Something Happened to the Future

Reconstructing Temporalities in Dutch Parliamentary Debate, 1814–2018

in Contributions to the History of Concepts
Joris van EijnattenUtrecht University, The Netherlands

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Pim HuijnenUtrecht University, The Netherlands

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This article stands in Reinhart Koselleck's tradition of investigating the historical experience of time. It focuses on the manner in which the experience and conceptualization of the future changed in Dutch parliamentary speech between 1814 and 2018. Based on a quantitative analysis of a corpus of political texts of more than 800 million tokens spanning more than two centuries, we argue that the future transformed from something unknown but principally predictable into a synonym for change itself during the final quarter of the twentieth century. We contend that this resulted in unpredictability becoming the future's defining trait and the future, consequently, losing its character as a knowledgeable singular in a process of what can be called “de-singularization.”

“All history is bunk,” the founder of the industrial Ford empire was wont to say, demonstrating how superficial pure, one-sided market thinking is. The past has formed our present and offers us a glimpse of the future, even though our necessarily subjective interpretation of history prompts us to modesty and caution. He who has no access to the collective memory lacks that dimension. It is in any case certain that, if we immerse ourselves in the past, we will meet people who in many respects resemble us, who, generation upon generation, have built and passed on the culture and society that are now ours. They are, all together and some in particular, the testators of our civilization, to whom we should be thankful, perhaps not in all but surely in many respects. Getting to know them means getting to know ourselves better.1

Historians have a twofold interest in time. The first is connected to their most obvious, performative role as “masters and measurers of time.”2 Historians order time and divide it into periods, evoking the illusion of inner coherence. They turn dates, years, and centuries into metaphors with readily recognizable meanings (“4th of July,” “1789,” “2000”). It is this relation to time that has attracted the most attention in recent historical scholarship. Chris Lorenz and Berber Bevernage, for example, have related the performativity of the historian's time management to the memory boom of the last few decades, scrutinizing its moral and political implications.3

But historians also have a second interest in time. This involves the way people in the past experienced it. By which time regimes did they live? How did they make sense of the past? What expectations of the future did they hold? To distinguish between the two modes, François Hartog insisted on the term “historicity,” as opposed to “temporality,” in discussing time as a means of historical reflection. For Hartog, “historicity” refers to time as an experienced present: as memory (the presence of the past), as attention (the presence of the present), and as expectation (the presence of the future). According to Hartog, then, historicity denotes experienced time, while “temporality” refers to “an external standard of time,” such as mathematical standards and historical conventions.4

Confusingly, the authors of a recent Viewpoints section of Past & Present do exactly the opposite, suggesting that “(history of) temporality” be used to denote the experience of time: “Thinking with ‘temporalities’ has helped historians to understand that ‘time’ cannot be considered as an object separate from human configurations, perceptions and measurements, as well as to emphasize that ‘time’ is always and everywhere a condition of life in the world, and therefore an essential category of historical analysis.”5 The fact that no uncontested nomenclature exists is due to the difficulty of distinguishing clearly between, on the one hand, time as a category of the actor and, on the other, time as a category of analysis. After all, historical periodizations are not only historians’ constructions to frame the past, but also represent lived experiences. This has been the case since the nineteenth century, when, in Koselleck's famous characterization of modernity, people started to distinguish their own time as a distinct period in history. Historians therefore inevitably share authority over periodization with many others, including politicians. In the Dutch context, for example, orthodox Protestants turned their refusal to see the French Revolution as the dawn of a new historical epoch into a political program by establishing the first Dutch political party (Anti-Revolutionary Party, 1879).

Lorenz and Bevernage have examined the impact of the “inherently ethical and political” nature of historical time on historical periodization.6 What they had in mind were such things as the way Marxist accounts draw lines from the past to the future, the German postwar public debates on moral responsibility for the Holocaust, and the deconstruction of accepted views of historical time as essentially Western.7 They, too, acknowledge the difficulty of separating the historical from the historiographical when it comes to historical time: “[i]t is a matter of ongoing controversy when exactly the modernist and progressivist worldviews came into existence and whether they were ever dominant enough to legitimize claims about the existence of modernity in an epochal sense, or whether this historical category simply resulted from a self-legitimising ‘politics of periodisation.’”8

When it comes to the study of historical time, most historians, nevertheless, predominantly tend to focus on the historiographical—if only because it is a use of time that can be more easily grasped. In this article, however, it is the lived experience of time that interests us, especially the transition from the modern to the late modern experience of time. In what follows, we will approach the lived experience of time from the perspective of conceptual history, as a contribution to Koselleck's theory of time, applying digital methods to textual data.

Many digital techniques are aimed at discovering semantic structures and therefore are well suited to exploring concepts. Digital conceptual history as a form of historical semantics attempts to historicize these structures in digitized historical texts,9 building in part on related fields of study that likewise make use of historical data and demonstrate a marked interest in semantic change over time.10 Our data consists of parliamentary debates in the Netherlands between 1814 and 2018. A multilingual analysis would be desirable in due course, but for our initial foray into this area we have stayed close to home, exclusively using Dutch-language source material. Parliamentary debates are ideal for this kind of analysis, since they span a long period of time (at least two centuries), are serial in character (they occur continuously, with the exception in our case of the occupation years during World War II), are intellectually dense (that is, focused on rational debate, unlike newspapers, which contain a variety of material), reflect society at large (and therefore offer insight into “public opinion”), and are in that sense relatively moderate and mainstream (extremist positions generally do not dominate parliamentary discussions for long).

We ask the following questions: To what extent do Dutch parliamentary debates give expression to the changing experience of the future from 1814 to the present? How can we explain such changes?

