployed people are a million immigrants too many. France and the French first. »[15] Another example is the poster that Nigel Farage unveiled in Westminster in mid-June 2016, one week before the BREXIT referendum on 23 June. The British broadcaster and Leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) used a picture with the slogan Breaking point: the EU has failed us all, with the subheading: We must break free of the EU and take back control of our borders. The photograph used was of migrants crossing the Croatia-Slovenia border in 2015, with the only prominent white person in the photograph obscured by a box of text. Many people reacted by saying that to claim that migration to the UK is only about people who are not white is to peddle racism. That controversy prompted Boris Johnson to distance himself from Nigel Farage’s campaign [16].

The fact that we have found some particularly divisive, if not detestable, examples could weaken the idea that each of us, entirely logically, may simply demonstrate only what is prejudice. We often start the process of judgment with an inclination to reach a particular conclusion. In their book Noise: A Flaw of Human Judgment, Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony and Cass R. Sinstein give a great example of a slant of thought they call conclusion bias, or prejudgment: when one of George Lucas’ collaborators in the development of the screenplay for Return of the Jedi, the third Star Wars film, suggested that he should kill off Luke and have Princess Leila take over, Lucas rejected the idea and disagreed with the different arguments, replying that « You don’t go around killing people » and, finally, that he didn’t like and didn’t believe that. As the authors observed, by « Not liking » before « Not believing », Lucas let his fast, intuitive System 1 thinking suggest a conclusion [17]. When we follow that process, we jump to the conclusion and simply bypass the process of gathering and integrating information, or we mobilise System 2 thinking – engaging a deliberative thought – to come up with arguments that support our prejudgment. In that case, adds Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner for economics, and his colleagues, the evidence will be selective and distorted: because of confirmation bias and desirability bias, we will tend to collect and interpret evidence selectively to favour a judgment that, respectively, we already believe or wish to be true [18]. Prejudgments are evident wherever we look, conclude the three professors. When people determine what they think by consulting their feelings, the process involved is called the affect heuristic [19], a term coined by the psychologist Paul Slovic, Professor at the University of Oregon.

3. Heuristics as a form of resistance for enlightened minds

As is often the case, we can counter our reasons to despair with reasons to rejoice and hope. In my view, these lie in the power of heuristics, techniques and scientific method(s).

Heuristics is generally understood to mean all the intellectual products, processes and approaches that foster discovery and invention in science. There are two distinct aspects. Firstly, a methodological classification which denotes the discovery techniques that substantiate and legitimise knowledge and, secondly, what we can refer to as general heuristics. This forms part of epistemology, the critical study of science [20], and is responsible for describing and reflecting the general conditions for progress in scientific activity [21].

We are clearly all familiar with the questions of method, the path we follow or undertake, which is designed to lead us and to enable us to achieve a given goal and capitalise on a result. This is the path that provides us with our experience as scientists and intellectuals, which we call experimentation when we initiate it systematically. Scientific research is based on a desire to travel along this path, interactively combining assisted observation of experimentation and system analysis, thus enabling explanation. Adapting thoughts to facts is observation; adapting thoughts to each other is theory [22].

In that respect, contemporary research has two messages for us. Firstly, that of rigour and critique, and, secondly, that of relativity, and therefore humility. In my view, these are each as necessary and important as the other.

3.1. The first message: that of rigour and critique.

Rigour consists, firstly, in knowing what one is talking about, what the problem is, and what one is looking for. This is the first reasonable goal of heuristics: to express in general terms the reasons for choosing subjects which, when analysed, may help us achieve the solution [23]. We can, of course, follow in the footsteps of mathematicians, physicians, logicians, and philosophers, such as Pappus of Alexandria (4th century AD), René Descartes (1596-1650), Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz (1646-1716), Bernhard Bolzano (1781-1848), Ernst Mach ((1838-1916), Jacques Hadamard (1865-1963), George Polya (1887-1985), Jean Hamburger (1909-1992), Morris Kline (1908-1992), and, more recently, Daniel Kahneman and Shane Frederick. In each of our disciplines, we have visited one or more of them, if not all. A mathematician such as Polya, author of How to Solve it? [24], who taught in Zurich and then at Stanford, argues that the sources of inventions are more important than the inventions themselves. This should, he claims, be the motto of any student planning a career in science. Unsubstantiated demonstrations, lemmas that appear out of nowhere, and supplementary approaches that occur unexpectedly are puzzling and depressing for all students, both good and mediocre [25]. Having struggled through an oral exam on Bernouilli’s theory, I can personally testify.

There are, in the world, certain traditions for constructing a critical and intellectually robust discourse, one which is also not Eurocentric and does not, contrary to what we too often teach, date back to the Renaissance or the Enlightenment. As a Visiting Professor at the National Engineering School of Tunis, I am constantly discovering how much we owe – and the term “we” includes researchers such as Arnold J. Toynbee and Joseph Schumpeter – to the Arab scholar Ibn Khaldoun (1332-1406). In the introduction to his great work Muqaddima, this 14th century economist, sociologist and historian recommended making a comparison between the stories as handed down and the rules and models thus established. If they concur and are consistent, these stories can be declared authentic, if not, they will be considered suspect and discounted [26].

This tangible heuristic effort was pioneered by the Italian humanist Lorenzo Valla (1407-1457), whose role was, according to François Dosse, decisive in the notion of truth, to the extent that Dosse, a historian and epistemologist at the University of Paris, spoke of a real turning point [27]. Valla questioned the authenticity of the Donation of Constantine, written in 1440. This text, which acknowledged the fact that the Roman emperor Constantine the Great had bestowed vast territory and spiritual and temporal power on Pope Sylvester I (who reigned from 314 to 335), had great influence on political and religious affairs in medieval Europe. Lorenzo Valla clearly demonstrated that this document was a forgery by analysing the language of the donation. He showed that the Latin used in the text was not that of the 4th century and so argued that the document could not possibly have dated from the time of Constantine [28].

The critical method has found its guardians of the temple in Charles-V Langlois and Charles Seignobos, who established a bulwark against what they considered the natural inclination of the human spirit: not taking precautions and acting confusedly in situations where the utmost caution is essential. They wrote that while everyone, in principle, accepts the value of Criticism – with a capital C! – it hardly ever happens in practice.

The fact is that Criticism is contrary to the normal aspect of intelligence. The spontaneous human tendency is to add belief to assertions and to reproduce them, without even distinguishing them clearly from one’s own observations. In daily life, do we not accept indiscriminately, without any checks, hearsay, anonymous, unsafe information, and all types of documents of mediocre or dubious merit? (…) Any sincere person will recognise that significant effort is needed to shake off the ignavia critica, that common expression for intellectual cowardice; that this effort must be repeated, and that it is often accompanied by genuine suffering [29].

Suffering, the word is out … As with beauty, one needs to suffer to be a researcher. Research is a form of torture inspired, in part, by the works of the German historian Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886). To reach scientific paradise, the research process subjects the document, and the student and the teacher, to a series of analytical operations made up of internal criticism or scholarly criticism (restoration, provenance, classification of sources, criticism of scholars), then to internal criticism (interpretation, negative internal criticism, criticism of sincerity and accuracy, establishing the specific facts) and, lastly, optimises them in synthetic operations.

