Last year when I was at the IBHA conference on Big History (Cf. Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3) there were occasional protests from traditionalists who maintained that history is always and only about the past, thus the willingness of big historians to set their historical thought in a context that embraced the future as well as the past was judged to be illegitimate ab initio.
This is, prima facie, a strong argument – if history is only concerned with the past, and if big history is a form of historiography, then big history must be only concerned with the past. We can deny either premise in this argument, i.e., we can deny that history is exclusively about the past, or we can deny that big history is a form of historiography.
This dilemma bears some resemblance to W. V. O. Quine’s “change of logic, change of subject,” argument, in which Quine maintained that the attempt to extend logic by the inclusion of “deviant” logics only managed to change the subject rather than to expand the discipline of logic itself.
Big History seeks to expand the discipline of history, not only in its willingness to consider the future as a part of the big picture, but also in its ready assimilation of both traditional humanistic history and scientific historiography in a common historical context. Have big historians managed to expand the scope of history, or have they merely changed the subject, and they are no longer speaking about history sensu stricto, but about some new discipline that is related to history, descended from history by modification, as it were, but not identical to traditional historiography?
Elsewhere I have suggested that big history might be considered a nascent science of time. To shift one’s disciplinary formulations from history to time removes the essentialist objection that history is exclusively about the past, because the study of time could presumably be about time past, time present, or time future.
If, in the context of Big History, or of any other discipline that seeks to extend and expand traditional historiographical thought beyond the boundaries of tradition, we formulate our thoughts in terms of a theory of time, we are no longer constrained by an essentialist relationship between history and the past.
While I personally don’t see any problem in extending history to include future studies, there may be certain advantages, not fully apparent now, to formulations in terms of a theory of time rather than a theory of history. To speak of a “theory of history” immediately raises suspicions on the part of others of extraneous philosophical or ideological forces in historical thought. Also at the IBHA conference, many instructors mentioned that students are quite eager to get past the past and to engage with the future at the earliest possible time. An historiography that more and more embraced the future, and treated the past only as prologue, might find itself a more receptive academic audience, as we all know that “history” as an academic discipine is widely viewed as dry, dusty, sterile, and uninteresting. The future, by contrast, is alive, interesting, and full of debate and controversy.