Theoretical Framework

(Future) expectations and (past) experience are central concepts in Koselleck's ideas on time, as elaborated in various writings, of which Vergangene Zukunft (1979) and Zeitschichten (2000) have been the most significant. Drawing on Martin Heidegger's notion of “being in time,” human existence for Koselleck is intrinsically bound up with its temporality and, therefore, its (finite) future, on both an individual and a collective level. Expectations and possibility guide human action in the present: “Historical time … is bound up with social and political actions, with concretely acting and suffering human beings and their institutions and organizations.”11

Koselleck used these concepts to connect past, present, and future in a way that made them explanatory factors for what he conceived of as the Sattelzeit. In Koselleck's view, this century-long transition toward modernity between ca. 1750 and 1850 was defined by a disconnection between the space of experience and the horizon of expectations. Only from the time “that expectations have distanced themselves evermore from all previous experience” could modernity (Neuzeit) be understood as a new era (neue Zeit).12 As philosophers and scholars conceptualized ideas of progress, the future started to belong to humanity rather than divine providence. As a result, the horizon of expectations gained a new quality of perpetual change, where “objectives [were] transferred from one generation to the next” and “the effects anticipated by plan or prognosis” were seen as “titles of legitimation of political action.”13 At the same time, experience gained a similar dynamic quality: it tended to change more quickly than before as a result of new scientific insights and technologies, colonialism and the discovery of new continents and civilizations, as well as, in Koselleck's words, “the dissolution of the society of orders through the impact of industry and capital.”14 Others have since added to Koselleck's perspective particularly by focusing on the scientific, technological, and infrastructural revolutions in defining and measuring time (such as the introduction of standard time) that came to characterize Western modernity.15

In a world that internalized constant change, the future rather than the past became the natural focus. As a conceptual historian, Koselleck found this evidenced in the increasing orientation toward the future in social-political language.16 In the introduction to his project Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe, he calls this Verzeitlichung or temporalization. A related conceptual development that Koselleck linked to modernization was the “singularization” of political and social concepts. Whereas a concept like “liberties” used to have well-defined, localized meanings, it was later generalized as the singular noun “liberty.” Similarly, “isms” such as liberalism and conservatism arose as rhetorical tools that referred less and less clearly to particular contexts (i.e., they had no “experiential substance”) but involved ever stronger claims to realization. More than the particularistic plural concepts, these singular concepts were, Koselleck maintained, “capable of reordering and mobilizing anew the masses robbed of their place in the old order of estates.” He called them Bewegungsbegriffe (concepts of movement) that held the prospect of some future, and could easily be incorporated as such by movements and groups looking for support. Characteristic of the Sattelzeit was, therefore, also the Ideologisierbarkeit (which Richter translates as “the ease with which concepts could be incorporated into ideologies”) of singularized concepts.17

Interestingly, something similar happened to conceptualizations of time: the past and future became things in themselves. Koselleck connected the idea that the past is something separate from the present to the professionalization of historical scholarship.18 Although the future was a keystone of Koselleck's own scholarly program to recognize historical conceptualizations of the past and the future as historical subjects in their own right, he explored the future to a much lesser extent than he did the past. It was Koselleck's student Lucian Hölscher who suggested that the future had become a “historical agent” after the mid-eighteenth century. Like the past, the future evolved from an adjective into a noun, but also became a thing of its own.19 In his Semantik der Leere, Hölscher studied in depth the gradual conceptualization of the future as “empty,” abstract time, while in Die Entdeckung der Zukunft he outlined the various ways contemporaries subsequently tried to fill the resulting void with their own visions.20

One aspect of the conceptualization of past and future that still needs investigation involves the most recent history. In their quantitative text analysis of over sixty years of annual World Bank reports, Franco Moretti and Dominique Pestre made an attempt to do so. They observed that reports on the practical and relatively small-scale achievements of the institution since the 1970s have been replaced by a discourse on the “opportunities” and “challenges” to which the World Bank continuously reacts. “[P]olicies are always in progress.”21 On the linguistic level this results in an abundance of gerunds, on the mental level in a loss of clarity of where we are headed: “The temporality is complex, but its dimensions are clear: the past is the realm of results; the present, of decisions; the future, of prospects and possibilities. In recent years, though, this difference has been diluted. … All change, and no achievement. All change, and no future.”22

“All change, no future” is an observation more catching and more compelling than the focus of Matthew Champion, A. R. P. Fryxell, and others on the simultaneous existence of multiple time experiences and regimes (“pluritemporalities”). This basically comes down to what Koselleck had already been arguing when he wrote on the “simultaneity of the un-simultaneous.” Moretti and Pestre's empirical conclusion not only touches upon the notion of reflexive modernity, but also on other theories that aim to characterize our own day and age. Hartmut Rosa has used the notion of “acceleration” to expand on the “all change” argument, for instance, while the “no future” reverberates in François Hartog's orientation on the present as a new regime of historicity.23 Empirical studies like the one undertaken here are needed to investigate the extent to which these movements of acceleration and presentism have, indeed, replaced Koselleck's time regime of modernity. What happened to the future in Dutch parliamentary debate? Has everything come down to change in recent decades? And have parliamentarians given up on the future?


This article makes use of digital analysis techniques. We have based our research on two databases containing Dutch parliamentary records. One is PoliticalMashup, a search engine for the parliamentary proceedings of the Netherlands, through which many of our findings can be corroborated. The second is our own stand-alone collection of Dutch parliamentary proceedings, based partly on downloads from PoliticalMashup,24 partly on data scraped from the official website of the Dutch government.25 The development over time of the number of “tokens” or words in the data set is shown in Table 1.

Table 1.  

Token (word) count of the dataset per period. The number of spoken words gradually increases in the course of the period; the dip between 1931 and 1950 was caused by the suspension of parliament during World War II.

Period Token count
1814–1830 8,711,404
1831–1850 14,071,235
1851–1870 39,897,217
1871–1890 40,419,640
1891–1910 52,423,482
1911–1930 78,834,177
1931–1950 56,361,148
1951–1970 108,521,461
1971–1990 177,758,729
1991–2010 167,686,825
2011–2018 78,198,439

The data was converted from .xml to .csv, and the resulting textual content (i.e., the parliamentary debates) used to generate both n-grams (from strings of one word or unigrams to strings of five words or pentagrams) and word vector models.26 For the latter the textual content was divided into three periods, each consisting of more than 100 million tokens (i.e., words) to ensure the plausibility of the results. These periods were respectively 1814–1920, 1921–1980, and 1981–2018. Note that “plausibility” is a term we prefer to “probability.” In combining traditional historical research with a digital approach, adding numerical probabilities to our account has little added value. We do not want to create a false sense of accuracy, but to make good use of traditional hermeneutics. The dataset is imperfect, largely due to OCR issues in the decades before 1960. Despite its defects, however, the material allows us to obtain results that are hermeneutically plausible rather than numerically accurate. The patterns we show in the various graphs reflect general but real historical patterns; they plausibly connect with our expert knowledge as historians.