In 1961, in his extraordinary work entitled L’histoire et ses méthodes (History and its methods), published under the direction of Charles Samaran (1879-1982) from the Institut de France, Robert Marichal (1904-1999) picked up the notion put forward by Langlois and Seignobos, observing that documentary criticism had scarcely been challenged by the proponents of “New History”, which, according to this esteemed archivist, thought that the traditional processes were still effective. Marichal added that the principles that apply to criticism were no different, in general, to those that apply to all human knowledge, as can be found in any logic or psychology textbook [30].

Fifty years later, Gérard Noiriel, a specialist in epistemology in history, states in the online edition of the work by Langlois and Seignobos that they had not invented the rules of historical method, as the basic principles had been known since the 17th century and had been codified by German historians at the beginning of the 19th century. The major contribution of these two professors at the Sorbonne is arguably, states Noiriel, that they wrote that it was necessary to read the historians with the same critical precautions as when one analyses documents [31].

Human science has been greatly influenced by the scientific path taken by history at the end of the 19th century. But, like history, it has distanced itself from this strict criticism of documents. In an introduction, in 2008, entitled L’approximative rigueur de l’anthropologie (The approximate rigour of anthropology), Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan, a professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences sociales (School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences) in Paris, showed that the word was nothing more than an apparent paradox, highlighting the inevitability of approximation faced with the vulnerability of cognitive bias and ideological excesses, and then abandoning this quest completely in a book entitled La Rigueur du qualitatif The Rigour of the Qualitative) [32]. De Sardan also enlisted his American colleague Howard Becker, who, in Sociological Work: Method and Substance (Chicago, Adline, 1970) and Writing for Social Scientists (University of Chicago Press, 1986 & 2007), had highlighted this tension between consistency of what is being described and conformity with the elements discovered [33].

The scientific paradigm has given way to other paradigms, which have also characterised all human sciences. This is the case with the famous École des Annales (School of Annals), whose books, by a brilliant professor from Liège, Léon-E. Halkin (1906-1998), and supported by the Centre de Recherches historiques at the École pratique des Hautes Études in Paris, have helped to clarify these issues surrounding historical criticism.

Although it remained a methodological requirement, the strict critical method – in the sense of the idolatrous cult of the document [34]  – seemed to become more relaxed at the beginning of the 1980s. At the same time, as Charles Samaran had already done in 1961, it was now a question of highlighting the general principles of the method [35], or even the ethics, of the historian. In that regard and taking their cue from the editorial director of l’Histoire et ses méthodes, Guy Thuillier (1932-2019) and Jean Tulard call on the mighty Cicero for help: the first law he must obey is to have the courage not to say what he knows to be false, the second is to have the courage to say what he believes to be true. Thus, they continue, sincerity of mind implies critical sense [36]. The other precepts of Thuillier and Tulard are those I offer to my students, pointing out that this advice applies to all their tasks in all disciplines, as in daily life:

  • Do not assert anything unless there is a “document” that you have verified personally.
  • Always indicate the document’s degree of “probability” – or uncertainty. Do not rely on appearances or have blind faith in texts (…)
  • Always explicitly highlight the assumptions that guide the research, and point out the limits of the investigation (…)
  • Maintain a certain distance from the subject in question and do not confuse, for instance, biography and hagiography (…)
  • Be wary of hasty generalisations (…)
  • Be aware that nothing is definitive (…)
  • Know how to use your time well; do not rush your work (…),
  • Do not shut yourself away in your office (…). Life experience is essential (…) [37]

3.2. The second message is that of relativity, and therefore of humility.

 The remarkable work done by Françoise Waquet, research director at the CNRS, ends with some powerful words: science, she writes, is human – inevitably, mundanely, profoundly so [38]. Her research, in laboratories, libraries and offices, among teachers and students, books and computers, shows how business rules and academic passion(s) are structured around objectivity. Waquet considers the analyses performed Lorraine Daston, co-director of the Max Planck Institute Berlin for the History of Science. These works showed a propensity to strive for a knowledge that bears no trace of the person who has the knowledge, a knowledge which is not characterised by bias or acquired concepts, by imagination or judgment, by desire or effort. In this system of objectivity, passion appears to be the internal enemy of the researcher [39].

Henri Pirenne expressed it perfectly, in 1923, when he claimed that, in order to achieve objectivity or impartiality without which there is no science, [researchers] must constrict themselves and overcome their cherished prejudices, their most deeply seated convictions, and their most natural and respectable sentiments [40]. Moreover, Émile Durkheim expressed the same view for sociology, as did Marcel Mauss for anthropology, Vidal de la Blache for geography and even Émile Borel for mathematics. We could, as Françoise Waquet did, list numerous examples that, even in the so called “hard” sciences, lead to a form of asceticism and ardent objectivity [41].

In the second half of the twentieth century, the dramatic advances in science after the end of the Second World War and the questions arising from criticism of modernity have not left science unscathed. The Jesuit François Russo (1909-1998), a former student at the École polytechnique, noted, in 1959, that science tends to pose problems that lie beyond the domain of the strict scientific method. He cited the theories of Albert Einstein (1879-1955) and Georges Lemaître (1894-1966), other analyses regarding the universe in its entirety, and considerations concerning the depletion of energy in the universe, biological evolution, the origins of life and of humans, human nature, etc., underlining that scientific advances cause these questions to reappear rather than disappear. In this way, and at the same, he posed questions of meaning [42].

Should it be said that the debates on these issues have evolved, from Raymond Aron (1905-1983) to Paul Ricœur (1913-2005), from Karl Polanyi (1886-1964) to Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996), from Karl Popper (1902-1994) to Richard Rorty (1931-2007) and Anthony Giddens, etc.?

On the question of objectivity, he was one of the professors whose classes had the greatest impact on me, who, when faced with passion, demonstrated the path of lucidity. In L’histoire continue (History is going on), the medievalist Georges Duby (1919-1996) considers that it is strict positivist ethics that gives the profession of researcher its dignity. If, he continues, history is abandoning the illusory quest for total objectivity, it is not on account of the stream of irrationality that is invading our culture, but it is above all because the notion of truth in history has changed. Its goal has moved: it is now interested less in facts and more in relationships… [43]


Conclusion: sentiment, reason and experience

Let us return to François Guizot, where we began, but this time in closing.

In that Guizot’s moment, as Pierre Rosanvallon called it, a veritable golden age of political science [44], the lesson was clear: how, at close quarters and under pressure from the major upheavals seen in that period – the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, and the structural and systemic transformations they caused in the fields of technology, politics, society, culture, etc. –, how can we comprehend these events under the sovereignty of reason?

Even if most people have perceived, each in their own time, the advent of a new world [45], with its growth, acceleration, emerging trends and instabilities, our society appears to be characterised more so than yesterday by the flow of information of all kinds that reaches us, challenges us, and assails us. Carried along at great speed on what was already being called the information superhighway a few decades ago, we are learning to control our minds at hitherto unknown speeds, bolstered as we are by our digital tools. To put it mildly, it is now microprocessors that punctuate our work. During lockdown, having switched from Teams to Zoom, from Jitsi to Webex or Google Meet – and having often continued the habit, we all know that it is now the digital world that sets the pace. In the flow of messages, links and texts sent to us, we are learning how to identify the hackers and other digital pests. Beyond our defensive tools, it is experience that often guides us.

We have few firewalls to defend ourselves against the demons of the cognitive apocalypse described, or promised, by Gérald Bronner. We do not want any censorship of “good thinking” or a sterilised world in which we filter our connections and sanitise our brains. In my view, the best form of regulation remains our own intelligence.

This certainly involves heuristics and research methods. In a formal address he gave in September 1964 to mark start of the new term at the Faculté polytechnique de Mons, professor and future rector Jacques Franeau (+2007) noted that it was necessary to avoid confusing objective with subjective, and that, since the primary aim of any society was to create the best environment for human life and happiness, it was necessary, to achieve that goal, for it to start from certain and objective data, to have knowledge before choosing its direction, and then to build on the solid foundations afforded by that knowledge [46].

Thus, to address the concerns, we have highlighted two responses: firstly, rigour and criticism and, secondly, relativity and humility.

Without resorting to Voltaire’s idea that all certainty which is not mathematical demonstration is merely extreme probability [47], the teaching of those who frequent higher education must base stringency on both the robustness and the reasonable traceability of any information produced. Citing a source does not, whatever the discipline, mean referring to the overall work of a scholar, nor even to one of their creations – digital or paper – without specifying the location of the information. Some colleagues or students send you a 600-page book with no further clarification, editing or pagination. Verification is impossible. Similarly, to return to an observation made previously by both the German-American mathematician and economist Oskar Morgenstern (1902-1977) [48] and the Frenchman Gilles-Gaston Granger (1920-2016) [49], the issue of data validity and reliability does not seem to be of interest to many researchers. For these two distinguished experts in comparative epistemology, it was economists who were being targeted. But we can be sure than many other researchers are affected. I am certain that these testimonies resonate with you as they do with me. Training our students in rigour, precision and criticism will certainly help to make them not only good researchers, but also mindful and courageous intellectuals, in other words individuals capable of grasping the most difficult or far-fetched content, breaking free from it, and communicating only what is accurate and certain.

Relativity and humility stem from our awareness of our weaknesses when faced with the world and the difficulty we have in grasping the system as a whole. They are also nurtured by the legitimate notion that explanations of phenomena and their truth change with scientific advances. It cannot be denied, states Granger, that a Newtonian truth concerning the trajectory of a star differs from Einstein’s truth regarding the same object [50]. Rather than being sceptical about scientific knowledge, it is instead a question of looking at ourselves, as human beings, and acknowledging the richness of our capacity to articulate sentiment, reason and experience. At a time when cybernetic dreams are becoming a reality in artificial general intelligence, we have an ever-increasing number of human and scientific references to show us the way.

Thus, to conclude this talk, I will refer to the author of La Science expérimentale, Claude Bernard (1813-1878). In his acceptance speech at the Académie française, on 27 May 1869, the great doctor and philologist observed that, in the progressive development of humanity, poetry, philosophy and science express the three phases of our intelligence, moving successively through sentiment, reason and experience [51].

Nevertheless, states Bernard, it would be wrong to believe that if one follows the precepts of the experimental method, the researcher – and I would say the intellectual – must reject all a priori notions and silence their sentiment, so that their views are based solely on the results of the experiment. In reality, he adds, the laws that govern manifestations of human intelligence do not allow the researcher to proceed other than by always, and successively, moving through sentiment, reason and experience. But, convinced of the worthlessness of the spirit when reduced to itself, he gives experience (experimentation) a dominant influence and he tries to guard against the impatience of knowing, which leads us constantly to make mistakes. We must therefore go in search of the truth calmly and without haste, relying on reason, or reasoning, which always serves to guide us, but, at every step, we must temper it and tame it through experience, in the knowledge that, unbeknown to us, sentiment causes us return to the origin of things [52].

If, in 2021, European democratic conceptions have fundamentally evolved since Guizot, thanks to progress in education and in particular within higher education, heuristics as a tool for discovering facts remains a sensitive concern for researchers of all disciplines, but also citizens, in a digital world. European universities, such as those gathered in EUNICE, considering their background, but also above all by their ambition, undoubtedly constitute one of the best responses to real concerns.


Philippe Destatte



[1] This text is the background paper of the conference that I presented on October 21, 2021 at the Academic Hall of the University of Mons, as part of EUNICE WEEKS mobilising, with the support of the European Commission, the network which brings together the universities of Brandenburg, Cantabria, Catania, Lille – Hauts de France, Poznań, Vaasa and Mons.

[2] Laurent THEIS, Guizot, La traversée d’un siècle, Paris, CNRS Editions, 2014. – Edition Kindle, Location 1104. – François Guizot, in Encyclopaedia Britannica, Oct. 8, 2021,

[3] René HOVEN, Jacques STIENNON, Pierre-Marie GASON, Jean Chapeaville (1551-1617) et ses amis. Contribution à l’historiographie liégeoise, Bruxelles, Académie royale de Belgique, 2004 – Paul DELFORGE, Jean Chapeaville (1551-1617), Connaître la Wallonie, Namur,  December 2014. which, at the time, had fascinated Professor Jacques Stiennon (ULIEGE).

[4] Ibidem, Location 1149-1150.

[5] Guillaume de BERTHIER DE SAUVIGNY, François Guizot (1787-1874), in Encyclopædia Universalis accessed on 13 October  2021. – Pierre ROSANVALLON, Le moment Guizot, coll. Bibliothèque des Sciences humaines, Paris, NRF-Gallimard, 1985. – André JARDIN and André-Jean TUDESQ, La France des Notables, L’évolution générale, 1815-1848, Nouvelle Histoire de la France contemporaine, Paris, Seuil, 1988.

[6] François GUIZOT, Histoire des origines du gouvernement représentatif en Europe, p. 2, Paris, Didier, 1851. – (…) and man thus learns that in the infinitude of space opened to his knowledge, everything remains constantly fresh and inexhaustible, in regard to his ever-active and ever-limited intelligence. GUIZOT, History of the Origins of Representative Government in Europe, p. 2,

[7] François GUIZOT, History of the Origin of Representative Government in Europe, translated by Andrew E. Scobe, p. 4, London, Henry G. Bohn, 1852.

[8] Concerning these issues, see the always very valuable Jean PIAGET dir., Logique et connaissance scientifique, coll. Encyclopédie de la Pléiade, Paris, Gallimard, 1967. In particular, J. PIAGET, L’épistémologie et ses variétés, p. 3sv. – Hervé BARREAU, L’épistémologie, Paris, PuF, 2013.

[9] Gérald BRONNER, Apocalypse cognitive, Paris, PUF-Humensi, 2021.

[10] G. BRONNER, Apocalypse…, p. 220-221.

[11] Raymond ARON, La philosophie critique de l’histoire, Essai sur une théorie allemande de l’histoire (1938), Paris, Vrin, 3e ed., 1964.

[12] Raymond ARON, Communication devant la Société française de philosophie, 17 juin 1939, dans R. ARON, Croire en la démocratie, 1933-1944, Textes édités et présentés par Vincent Duclert, p. 102, Paris, Arthème-Fayard – Pluriel, 2017. – Jean BIRNBAUM, Le courage de la nuance, p. 73, Paris, Seuil, 2021.