Zooming in and out by reading both closely and distantly, we have systematically examined a whole range of words that reflect the experience of time in the parliamentary debates throughout the period under consideration. These can broadly be grouped under the headings of past, present, future, and change. Next, we have looked at the trajectories these references to time have taken in our corpus of parliamentary debates. Interestingly, the results for past (past: verleden, vroeger; history: historie, geschiedenis; historical: historisch) and present (now: nu; present: tegenwoordig, huidig, heden(daags), vandaag; moment: moment; topical(ity): actueel, actualiteit) proved to be far less conclusive than those for future and change. This in itself intriguing observation seems to support the theoretical framework laid out above and has been taken as the starting point of our analysis. If the most significant changes in the experience of time have hinged on people's attitudes toward the future, questions rise as to what these changes looked like, and what they could possibly mean.

In the following, we have aimed to answer these questions, relying mostly on lists of n-grams associated with future and change over time. We have looked at the relative frequency of these n-grams, their “productivity,” that is, the number of different ways a word is used in a particular year, as well as their most dominant associations.


What did Dutch MPs have to say about the future? Studying the dominant context of the trigram “the future is” across two centuries allows us to cluster three general arguments. The first two sets of arguments concern ignorance of the future and the possibility to control it:

  • Ignorance. Obviously, MPs in 1814 had no more insight into the future than their colleagues today. Caveats about ignorance of the future are timeless and occur throughout the period. Literal translations from the Dutch demonstrate the linguistic variety of such cautions: “the future is shrouded in dark clouds” (1832), “the future is not in our hands” (1843), “the future is a closed book to us all” (1859), “the future cannot be fathomed” (1872), “nobody knows what the future will show” (1917), “the future is in the hands of God” (1939), and “who can predict the future?” (2010).27

  • Influence and control. The future, however, can be influenced. The government has the duty to develop “organs” and “instruments” without which we cannot “address the uncertain future with success and with honour, and with the highest degree of contentment among our people” (1917). The future is “full of dangers but continual study of the situation by all involved will help develop a course of action suited to the fatherland” (1947). Especially in the postwar period, the optimistic idea that politicians could actually control the future reigned supreme. “The future has become our business. … The future is no longer something that happens to us; it is whatever we make of it. It concerns us directly and is our responsibility.” (1977) Others may not have been as trusting, but many believed that the future was malleable. One MP quoted Raymond Aron's Plaidoyer pour l'Europe décadente (1977), in which he reproved the Left for opting for sudden rather than gradual change (for bouleversement rather than réforme) (1978).28

After World War II, MPs repeatedly cited Fred Polak's De toekomst is verleden tijd (1955), a book that pioneered “future studies.” It received the Council of Europe Award and was later translated into English as The Image of the Future (1973).29 Polak lamented the nihilistic attitude toward the future, which he regarded as a threat to Western civilization, and argued that the younger generations urgently needed to renew the ability to create positive images of the future. The thrust of his book was that an image of the future would largely contribute to its realization. MPs summarized Polak's argument: “The future that will later be reality is determined in part by prior, spontaneous, inspired and visionary thought about the future” (1959).30 Apart from following a career as professor of sociology and left-wing politician, Polak was also one of the directors of the Central Planbureau (established 1947; literally “Central Planning Bureau,” although the name is currently translated as Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis).31 As we will see below, nothing qualified better as an image of the future than a blueprint or a plan.

More conservative MPs never believed in a plannable future to the extent that their left-wing colleagues did, even in the optimistic 1970s. Yet even they cited the title of Denis de Rougemont's l'Avenir est notre affaire (1977), together with Jacques Attali, to the effect that MPs needed courage if they were to deal with the current crisis and confront the future. “History never repeats itself in the same way, but perhaps it does, on another, higher level. It is important to learn the lessons of history, according to the saying: A people that does not know its history, is doomed to repeat it” (1979).32 Another right-wing MP cited Quintilian: “Fear of the future is worse than the misfortunes of the present” (1981).33 Yet despite the optimism, in the course of the 1980s the mood seemed to have changed.

  • Loss of faith. Unlimited borrowing to finance the future, leading to structural debt, began to cause anxiety. We have “sacrificed the future to the present” (1981). A Labor Party MP referred to the center-right cabinet's claim that the country had now “by far passed the stage for big plans and blueprints for the future” (1985). The best we could work with now was not “a utopia or social dream (visoen), but a vision (visie)” (1990).34

Does the data, read distantly, reflect the gist of these quotations? We find that the frequency of the noun “future” (toekomst) shows a virtually linear upward trend in parliamentary discourse between 1860 and 1960 (Figure 1). There is a slight dip in the 1970s, after which usage of the word again slightly increases. What does this mean? Did the future weigh more and more on politicians as the decades progressed? Did the future become increasingly malleable or more and more problematic, or both? Interestingly, the adjective “future” (toekomstig(e)) shows a quite different pattern (Figure 2).

Figure 1.
Figure 1.

The relative frequency of toekomst (future) in the States General (1814–2018). Relative frequencies here and elsewhere are the number of hits in relation to the total number of words per year. The curve is a “smoothing” curve based on a local polynomial regression function (LOESS), which allows one better to see patterns. We have used the LOWESS function in statsmodels v0.12.0.

Citation: Contributions to the History of Concepts 16, 2; 10.3167/choc.2021.160204

Figure 2.
Figure 2.

The relative frequency of toekomstig(e) (future) in the States General (1814–2018).

Citation: Contributions to the History of Concepts 16, 2; 10.3167/choc.2021.160204

Between 1840 and World War I usage is fairly constant; this is then followed by a steep incline suddenly ending around 1980, after which there is an equally steep decline. How do we explain these patterns?