[13] Alexis de TOCQUEVILLE, Democracy in America (1835), Translated by Harvey C. Mansfield & Delba Winthrop, p. 155, Chicago & London, The University of Chicago Press, 2002. – La Démocratie en Amérique, in Œuvres, collection La Pléade, t. 2, p. 185, Paris, Gallimard, 1992. – G. BRONNER, op. cit., p. 221.

[14] G. BRONNER, op. cit., p. 238 et 298

[15] Valérie IGOUNET, Derrière le Front, Histoires, analyses et décodage du Front national, 26 octobre 2015.

[16] Heather STEWART & Rowen MASON, Nigel Farage’s anti-migrant poster reported to police, in The Guardian, June 16, 2016.

[17] D. KAHNEMAN, Thinking, Fast and Slow, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. – Trad. Système 1/ Système 2, Les deux vitesses de la pensée, Paris, Flammarion, 2012. – See also: D. KAHNEMAN et al., dir., Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases, Cambridge University Press, 1982.

[18] Daniel KAHNEMAN, Olivier SIBONY and Cass R. SUNSTEIN, Noise, A flaw in Human Judgment, p. 166-167, New York – Boston – London, Little Brown Spark, 2021.

[19] Ibidem, p. 168. – Paul SLOVIC, Psychological Study of Human Judgment: Implications for Investment Decision Making, in Journal of Finance, 27, 1972, p. 779.

[20] In the broadest sense of the concept, both Latin and Anglo-Saxon. See Gilles Gaston GRANGER, Epistémologie, dans Encyclopædia Universalis, viewed on 10 October 2021.

[21] Jean-Pierre CHRÉTIEN-GONI, Heuristique, dans Encyclopædia Universalis, viewed on 10 October 2021. – Avrum STROLL, Epistemology, in Encyclopaedia Britannica, viewed on 16 October 2021,

[22] Jean LARGEAULT, Méthode, Encyclopædia Universalis, viewed on 10 October 2021. – Scientific Method, in Encyclopaedia Britannica, October 15, 2021, viewed on 17 October.

[23] George POLYA, L’Heuristique est-elle un sujet d’étude raisonnable?, in Travail et Méthodes, Numéro Hors Série La Méthode dans les Sciences modernes, Paris, Sciences et Industrie, 1958.

[24] G. POLYA, How to Solve it?, Princeton University Press, 1945.

[25] G. POLYA, L’Heuristique est-elle un sujet d’étude raisonnable…, p. 284.

[26] Ibn KHALDUN, Le Livre des exemples, Autobiographie, Muqaddima, text translated and annotated by Abdesselam Cheddadi, collection Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, t. 1, p. 39, Paris, NRF-Gallimard, 2202. (Our translation in English) – Abdesselam CHEDDADI, Ibn Khaldûn, L’homme et le théoricien de la civilisation, p. 194, Paris, NRF-Gallimard, 2006.

[27] François DOSSE, L’histoire, p. 18-20, Paris, A. Colin, 2° éd., 2010. – Blandine BARRET-KRIEGEL, L’histoire à l’âge classique, vol. 2, p. 34, Paris, PUF, 1988.

[28] Ulick Peter BURKE, Lorenzo Valla, in Encyclopaedia Britannica, viewed on October 19, 2021 Donation of Constantin, in Encyclopaedia Britannica, viewed on October 19, 2021.

[29] Charles-Victor LANGLOIS and Charles SEIGNOBOS, Introduction aux études historiques, p. 48-49, Paris, Hachette & Cie, 1898. 4 ed., s.d. (1909).

[30] Robert MARICHAL, La critique des textes, in Charles SAMARAN dir., L’histoire et ses méthodes, coll. Encyclopédie de la Pléiade, p. 1248, Paris, NRF-Gallimard, 1961.

[31] Gérard NOIREL, Preface by Charles-Victor LANGLOIS and Charles SEIGNOBOS, Introduction aux études historiques, Paris, ENS, 2014.

[32] Jean-Pierre OLIVIER de SARDAN, La rigueur du qualitatif, Les contraintes empiriques de l’interprétation socio-anthropologique, p. 7-10, Louvain-la-Neuve, Bruylant-Academia, 2008.

[33] Howard BECKER, Les ficelles du métier, Comment conduire sa recherche en Sciences sociales, p. 48, Paris, La Découverte, 2002. – J-P OLIVIER de SARDAN, op. cit., p. 8.

[34] F. DOSSE, L’histoire…, p. 29. Here, we are referring to Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges (1830-1889). See François HARTOG, Le XIXe siècle et l’histoire, Le cas Fustel de Coulanges, p. 351-352, Paris, PUF, 1988.

[35] Ch. SAMARAN, L’histoire et ses méthodes…, p. XII-XIII.

[36] Ibidem, p. XIII. – J. TULARD & G. THUILLIER, op. cit., p. 91.

[37] J. TULARD (1933) and .G. THUILLIER, La méthode en histoire…, p. 92-94.

[38] Françoise WAQUET, Une histoire émotionnelle du savoir, XVIIe-XXIe siècle, p. 325 , Paris, CNRS Editions, 2019.

[39] Lorraine DASTON, The moral Economy of Science, in Osiris, 10, 1995, p. 18-23. – F. WAQUET, op. cit., p. 393,

[40] Henri PIRENNE, De la méthode comparative en histoire, Discours prononcé à la séance d’ouverture du Ve Congrès international des Sciences historiques, 9 April 1923, Brussels, Weissenbruch, 1923. – F. WAQUET, op. cit., p. 306.

[41] F. PAQUET, op. cit., p. 303. – Paul WHITE, Darwin’s emotions, The Scientific self and the sentiment of objectivity, in Isis, 100, 2009, p. 825.

[42] François RUSSO, Valeur et situation de la méthode scientifique, in La méthode dans les sciences modernes…, p. 341. – See also: F. RUSSO, Nature et méthode de l’histoire des sciences, Paris, Blanchard, 1984.

[43] Georges DUBY, L’histoire continue, p. 72-78, Paris, Odile Jacob, 1991.

[44] Pierre ROSANVALLON, Le moment Guizot, coll. Bibliothèque des sciences humaines, p. 75 et 87, Paris, NRF-Gallimard, 1985.

[45] Michel LUSSAULT, L’avènement du monde, Essai sur l’habitation humaine de la Terre, Paris, Seuil, 2013.

[46] Jacques FRANEAU, D’où vient et où va la science ? Formal address to mark the start of term at the Faculté polytechnique de Mons, 26 September 1964, p. 58.

[47] René POMMEAU, Préface, in VOLTAIRE, Œuvres historiques,  p. 14, Paris, NRF-Gallimard, 1957.

[48] Oskar MORGENSTERN, On the accuracy of Economic Observation, Princeton, 1950.

[49] Gilles-Gaston GRANGER, La vérification, p. 191, Paris, Odile Jacob, 1992.

[50] Ibidem, p. 10.

[51] Claude BERNARD, Discours de réception à l’Académie française, 27 May 1869, in Claude BERNARD, La Science expérimentale,  p. 405-406, Paris, Baillière & Fils, 3rd ed., 1890.

[52] Ibidem, p. 439.

Namur (Wallonia), August 28, 2021

Anticipating means visualising and then acting before the events or actions occur. This implies taking action based on what is visualised, which just goes to show how complex the process is and how problematic our relationship is with the future. The saying “to govern means to foresee » is at odds with this complexity principle. It also refers to individual responsibility. Blaming politics is a little simplistic and unfair, as it is up to each of us to govern ourselves, which means we must “anticipate”. Yet we are constantly guilty of not anticipating in our daily lives.


1. Our relationship with the future

 Our relationship with the future is problematic. There are five different attitudes, of which anticipation is merely the fifth. The first is common: we go with the flow; in other words, we wait for things to happen. We hope everything will go well. It is business as usual, or we have always done this as they say in Wallonia. We can also echo the words used by the miners whenever the colliery tunnels were shored up: it can’t hurt, it’s not dangerous, it’s strong, it’s reliable, etc. My father taught me to ridicule this cavalier attitude and, above all, to challenge it.

The second attitude is more active: it involves playing by the rules and working within the norms. The elected officials pay close attention to this, and so do we all. We have to have an extinguisher in our car in case of fire, but mostly to comply with the legal obligations, regulations, technical checks, and so on. Note that public buildings and businesses are also required to have them and to ensure that they are checked regularly. Very few people have one or more fire extinguishers in their house or apartment, and, even if they do, they may not be in working order or suitable for the different types of fire that may occur. We know that it is not a legal requirement, so most people don’t bother about it.

The third attitude towards the future is responsiveness: we respond to external stimuli, and we adapt quickly to the situations that arise. Images of firefighters and emergency workers come to mind, of course, and entrepreneurs as well. Responsiveness may be a virtue, but we know that it is sometimes ineffective in the face of fast-moving events. In defence of their discipline, futurists often quote a saying which they attribute to the statesman Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754-1838): when it’s urgent, it’s already too late.

The fourth attitude towards the future is preactivity: our ability – or lack of – to prepare for changes once they are foreseeable. The word foreseeable is clearly related to forecasting, in other words, an assumption is made about the future which is usually quantified and associated with a confidence index based on an expectation. This involves taking a number of variables and system elements into account against a background of previous structural stability and analysing them and their possible evolutions. The likelihood of these possible evolutions is then calculated. Validation is always uncertain due to the complexity of the systems created by the variables. A common example is the weather forecast: it gives me a probability of rain at a given time. If I am preactive, I take my umbrella or I pile sandbags in front of my doors.

The fifth attitude towards the future is proactivity. In his work on the Battle of Stalingrad – 55 years after the event –, British historian and former officer Antony Beevor criticises the German general Friedrich Paulus (1890-1957) for not, as the military commander, being prepared to confront the threat of encirclement which had been facing him for weeks, particularly by not retaining a strong, mobile, armoured capability. This would have enabled the Sixth Army of the Wehrmacht to defend itself effectively at the crucial moment. But, Beevor adds, that implied a clear assessment of the actual danger [1]. This means that, faced with expected and identified changes (I would say exploratory foresight), or even desired changes, which I will cause or create (I would then say normative foresight), I will take action. Anticipating means both visualising and then acting in advance, in other words, acting before the events or actions occur. That is why we could also say, with Riel Miller, that if the future does not exist in the present, anticipation does. The form the future takes in the present is anticipation [2].


2. A threefold problem to comprehend the future

We are all faced with a threefold problem when confronting the future. The first problem is that, in the tradition of Gaston Berger (1896-1960) [3], we are expected to look far ahead but, in reality, the future does not exist as an object of knowledge. Clearly, it does not exist because it is not written and is not determined, as Marx believed or as some collapse theorists today believe.

We are also expected to take a broad view and to reflect systemically. But forecasts only focus on a limited number of variables, even in the era of Big Data. Yet we find ourselves faced with systems which are all complex and interwoven in a tangle of unlikely events. We are all familiar with emergences [4] or sudden occurrences linked to the relationships between participants and factors within the system. When driving my car, I can anticipate a puddle, to avoid aquaplaning, or a patch of ice by telling myself that I must not break. But, in reality, I never know what my reaction will be when I feel my wheels shaking, or how my car, my tyres or the road surface will react. Similarly, I never know what the reaction will be of the drivers in front of me or behind me, or in the other lanes, or of the bird that happens to strike my windscreen at that precise moment. So, I have to deal with the complexity, but I cannot reduce it.

The third problem is that, faced with world systems of such complexity, my own knowledge tools are limited. We are trained in disciplines, epistemologies, knowledge methods, vocabularies, and scientific jargon which do not encourage multidisciplinarity (studying one discipline through several disciplines), interdisciplinarity (transferring methods from one discipline to another) or transdisciplinarity (a demanding approach which moves between, across and beyond disciplines), to echo the distinctions expressed by the Franco-Romanian physicist Basarab Nicolescu in response to the works of Jean Piaget (1896-1980) [5]. Our narrowmindedness and reluctance to open up affect our humility, encourage received ideas, create ambiguity (words do not have the same meanings), prevent the necessary constructive dialogue, and adversely affect collective intelligence.

A key achievement of the French economists and futurists Jacques Lesourne (1928-2020) and Michel Godet was to demonstrate the limits of forecasting, which looks to the past for invariants or relationship models to suggest its permanence or its relatively constant evolution in the future, leading to conditional forecasts: ceteris paribus, all things being equal”. Michel Godet’s major work is entitled The Crisis in Forecasting and the Emergence of the « La Prospective », (Pergamon, 1979). In it, he writes that it was on account of the philosopher Gaston Berger, who was himself nurtured on the reflections of Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) and Maurice Blondel (1861-1949), and numerous Anglo-Saxon sources of inspiration, that the foresight approach developed. This intellectual stance involves taking the past and future into consideration over the long-term, comprehending the entire system in a seamless way, and exploring capabilities and means of action collectively.

Against our cultural, mental, intellectual, scientific, social and political background, this approach is not encouraged. It does, however, move us on from the question “what is going to happen” to the question “what may happen” and, therefore, “what if?”. This is also linked to one of our major preoccupations: the short-, medium-, and long-term impact prior analysis of the decisions we take.

Foresight has developed methods based precisely on the issue of these emergences. In addition to analysing trends and trajectories – which can identify crises such as the global financial crash in 2008 –, it also works with wildcards: major surprises and unexpected, remarkable, and unlikely events, which may have significant impacts if they occur: the 9/11 attacks, the Icelandic volcano in April 2010, the Covid crisis in 2019, the floods in July 2021, and so on.

There is also much talk today of black swan events as a result of the work of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, formerly a trader and now professor of risk engineering at the University of New York. This involves identifying events that are statistically almost impossible – so-called statistical dissonance – but which happen anyway [6].


3. Constructing a political agenda for complexity

First of all, we must be sceptical about the retrospective biases highlighted by the economist, psychologist and future Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky, which involve exaggerating, retrospectively, the fact that events could have been anticipated. These biases are linked to the need we all have to make sense of things, including the most random events [7]. When the unpredictable happens, it is intellectually quite easy for us to see it as predictable.