One way of testing the popularity of a word as a multipurpose concept in any given period is to examine its “productivity.” Rather than determining raw frequencies, n-gram productivity counts the unique occurrence of any word or combination of words. As in English, in Dutch these combinations come in two forms, representing the nounal and adjectival uses of “future.” The nounal form consists of composite words that include toekomst, such as toekomstbeeld (image of the future) and toekomstbestendig (fit for the future, i.e., future-proof). The other form is the adjectival use of “future,” as for instance in toekomstig beleid (future policy).35 The productivity graphs for the nounal and adjectival futures (Figure 3 and Figure 4) prove to be quite similar to the n-gram frequency graphs (Figure 1 and Figure 2).

Figure 3.
Figure 3.

The productivity of composite words beginning with toekomst (future) in the States General (1814–2018). The broken line, plotted against the y axis on the right, has been added for comparison. Representing the number of unique words used in any given year, it reflects an increase in both the number of spoken words and rhetorical abundance.

Citation: Contributions to the History of Concepts 16, 2; 10.3167/choc.2021.160204

Figure 4.
Figure 4.

The productivity of toekomstig(e) (future) in the States General (1814–2018).

Citation: Contributions to the History of Concepts 16, 2; 10.3167/choc.2021.160204

In other words, an increase in the usage of the unigram future as a noun meant an increase in its productivity; while a decrease in the adjectival use of future meant a decrease in its productivity. This affirms the distinction between either use of the word. But how do we account for this? Why is there a decrease in the adjectival use of “future”? And why does the nounal use of “future” increase?

To begin with the latter question, the increase in the nounal use of “future” after about 1980 seems to be due largely to the occurrence of the phrase “the future of” (de toekomst van). Among the pentagrams containing this phrase, the most enduring qualifications of a noun are “the future of our country” (the pentagram with the highest score: 437), followed by “our people” (277), “the Netherlands” (127), “our children” (117), “police system” (110), “our society” (92), “kingdom” (92), “agriculture” (91), “Europe” (80), and “education” (77). Of those pentagrams in which future qualifies as an adjective, the top 5-gram is “the future of the Dutch {noun}” (345), followed by “European” (303), “social” (144), and “public” (119). After 1980, individual things seemed to have individual futures.

Another way of looking at the nounal future is to examine its relationship to words denoting qualities, such as time or value. Table 2 shows the top ten bigrams in which “future” is qualified by an adjective, as in “{adjective} future.”

Table 2.  

Bigrams of “{adjective} future.” NB “the future” (de toekomst) is included by way of comparison, as the most common bigram.

Bigram (“{adjective} future”) Corpus Frequency
the future 148,136
immediate (naaste) future 6,198
near (nabije) future 4,326
far-off (verre) future 1,758
more distant (verdere) future 1,579
better (betere) future 836
our (onze) future 547
uncertain (onzekere) future 478
good (goede) future 448
distant (verwijderde) future 382
new (nieuwe) future 277

Plotted over time, the bigrams “immediate” and “near future” (naaste toekomst and nabije toekomst) offer an almost perfect bell curve, arising in 1860, culminating around 1955 and declining after that. Those for “far-off” and “further future” (verre toekomst, verdere toekomst) show a similar, albeit messier rise and decline. Other qualifiers, in particular “better,” “our,” and “good,” show a slight increase after 2000. Again, it appears that after 1980 references to a specific, more determinate future are preferred, so that a future qualified by time (“near” or “far-off future”) becomes less popular. After 1980 references to the future are no longer qualified by time; they are now unspecific references to the future, such as “our future.” Another telling pattern is shown by quadrigrams meaning “oriented on the future” (op de toekomst gericht, gericht op de toekomst) and “future-oriented” (toekomstgericht). These show a steep rise from 1960 to 1990, after which the relative frequencies stabilize or decline. The term “future-oriented” seems to reflect the widespread trust in social engineering of the postwar years, followed by an apparent skepticism toward the end of the twentieth century. We shall come back to this below.

There is yet another indication that something happened to the future in the more recent decades. This concerns the use of the pentagram “the {noun} of the future,” which demonstrates an upward trend after World War II and especially after 1980. The pattern seems to signal, again, the need for a determinate future. Table 3 shows the most popular pentagrams. Many of the minor frequencies refer to the future of very concrete entities, ranging from the “office” and the “university” of the future to the “civil servants” and the “elderly.”

Table 3.  

Pentagrams “the {noun} of the future.”

Pentagram (“the {*} of the future”) Corpus Frequency
the importance of the future 80
the Europe of the future 79
the lap [schoot or “womb”] of the future 40
the light of the future 40
the challenges of the future 39
the agenda of the future 35
the demands of the future 28
the society of the future 27

After 1980, references to an indeterminate future seem to be in relative decline. Thus the trigram “in the future” increases steadily until 1980, after which it shows a high degree of uncertainty, if not a modest decline; as we have seen, the same applies to futures qualified by time (Table 2). References to a determinate future, however, were on the rise. In other words, the future is either determinate or specific (as in “the future of {noun}” or “the {noun} of the future”) or indeterminate but uncertain (a future that is far away). The pattern is borne out by a decline in the adjectival use of “future”: bigrams like “future development,” “policy,” “structure,” “legislation,” “need,” “employment,” and so on (i.e., “future {noun}”). The one exception to this rule is “future generation(s),” the second most common bigram, and one which, as we shall see, expresses uncertainty.

We therefore arrive at the following hypothesis: references to indeterminate and hopeful futures arose during the long period of modernity, but in recent decades tended to be avoided unless they expressed uncertainty. At the same time, references to determinate futures began to be used more often. If this hypothesis is correct, we would expect the future to be perceived as generally less predictable; and that insofar as it is predictable, only determinate futures are predicted. Do the debates in the Staten-Generaal substantiate this hypothesis? In order to answer this question, we will now take a closer look at changing attitudes toward predictability and change.