Next, it should be noted that political leaders are faced with the core issues of appropriation, legitimacy, and acceptability – especially budgetary – of a decision taken at the end of a dialogue and negotiation process involving multiple participants. The public will not necessarily be in favour of the government spending significant amounts on understanding problems they cannot yet visualise. Like St. Thomas, if they can’t touch it, they won’t believe it. At the outset, the population is not ready to hear what the politicians have to tell them on the matter, whether it involves a “stop-concrete” strategy or a perishable supply of masks. For experts and elected officials alike, it is no longer enough to make claims. They now have to provide scientific proof, and, above all, avoid denial, as the emotional link can be considerable. The significant role played by the media should also not be overlooked. For a long time, it was thought that a pandemic was an acceptable risk, as in the 1960s with the Hong Kong flu which caused at least a million deaths globally between 1968 and 1970, whereas the sight of Covid-19 victims in intensive care is unbearable and makes us less willing to accept the number of deaths. Remember how, in France, Health Minister Roselyne Bachelot was criticised and accused of squandering public money when she bought health masks and vaccines for swine flu (H1N1 virus) in 2009-2010. At the same time, humans have a great capacity to become accustomed to risk. Think of the nuclear sword of Damocles that was the Cold War, which continued until the early 1990s. We should also question whether this military nuclear risk – the anthropic apocalypse – has disappeared.

We constantly find ourselves needing to agree on the priority of the challenges facing us. Constructing a political agenda for such complexity is by no means clear, and political leaders wonder whether they will be criticised for starting works that may not seem urgent or sufficiently important to merit sustained attention, stakeholder mobilisation, and the resulting budgets.

Finally, governing not only means solving organisational problems, allocating resources and planning actions over time. It also means making things intelligible, as the French historian Pierre Rosanvallon points out [8]. The political world does not appreciate the importance of the educational aspect. In Belgium, politicians no longer go on television to talk to people directly and explain an issue that needs to be addressed. Government communications have disappeared; now, there are only televised addresses from the Head of State, who in this way becomes the last actor to communicate values to the public in this way.


Conclusion: uncertainty, responsibility, and anticipation

In May 2020, during the Covid-19 lockdown, the host of Signes des Temps on France-Culture radio, Marc Weitzmann, had the bright idea of recalling the first major debate of the Age of Enlightenment on natural disasters and their consequences for human populations [9], a debate between Voltaire (1694-1778) and Rousseau (1712-1778) about the Lisbon disaster of 1755 [10].

HRP5XD Lisbon Tsunami, 1755 – Woodcut – The Granger – NYC

On 1 November 1755 (All Saints Day), Lisbon was hit by a huge earthquake. Three successive waves between 5 and 15 metres high destroyed the port and the city centre [11], and tens of thousands of inhabitants lost their lives in the earthquake, tsunami and huge fire that followed. When he heard the news, Voltaire was deeply affected and, several weeks later, in view of the gravity of the event, he wrote a famous poem in which his intention was to go beyond mere evocation of the disaster and compassion for the victims.

Come, ye philosophers, who cry, “All’s well,”

And contemplate this ruin of a world.

Behold these shreds and cinders of your race,

This child and mother heaped in common wreck,

These scattered limbs beneath the marble shafts—

A hundred thousand whom the earth devours,

Who, torn and bloody, palpitating yet,

Entombed beneath their hospitable roofs,

In racking torment end their stricken lives.

To those expiring murmurs of distress,

To that appalling spectacle of woe,

Will ye reply: “You do but illustrate

The iron laws that chain the will of God »? [12]

In this “Poem on the Lisbon disaster”, from which these lines are a short excerpt, Voltaire ponders the appropriateness of attributing the event to divine justice, when, according to some so-called optimistic philosophers at the time, everything natural is a gift from God and, therefore, ultimately good and just [13]. Without calling divine power into question, Voltaire counters this concept, rejects the idea of a specific celestial punishment to atone for vices in the Portuguese capital, and instead declares fate responsible for the disaster.

As mentioned by Jean-Paul Deléage, who, in 2005, published in the Écologie et Politique review the letter which Rousseau sent to Voltaire on 18 August 1756, Voltaire went on to propose a new concept of human responsibility. This concept was social and political rather than metaphysical and religious. Thus, in his reply to Voltaire, Rousseau states as follows:

 (…), I believe I have shown that with the exception of death, which is an evil almost solely because of the preparations which one makes preceding it, most of our physical ills are still our own work. Is it not known that the person of each man has become the least part of himself, and that it is almost not worth the trouble of saving it when one has lost all the rest Without departing from your subject of Lisbon, admit, for example, that nature did not construct twenty thousand houses of six to seven stories there, and that if the inhabitants of this great city had been more equally spread out and more lightly lodged, the damage would have been much less, and perhaps of no account. All would have fled at the first disturbance, and the next day they would have been seen twenty leagues from there, as gay as if nothing had happened; but it is necessary to remain, to be obstinate around some hovels, to expose oneself to new quakes, because what one leaves behind is worth more than what one can bring along. How many unfortunate people have perished in this disaster because of one wanting to take his clothes, another his papers, another his money?  Is it not known that the person of each man has become the least part of himself, and that it is almost not worth the trouble of saving it when one has lost all the rest? [14] 

Whereas, for Voltaire, the Lisbon disaster was an accident and an unfortunate combination of circumstances, Rousseau feels that the natural seismic effects were compounded by the actions, urban choices and attitude of the people during the disaster. It is the responsibility of human behaviour that Rousseau highlights. In essence, he believes that, although Lisbon was destroyed, this was linked to the human decision to build a city on the coast and near a fault line. A lack of anticipation, perhaps.

Rousseau returned to these matters in his Confessions, in which he again absolves Providence and maintains that, of all the evils in people’s lives, there was not one to be attributed to Providence, and which had not its source rather in the abusive use man made of his faculties than in nature [15].

In the appropriately named Signes des Temps, or Sign of the Times, programme, Marc Weitzmann established a link between this debate, the question of uncertainty, nature and mankind, and the thoughts of French urbanist Paul Virilio (1932-2018). Scarred by the blitzkrieg and his lost childhood, and the idea that acceleration prevents anticipation and can lead to coincidence, Virilio, author of Speed and Politics (MIT Press, 2006), The Original Accidentl (Polity Press, 2007), and The Great Accelerator (Polity Press, 2012), emphasised that industrial and natural disasters progressed not only geometrically but also geographically, if not cosmically. In his view, this progress of contemporary coincidence requires a new intelligence in which the principle of responsibility permanently supplants the principle of technoscientific effectiveness, which is, considers Virilio, arrogant to the point of delusion [16].

Thus, as in Rousseau, our natural disasters seem increasingly inseparable from our anthropic disasters. All the more so since, as we now know, we have through our human and industrial actions altered the course of time in all its meanings: climate time, as well as speed time, or acceleration.

The fine metaphor used by futurists on the need to have good headlights at night – the faster we travel, the brighter they need to be – seems somewhat outdated. While, today, we are collectively wondering whether the road still exists, we can still enjoy inventing, plotting, and carving out a new path. For, in the words of Gaston Berger, the future is not only what may happen or what is most likely to happen, but is also, and increasingly so, what we want it to be. Predicting a disaster is conditional: it involves predicting what would happen if we did nothing to change the situation rather than what will happen in any event [17].