This brings us to conceptual changes resulting from the transition from “classic” modernity to “high,” “reflexive” and even “post” modernity. Interestingly, the work of scholars like Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens echo that of Koselleck. The structure of experiences that inform the present and shape expectations of the future, as Koselleck defined it, has its counterpart in the importance Giddens ascribes to traditions. Tradition, he argues, is involved in “the control of time.” First, it orients the present toward the past and subordinates the present to the past. At the same time, however,

tradition is also about the future, since established practices are used as a way of organising future time. The future is shaped without the need to carve it out as a separate territory. Repetition, in a way that needs to be examined, reaches out to return the future to the past, while drawing on the past also to reconstruct the future.36

To analyze important moments of historical change, Giddens, like Koselleck, points at the way past, present, and future have traditionally been intertwined. Together with Beck and Scott Lash, Giddens maintains that the relation between past and future has changed fundamentally in the last few decades. “The future looks less like the past than ever before and has in some basic ways become very threatening,”37 they wrote ominously in the introduction to Reflexive Modernization (1994). Central to their argument that the West has undergone a transition to a new epoch since the 1970s is a change in the concept of risk.

Risk, they assert, has always been central to modernity. When experience no longer proved capable of providing the guiding principles for the future, statistics as a means of risk calculation took its place. Insurance companies, for example, arose out of this principle. This worked for as long as much of the world, including nature and society, was considered a stable given. The epoch of reflexive modernization started when the world became unpredictable, when social relations began to be less informed by tradition, or when human behavior started to change nature irreversibly. Developments like these made the precise calculation of risks increasingly implausible. “The more we try to colonize the future, the more it is likely to spring surprises upon us,”38 Giddens writes, almost as an accusation. It is, after all, modern society itself and its unrelenting desire for change that has set into motion changes in social and natural life that are unstoppable and uncontrollable. The best we can do today, Giddens asserts, is to formulate possible “scenarios” to fill the void of the future—only to see them proven wrong time and again.39

How did these insights play out in the parliamentary debates? MPs frequently assured their colleagues that the future by definition was uncertain and that, ultimately, nothing was predictable. This was a wisdom everyone shared; and everyone realized that speculation would convince no-one. But that did not mean that a margin of predictability could not be assured. We can follow such ideas over time by examining the way parliamentarians used the term future in relation to predictability over the course of two centuries. Although ways of addressing the certainties and uncertainties of the future vary greatly over the period, we can again cluster them very generally according to the arguments used:

  • Experience. Knowledge of the past is one way of guaranteeing a particular future: “we have a long experience behind us, which can act as our surety for the near future” (1863). Another method was to refer to the inexorable forward march of modern (meaning “Western”) civilization. East Asian countries have now arrived at a stage similar to medieval Europe, so that “the same revolution, the same reversal of things as then happened in Europe, is the near future of Japan and China” (1870).40

  • Certainty. The future is in general predictable. This argument is in some cases based on history, but it is an ideology or religion rather than an analysis of the past that explicitly underwrites what will come. Protestant MPs tended to use this argument, although when they spoke with certainty they usually had a far-off future in mind: “the final future is ours” (1868). The other obvious candidate is Marxism. One communist MP was convinced that religion and capitalism were things of the past. True art representing universal principles would henceforth arise from the proletariat, whose revolutionary struggle had led to a proletarian society already covering one-sixth of the globe (1932).41

  • Observation. Certainty about the future follows from observation or science. “In predicting this … we are not entering into the terrain of speculation, but we are only drawing conclusions from observations of what is happening in most countries” (1896).42

  • Governance. The future can be planned. Businesses, for example, needed to anticipate the future so that they could flexibly adapt themselves in expectation of change (1928).43 We will return to this below.

  • Uncertainty. The future is fundamentally unpredictable. Unexpected events change the path of history. “History is no less completely unpredictable than it is predictable, because in a sense an important intervening event will make any long-term view meaningless” (1963). Detailed planning is, therefore, pointless. The “often unpredictable reality, ever in motion, can be captured in general plans” but it is too obdurate to be tied down to a rigid schedule. The most we can do is prepare ourselves for the future. “Life is what happens to you while you are making plans. In the end we do not know what will cross our path. Nobody can predict the future, but we can prepare [for] the future” (2014).44

In due course, this fixation with predictability led to the use of Beck-like talk about risk: “We can submit to speculation about all kinds of possible and impossible scenarios, but one thing is certain: a characteristic of the present security risks is precisely that they are diffuse and unpredictable” (1991). The twenty-first century was bound to bring about great challenges: “International developments have become unpredictable” (1998). It is doubtful whether MPs would really have judged differently sixty years previously, but it is the extent to which later MPs perceived the world to be capricious and erratic that sets these most recent decades apart. Figure 5 illustrates this: word usage related to “(un)predictable” and “(un)predictability” emerged only after World War II and especially in the 1960s and 1970s.

Figure 5.
Figure 5.

The relative frequency of (on)voorspelbaar ([un]predictable) in the States General (1814–2018).

Citation: Contributions to the History of Concepts 16, 2; 10.3167/choc.2021.160204

As some quotations make clear, a term closely related to “predictability” is “scenario,” denoting a possible course of events. The pattern is practically identical to that of “predictability,” demonstrating increasing usage of the term after 1970. Initially MPs were not very familiar with it. In 1978 the word seems to have implied choice rather than unpredictability; one could choose a specific scenario from several options and then act on it. A minister mentioned in 1978 that the sociologist Piet Thoenes had been commissioned for a report on “scenario writing.” Thoenes was a left-wing professor specialized in planning and policy who was known for his “design sociology,” a method of actualizing future society on the basis of both political choice and “scientific” (meaning sociological) analysis.45 Fifteen years later, ministers were much more careful. “I have never said anything about the probability of specific scenarios. That is something one should not do at all when thinking in terms of scenarios (scenariodenken).” Scenarios are about possibilities, not probabilities. “It is an open system, preventing one from being completely surprised by a future different from the [future] one might have expected on the basis of trends and such.”46 This is the sense in which the term “scenario” continued to be used. One MP made his call for more scenariodenken explicit: “I have not asked for concrete plans. I have asked about futures (futuren)” (1995). The CPB reports were now given (English-language) names that reflected uncertainty, such as Scanning the Future.47

The calculations underlying a scenario were often referred to metaphorically as the “railway timetable” (spoorboekje) pertaining to that particular scenario. Given the departure time in the present, one could also know or at least estimate the time of arrival in the future. “It's not rocket science. Nor is it reality. It concerns models; it concerns estimates” (2014). “I'd prefer to see that alternatives, such as timetables, were included with the plans” (1993). The important thing, of course, was not to confuse the timetable, which was just the calculation validating a scenario, with reality itself.48 But other words are also associated with “scenario.” Based on word embeddings, Figure 6 displays words that behave similarly to “scenario” between 1981 and 2018.