Risk management will remain a fundamental necessity on the path we choose. What is more, any initiative involves a degree of uncertainty which we can only ever partially reduce. This uncertainty will never absolve our individual and collective responsibilities as elected representatives or citizens. This uncertainty, in turn, creates a duty of anticipation [18].

Anticipation culture must feature at the heart of our public and collective policies. To that end, we must employ foresight methods that are genuinely robust and operational, along with impact prior analyses for the actions to be taken. That is the only way to tackle a new future without false impressions.

In his conclusions of The Imperative of Responsability, Hans Jonas decreed that, facing the threat of nuclear war, ecological ravage, genetic engineering, and the like, fear was a requirement for tackling the future [19]. We must treat anticipation in the same way. Thus anticipation meets hope, each being a consequence of the other.



Philippe Destatte


Related paper: Increasing rationality in decision-making through policy impact prior analysis (July 12, 2021)


Direct access to PhD2050’s English papers


[1] Free translation from: Antony BEEVOR, Stalingrad, p. 231-232 et 252 , Paris, de Fallois, 1999.

[2] Riel MILLER, Futures Literacy: transforming the future, in R. MILLER ed., Transforming the Future, Anticipation in the 21st Century, p. 2, Paris, UNESCO – Abingdon, Routledge, 2018.

[3] Gaston BERGER, L’attitude prospective, dans Phénoménologie et prospective, p. 270sv, Paris, PUF, 1964.

[4] According to the systemist Edgar Morin, emergence is an organizational product which, although inseparable from the system as a whole, appears not only at the global level, but possibly at the level of the components. Emergence is a new quality in relation to the constituents of the system. It therefore has the virtue of an event, since it arises in a discontinuous manner once the system has been constituted; it has of course the character of irreducibility; it is a quality which cannot be broken down, and which cannot be deduced from previous elements. E. MORIN, La méthode, t.1, p. 108, Paris, Seuil, 1977. – The concept of emergence finds its origin in George Henry Lewes. To urge that we do not know how theses manifold conditions emerge in the phenomenon Feeling, it is to say that the synthetic fact has not been analytically resolved into all its factor. It is equally true that we do not know how Water emerges from Oxygen and Hydrogen. The fact of an emergence we know; and we may be certain that what emerges is the expression of its conditions, – every effect being the procession of its cause. George Henry LEWES, Problems of Life and Mind, t. 2, p. 412, London, Trübner & Co, 1874. – André LALANDE, Vocabulaire technique et critique de la philosophie, p. 276-277, Paris, PUF, 1976.

[5] See: Transdisciplinarité in Ph. DESTATTE & Philippe DURANCE dir., Les mots-clés de la prospective territoriale, p. 51, Paris, La Documentation française, 2009.

[6] Nassim Nicholas TALEB, The Black Swan, The Impact of the Highly Improbable, New York, Random House, 2007.

[7] Daniel KAHNEMAN & Amos TVERSKY, Prospect theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk, in Econometrica, Journal of the econometric society, 1979, vol. 47, nr 2, p. 263-291.

[8] Pierre ROSANVALLON, Counter-Democracy, Politics in an Age of Distrust, Cambridge University Press,  2008.

[9] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Lettre à Monsieur de Voltaire sur ses deux poèmes sur « la Loi naturelle » et sur « le Désastre de Lisbonne », présentée par Jean-Paul DELEAGE, dans Écologie & politique, 2005, 30, p. 141-154.

[10] Cfr Marc Weitzmann, Le Cygne noir, une énigme de notre temps, ou la prévision prise en défaut, avec Cynthia Fleury, Bruno Tertrais et Erwan Queinnec, Signes des Temps, France Culture,

[11] Sofiane BOUHDIBA, Lisbonne, le 1er novembre 1755 : un hasard ? Au cœur de la polémique entre Voltaire et Rousseau, A travers champs, 19 octobre 2014. S. Bouhdiba est démographe à l’Université de Tunis. – Jean-Paul POIRIER, Le tremblement de terre de Lisbonne, Paris, Odile Jacob, 2005.

[12] Translation taken from the Online Library of Liberty,

VOLTAIRE, Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne (1756), Œuvres complètes, Paris, Garnier, t. 9, p. 475. Wikisources :

[13] We are talking about theodicy here. This consists in the justification of the goodness of God by the refutation of the arguments drawn from the existence. This concept was introduced by the German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz (1646-1716) in an attempt to reconcile the apparent contradiction between, on the one hand, the misfortunes that prevail on earth and, on the other hand, the power and the goodness of God. LEIBNITZ, Essais de théodicée sur la bonté de Dieu, la liberté de l’Homme et l’origine du mal, Amsterdam, F. Changuion, 1710. – See Patrick SHERRY, Theodicy in Encyclopedia Britannica, Accessed 28 August 2021.

We know that in his tale Candide, or Optimism, published in 1759, Voltaire will deform and mock Leibnitzian thought through the caricatural character of Pangloss and the formula everything is at best in the best of all possible worlds … VOLTAIRE, Candide ou l’Optimisme, in VOLTAIRE, Romans et contes, Edition établie par Frédéric Deloffre et Jacques Van den Heuvel, p. 145-233, Paris, Gallimard, 1979.

[14] Translation from Internet Archive, Letter to Voltaire, Pl, IV, 1060-1062, p. 51.,

Lettre à Monsieur de Voltaire sur ses deux poèmes sur la « Loi naturelle » et sur « Le Désastre de Lisbonne », 18 août 1756. in Jean-Paul DELEAGE, op. cit.

[15] J.-J. ROUSSEAU, Confessions, IX, Paris, 1767, cité par Sofiane BOUHDIBA, op. cit.

[16] Paul VIRILIO, L’accident originel, p. 3, Paris, Galilée, 2005.

[17] G. BERGER, Phénoménologie et prospective…, p. 275. (Free translation).

[18] Voir à ce sujet Pierre LASCOUMES, La précaution comme anticipation des risques résiduels et hybridation de la responsabilité, dans L’année sociologique, Paris, PUF, 1996, 46, n°2, p. 359-382.

[19] Hans JONAS, The Imperative of Responsability, In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age, The University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Boston, April 30, 2018

In order to conclude the symposium Grappling with the Futures, Insights from History, Philosophy, and Science, Technology and Society, hosted in Boston by Harvard University (Department of the History of Science) and Boston University (Department of Philosophy) on Sunday, April 29 and Monday, April 30, 2018, the organizers wanted to hear about related organizations or initiatives. They wanted to both learn more about them and figure out the potential added value of these possible new additions to the network, which should not duplicate existing ones and should foster mutually beneficial synergies. We therefore heard from Ted Gordon for the Millennium Project, Keri Facer for the Anticipation Conference, Cynthia Selin for the Arizona State University initiatives, Terry Collins for the Association of Professional Futurists, Philippe Durance for the CNAM, Jenny Andersson and Christina Garsten for the Global Foresight Project[1], and myself for The Destree Institute. This paper is a revised version of my short contribution given in this final panel.

 1. A Trajectory from Local to Global

Some groups mainly know The Destree Institute as a local NGO with quite a long history (it will be 80 years old in June 2018) of modest size (10 researchers), a foundation that operates as a ‘think and do tank’ and is close to the Parliament of Wallonia and government, a partner of the regional administration and very open to the world of entrepreneurship. It works at the crossroads between five or six universities in cross-border collaboration. Twenty years ago now, after 15 years of research in history and future studies, The Destree Institute created its Foresight Unit, supplementing this last year with a laboratory of collective, public and entrepreneurial policies for Wallonia in Europe: the Wallonia Policy Lab [2]. Its work in this area is intellectually supported by a Regional Foresight College consisting of 30 leaders from various spheres of society.

To others, The Destree Institute is first and foremost a European and global research Centre in the field of foresight, a worldwide NGO with a special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and an official partner of UNESCO (with consultative status) since 2012; a member of the Open Government Partnership Civil Society Community; a founder of the Brussels Area Node of the Millennium Project; a leading partner of many European initiatives; and the headquarters of the Millennia2025 Women and Innovation Foundation, a global foresight initiative for women’s empowerment and equality, involving more than 10,000 members, researchers and grassroots workers in five continents, whose international foresight research process was launched in 2008 with the support of the Millennium Project and the patronage of UNESCO’s Director-General.

Both views are correct. The Destree Institute’s development from a local history research Centre in Wallonia to a European and global foresight actor is easily traced; at the same time, it has succeeded in maintaining strong local roots.

One of the main ambitions and achievements of The Destree Institute lies in its ability to develop a strong operational conception of foresight. We use foresight not only to think about the future but to shift the system, to trigger transition and transformation. Far from just thinking that one could modify the future simply by looking at it, Gaston Berger – whose importance has been emphasized by the organizers of the symposium – saw change as a process that is hard to implement and difficult to conduct, as the American researchers in social psychology whose models inspired him had shown. Berger particularly referred to the theories of change and transformation processes described by Kurt Lewin, Ronald Lippitt, Jeanne Watson and Bruce Westley[3]. With this in mind, we developed in 2010 a tool named the Bifurcation Method (in the sense of ‘bifurcations’ used by Nobel Prize-Winner Ilya Prigogine) in order to identify the different moments when the system, or a part of it, or an actor, could take different directions or trajectories. We first apply this tool to the past in what we call the retroforesight phase, identifying trajectories that could have been taken at particular past moments and what developments would have ensued. We can then use the techniques of foresight to try to identify bifurcations and trajectories in the future, using institutional rendezvous, assumptions and wildcards, events of low probability but with high impacts which can open up the cone of the future and cause movement in the system.

In this way, we are able to structure concrete operational work drawing on the kind of expertise described during the symposium by historians, philosophers, STS experts and others.

2. History does not hold the keys to the future

From History to Foresight is also the title of a well-known book by Pierre Chaunu [4]. It was written by the great French historian and Sorbonne professor in 1975 for a collection named Liberty 2000.

Chaunu wrote that a good reading of the present, integrating the past, leads imperceptibly to the future. It is, by nature, foresight-oriented [5]. He added that this foresight is, of course, linked to the idea of mankind. It therefore involves the « unfolding » of history [6]. He also observed: History does not hold the keys to the future. It cannot map out the path, but a history that is made part of the human sciences can correct us; it can impose a check on infantile projections that are captive to the short term [7]. I think that the integration of future studies in the human sciences will always remain a real and difficult challenge.

Those who were able to attend the Harvard meeting certainly feel, as I do, that more than 40 years after Chaunu’s analysis, we are fully on track to achieve the aims that the main organizer Yashar Saghai (Johns Hopkins University) proposed at the opening of the symposium for the meeting and its follow-up: to end isolation within each discipline (history, philosophy, science, technology and society) and between countries, to learn from each other in depth beyond interdisciplinary conferences, to gain an up-to-date knowledge of current research, to deepen connections with future studies practitioners and theorists. Yashar also insisted on the importance of probing the needs for a permanent network or platform for our communities. The challenge is, as Riel Miller said in his keynote address but also in his new book[8], to reinforce our understandings, practices and capacities.

3. Main requirements for a permanent network or platform

With its partners, The Destree Institute has launched and/or managed many networks and platforms in the last twenty years: the Millennia2015 foresight process, the Millennia2025 Foundation, the Internet Society Wallonia Chapter, the European Regional Foresight College, the European Millennium Project Nodes Initiative (EuMPI), the Regional Foresight College of Wallonia, the Wallonia Territorial Intelligence Platform, etc.

In all cases, the main requirements were the same:

1. to define clear aims that make sense and generate a desire to involve all the actors. These goals should be understood by all the partners without ambiguity. Clarifying words and concepts is a key task for all scientific ambition, and as such is shared by the futurists;

2. to stay firmly connected to the ground and able to come back to the present: what we will do tomorrow needs to be thought about in the present. We need our heads in the stars but our feet in the clay…

3. to fight against certainty. We often talk in terms of trying to throw light on our uncertainties, but we should also fight our great certainties about our disciplines, our fields, our methods and our perceptions of the world;

4. good leadership with proper respect for the members. In March 2018, the Women’s Economic Forum awarded my colleague Marie-Anne Delahaut the Woman of the Decade in Community Leadership Prize for her work for Millennia2025 [9]. We all know how sensitive these tasks are;

5. professionalism in management, because we need to improve our work and gain precious time for our researchers instead of wasting it;

6. relevant communication materials (logos, websites, etc.), although I tend to say, as General de Gaulle might have done, that logistics should follow ideas rather than vice versa;

7. and finally, as Professor Michel Godet often repeats, loyalty, competence and pleasure.

Pleasure in thinking together, pleasure in working hard together, pleasure in meeting together.

I feel that we have assembled these ingredients during these two days shared at Harvard and Boston Universities. Thank you to the organizers for bringing us together.


Philippe Destatte



On the same subject: What is foresight?

Direct access to Philippe Destatte’s English papers


[1] Global Foresight Project :

[2] Philippe DESTATTE, A Wallonia Policy Lab on the Foresight Trajectory, Blog PhD2050, Namur, April 11, 2018,

[3] Gaston BERGER, L’Encyclopédie française, vol. XX : Le Monde en devenir, 1959, p. 12-14, 20, 54, in Phénoménologie du temps et prospective, p. 271, Paris, PuF, 1964.

[4] Pierre CHAUNU, De l’histoire à la prospective, Paris, Robert Lafont, 1975.

[5] Une bonne lecture du présent intégrante du passé débouche, insensiblement, sur l’avenir, elle est, par nature, prospective. P. CHAUNU, op. cit. p., 283.

[6] Elle est, bien évidemment, liée à une idée de l’homme. Elle implique donc le « déroulé » de l’histoire. Ibidem, p. 285.

[7] L’Histoire n’a pas les clefs de l’avenir, elle ne peut pas tracer la voie, mais une histoire intégrée aux sciences de l’homme peut rectifier, elle peut réduire les projections enfantines, prisonnières du temps court. Ibidem.

[8] Riel MILLER, Transforming the future, Anticipation in the 21st Century, Paris-Abingdon, UNESCO-Routledge, 2018.