Figure 6.
Figure 6.

Words similar to scenario (scenario) in the States General (1981–2018). The radial graph shows the similarity score and frequency of each word in relation to “scenario,” for all values equal to or higher than 0.45.

Citation: Contributions to the History of Concepts 16, 2; 10.3167/choc.2021.160204

They include, above all, the words “variant,” “model,” and “option.” But there are also less common composite words like “growth scenario” and “future scenario” (groeiscenario, toekomstscenario), as well as words that refer to the reason why a scenario is acceptable (assumption or premise: aanname, veronderstelling), to the arithmetic underlying the scenario (calculation: berekening, becijfering) and to the government institution invariably involved (CPB). There are also words that are similar to “scenario” but have lower similarity scores, such as “prognosis,” “estimates,” and “projections.”

“Prognosis” proves to have been used in the period directly before the emergence of “scenario” in parliamentary discourse (Figure 7).

Figure 7.
Figure 7.

The relative frequency of prognose (prognosis) in the States General (1814–2018).

Citation: Contributions to the History of Concepts 16, 2; 10.3167/choc.2021.160204

That is interesting, particularly because the word has a stronger take on the future than “scenario”: a prognosis refers to what is likely to happen, not to what may possibly happen. In the 1970s, even members of the conservative Christian-Historical Union thought in these terms. “Life, society, everything evolves. What we need is thinking for the longer term.” What we need is an image of the future—in this case a prognosis for 1971–1985, including a long-term plan, a plan of action, a schedule and an investment plan (1971).49 The conviction that the future could be planned well ahead is associated with a Dutch word for which there is no adequate direct translation: maakbaarheid. Literally, the word means “makeability,” and it usually refers to the claim that society is “makeable” or “malleable,” that it can be molded to fit the needs of the present and, more importantly, the future. The German sociologist Hans Freyer was quoted to the effect that we now live in the era of the makeability of things. Unfortunately, unlike the Creation, which had offered man a fully upholstered environment after six days of divine labor, a new housing estate usually conveyed a feeling of emptiness (1970).50

Unlike prognosis, “makeability” is not a typical 1970s word (Figure 8). In fact, the unpopularity of the concept is in this case reflected in the frequency with which the word occurs: once the 1970s had passed, MPs began to refer to “makeability” more often. “I will not deny that in the 1960s and 1970s the belief in social makeability assigned an exaggerated role to the government” (1984). Not all socialists completely renounced their optimism. “We do not want a scenario based on extrapolation, on passivity, [we want one] based on new policy, a scenario that can be influenced (beïnvloedingsscenario).” And this was precisely the difference between the progressive and conservative “view on the makeability of our society” (1985). Although the Labor Party (PvdA) soon made it clear in parliament that their prior affection for social makeability ought to “be put into perspective” (1985), the idea continued to be associated with both the 1970s and the Left. Problems in environmental planning were inherited from a period when policy had been based to too large a degree on the “makeability of, or ability to control, society” (1990), “the old left-wing philosophy of makeability” (2007), when socialists “wanted to elevate all the peoples of the world on the basis of the makeability idea” (2008). Interestingly, in the twenty-first century, “makeability” began to be associated with neoconservatism by left-wing MPs, who defined neoconservatism as the belief that it is best to leave government in control of everything—a much more aggressive and unrealistic position than “the much-scorned makeability thinking” of the 1970s (2005).51

Figure 8.
Figure 8.

The relative frequency of maakbaarheid (makeability) in relation to planning (planning) in the States General (1814–2018). Note that y-axes differ: the term “planning” (on the right) was much more popular than “makeability” (on the left).

Citation: Contributions to the History of Concepts 16, 2; 10.3167/choc.2021.160204

It is helpful to contrast “makeability,” which had a negative connotation from the time it began to be commonly used in parliamentary rhetoric, with “plan,” which had always been a more neutral term (Figure 8). While “plan” or “plans” (plan, plannen) were used rather consistently after about 1880, planning, which in Dutch policy-speak denotes the systematic regulation of governmental or institutional activities, was used mainly in the 1970s. In fact, planning can be identified as the word actually employed in that period in place of what would later be meant by makeability. Compound terms such as “long-range” and “long-term” plans occurred in large numbers exclusively in the 1970s. The productivity for *planning, with a sharp incline in the 1960s and an equally sharp decline in the 1980s, suggests that planning the future went seriously out of fashion in the more recent decades.


The unigram pattern for “change(s)” is similar to that of “future” (as qualifying adjective), in that a clear postwar increase is followed by a more diffuse spread of frequencies, suggesting a downturn after about 1980 (Figure 9).

Figure 9.
Figure 9.

The relative frequency of verandering(en) (change[s]) in the States General (1814–2018).

Citation: Contributions to the History of Concepts 16, 2; 10.3167/choc.2021.160204

The pattern is duplicated by the bigram “change(s) in,” which clearly falls into two periods, with the period before World War II largely concerned with changes in law, and the postwar period with changes in a larger variety of things, like society and health care. But perhaps the diffuse pattern after 1980 is the more interesting, as it seems to suggest greater rhetorical variation, and possibly less conceptual coherence. We find the same diffuse pattern after 1980 in the present participle “changing” (veranderend(e)), which in Dutch primarily has an adjectival use. The absolute frequencies for “changing” show a curious peak in 1985–1986, due to parliamentary debates on a report called Trade Politics in a Changing World.52

The top three bigrams containing the Dutch word for “changing” are “changing circumstances” (veranderende omstandigheden), “changing world,” and “changing society,” which all suggest uncertainty about the present as well as the future. Was there a change in the nature of the uncertainty experienced? Passages containing the phrase “changing world” seem to indicate that MPs became less confident in coping with the changing world in the course of the twentieth century. An imperial policy is necessary “from a strategic-military point of view,” argued an MP in 1939, “but also because of our will to self-preservation in a rapidly changing world” (1939).53 Developments in a changing world should enable the government to oversee “more specifically than was previously possible the process of political emancipation of the native population” (1960).54 The truth of that statement may not be immediately evident, but it does not suggest anxiety.

In 1962, one Catholic MP waxed lyrical about the “commonplace: we live in a changed and changing world,” a wisdom bequeathed to us by the Greeks and Romans as “everything flows” (a reference to Heraclitus’ panta rhei). Yet we are now witnessing something that happens only very infrequently, he continued: a sudden and spectacular change in worldview. He connected this to a hodgepodge of things that were topical in 1962, including developments in natural science; philosophy; the arts; drama; the socialist Godesberger Programm; the encyclical Mater et Magistra; criminal, civil, and international law; the World Council of Churches; and the Second Vatican Council. “All this is spectacular, in many domains it is more than the current of history, it is an acceleration … ,” resulting from cultural changes predating, but catalyzed by, World War II. These changes involved ideas about the value of the personality and of social groups, the right to life of underdeveloped peoples and the equality of races. This soliloquy was positively framed, and the speaker was certain that adapting the Dutch constitution to fit the changing times would not just preserve but strengthen “the spiritual and moral values” of the Dutch people and lead it safely “through a changed and changing world” (1962).55 Another MP had read Alvin Toffler's Future Shock (1970), with its message about mankind finding it hard to cope with too many changes in too little time, but he did not spell out the implications.

Looking back on the 1990s, one MP celebrated the “unprecedentedly positive and promising” changes that had occurred, ranging from increased living standards and technological progress to a growth in world peace. He considered it risky to profess an optimistic belief in progress, as Francis Fukuyama did in The End of History and the Last Man (1992). He preferred The Economist's “paranoid optimism,” represented by the winegrower who, seeing the full bunches of grapes on the vines, remembered that night frost could always strike before the harvest was in (1999).56 Yet in the 1990s the tone had already changed. “In the strongly changing world we can see on television every day that one thing hardly changes: war, poverty, in a terrible, distressing way” (1994).57 In the twenty-first century everything that did change began to inspire negative feelings. “In a changing world we have to deal with changing dangers. Safeguarding security within the national boundaries is no longer enough” (2003).58 Robert Kagan's The Return of History and the End of Dreams (2008) summed up the era's rather abrupt landing in a reality that was harsher than many had foreseen.59 On the domestic level people too needed to be reassured. “In a rapidly changing world there is a need for safety and solidarity” (2007).60 “The Netherlands lies in the middle of a changing world. This world is seen by many as frightening, as threatening, and the reaction is: behind the dykes, curtains closed and doors locked. That is not the solution for the Netherlands” (2010).61

Sudden change was obviously worrisome, but what about gradual change? “Development” is a word often used to indicate a step-by-step transition, so it is logical to look at the Dutch word for this, ontwikkeling. It is an example of a Dutch gerund; these invariably end on the suffix -ing. Again, the pattern is similar to that of the adjectival use of “future” (Figure 10).

Figure 10.
Figure 10.

The relative frequency of ontwikkeling (development) in the States General (1814–2018).

Citation: Contributions to the History of Concepts 16, 2; 10.3167/choc.2021.160204

This seems to corroborate our hypothesis. The gerund ontwikkeling implies directionality, and the decline in word usage after about 1980 points at this loss of future-oriented direction. Major bigrams such as “development of” (n = 91,212) and “development in” (n = 43,227) show the same pattern, as does “development toward” (ontwikkeling naar, n = 2,487). Another very clear indication of this trend is the rise and decline of vernieuwing, which means “renewal” (as in “social renewal”), with overtones of innovation and modernization. The pattern, similar to that for “development,” again demonstrates the familiar postwar rise and subsequent decline. Both development and renewal are logically connected to words like makeability, so this outcome is not entirely unexpected.

The expectation that change was no longer gradual but abrupt, and that it occurred not just suddenly but on an unprecedented and sometimes even terrifying scale, is evident from the use in the more recent decades of the terms “future generation(s)” (n = 1,295) and “grandchildren” (n = 536), both of which show an enormous upsurge after about 2000. The common use of the term in the twenty-first century signaled a disjunction in time between an uncontrollable present and a precarious future. MPs betrayed a feeling of being unable to take the decisions in the present necessary to prevent an apocalyptic future. In 2016, an MP quoted Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times and it was the worst of times.” People had never been this well off, but “geopolitical shocks and disruptive upheavals” were causing things to spin out of control. “It is very much an open question whether future generations will be as well-off as us.”62

Future generations figured prominently in debates about climate change and sustainable energy. “We need to combat climate change to bequeath a livable Earth to our children and grandchildren. The urgency is colossal.”63 “We are standing on the losing side of history. … Today we need to stand on the other side, on the side of the future: no mortgage on future generations but action, now, and political courage.”64 “The climate problem is putting future generations and, already, also people in the present in very great danger.”65 Mortgaging the future was a common expression, as was “passing the bill” (rekening) or the “debt” (schuld) on to future generations.66 Earlier in the century such expressions literally concerned budget deficits, but later on the terms were used metaphorically to refer to unwise decisions made in the present on any matter, ranging from health care and student loans to biodiversity and pensions. “Solidarity” with future generations is another related term,67 “stealing” from them another.68 To ground the interests of future generations, the Green-Left even suggested appointing a “commissioner or ombudsman for the future.” Not unexpectedly, the word “sustainability” went through the roof after 1990.


Have we moved past the disjointed relationship between past, present, and future Koselleck associated with modernity? Does our analysis of Dutch images of the future support Hartog's contention that the modern regime of historicity is, indeed, in a crisis?69 What is clear is that the image of the future that arises from present-day Dutch parliamentary debates differs from that of the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth century in decisive ways. However, an important conclusion of our digital analysis is that not everything changes. Koselleck's observation that people's space of experience became less and less informative for their horizon of expectations, in a world that had become used to change, is evidenced in our corpus throughout the period. MPs agreed in 2010 as much as in 1920 or 1830 that only to a relatively small degree could history provide a guiding light in accessing the black hole of the future. “Fear of the future is really nothing new,” a liberal MP remarked in 2014, only to continue: “as is the belying of that fear by reality. This process has always existed and we call it progress. Why would it be any different now?”70

Although it might have been lost on this particular MP, another element of time experience did begin to change at the turn of the 1970s. Before, futures tended to be secure: their predictability was ensured, not so much by the belief that lessons could be drawn from the past, but by the conviction that mechanisms devised in the present could bring about a foreseeable future. Once they were implemented, such mechanisms guaranteed a future that was as riskless as humans could make it. It was this conviction that people started to lose after 1980 (in a manner not unlike the loss of faith in the general idea of progress). After 1980 two things occurred. First, notions of unpredictability came to the fore with a force unprecedented in two centuries of parliamentary discourse. This general experience of time as uncontrollable was reflected in the use of terms ranging from makeability and scenario to development and change. Second, a process of “de-singularization” took place: individual things now tended to have individual futures, while references to indeterminate futures were avoided. In general, there was loss of time-based directionality.

Together, these developments show the practical implications of what Beck and Giddens theorized. When the handle on the future is lost, because it continuously falsifies predictions, the image of “the future” as a singular noun starts to lose its meaning. What remains is the attempt to keep small and concrete risks under control. Does this mean that Moretti and Pestre's pithy conclusion “all change, no future” was endemic in parliamentary discourse? Certainly not, if only because no politician could afford to advocate endless change or give up on the future; after all, it is part of a politician's job to encourage stability and inspire hope. This article has, admittedly, somewhat skipped over the question of whether the take on the future that cropped up in political debates corresponds to “public opinion.” We believe, however, that the one implied the other. It is not just that the politicians were voted into office by the public, or that parliamentary politics influenced public opinion. Parliament and the public shared the same beliefs. In the 1970s, for instance, planning was a common enough trope, in parliament as well as outside it. Likewise, politically motivated views of the future were embedded in larger, epochal understandings of time, as we saw in the case of “new era” thinking after World War II or the breakdown of certainty in the most recent decades.

So where does that leave us? It is not as if politicians had abandoned all hope on the threshold of a perilous future. An MP from the Christian Right may have been correct in observing in 1994 that higher ideals people could work toward had all but disappeared from public debate: “We live in secularized times. The existence of God is ignored, eternity is a dimension banned from the mind, and hardly anything is sacred anymore. Materialism and horizontalism reign supreme. Illustrative of the here-and-now-mentality (hier-en-nu-denken) is that the theme of life and death is fading into the background.”71 Whereas this particular MP remained true to his orthodox religious principles, MPs from other parties matter-of-factly replaced long-term vistas with less ambitious goals more feasible in the short term. They exchanged “visions” for “viewpoints,” in the words of one MP:

Indeed the future is not “malleable.” However, the paradox is that the future will be what we ourselves make of it. What is needed, therefore, is not a utopia or social dream, but a vision. With vision I mean: to have something in sight. A vision does not structure, as an ideology does. That is why a vision does not aim for a final image of what has to be accomplished, nor for a specific year.72

Here we see Hartog's “presentism” manifesting itself. As this particular MP brought the point home: “The future is what one has when one puts one's affairs in order in the present.”73


M. Beinema (CDA), HTK, 1 November 1995 ( In all future references, only the part of the address after the final slash will be represented; in other words, all such references should be preceded by HTK refers to the second chamber, HEK to the first. The MP's party is in parentheses.


Matthew S. Champion, “The History of Temporalities: An Introduction,” Past & Present 243, no. 1 (2019): 247–254, here 250,


Chris Lorenz and Berber Bevernage, eds., Breaking up Time: Negotiating the Borders between Present, Past and Future (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013), 7–38.


François Hartog, Regimes of Historicity: Presentism and Experiences of Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), xvi–xvii.


Champion, “History of Temporalities,” 247.


Lorenz and Bevernage, Breaking up Time, 11.


Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000); A.R.P. Fryxell, “Time and the Modern: Current Trends in The History of Modern Temporalities,” Past & Present 243, no. 1 (2019): 285–298,


Lorenz and Bevernage, Breaking up Time, 15.


Stephen Pumfrey, Paul Rayson, and John Mariani, “Experiments in 17th Century English: Manual versus Automatic Conceptual History,” Literary and Linguistic Computing 27, no. 4 (2012): 395–408,; Peter De Bolla, The Architecture of Concepts: The Historical Formation of Human Rights (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013); Gabriel Recchia, Ewan Jones, Paul Nutty, John Regan, Peter de Bolla, “Tracing Shifting Conceptual Vocabularies through Time,” in Knowledge Engineering and Knowledge Management, ed. Eva Blomqvist, Paolo Ciancarini, Francesco Poggi, Fabio Vitali (Heidelberg: Springer Verlag, 2016), 19–28; Tom Kenter, Melvin Wevers, Pim Huijnen, Maarten de Rijke, “Ad Hoc Monitoring of Vocabulary Shifts over Time,” in Proceedings of the 24th ACM International Conference on Information and Knowledge Management (New York: ACM, 2015), 1191–1200,


Gerhard Heyer, Florian Holz, Sven Teresniak, “Change of Topics over Time: Tracking Topics by Their Change of Meaning,” in Proceedings of the International Conference on Knowledge Discovery and Information Retrieval (Sétubal: SciTePress, 2009), 223–228,; William L. Hamilton, Jure Leskovec, and Dan Jurafsky, “Diachronic Word Embeddings Reveal Statistical Laws of Semantic Change,” in Proceedings of the 54th Annual Meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics (Volume 1: Long papers) (Stroudsburg: ACL, 2016), 1489–1501,; William L. Hamilton, Jure Leskovec, and Dan Jurafsky, “Cultural Shift or Linguistic Drift? Comparing Two Computational Measures of Semantic Change,” in Proceedings of the 2016 Conference on Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing (Stroudsburg: ACL, 2016), 2116–2121,; Eun Seo Jo and Mark Algee-Hewitt, “The Long Arc of History: Neural Network Approaches to Diachronic Linguistic Change,” Journal of the Japanese Association for Digital Humanities 3, no. 1 (2018): 1–32,


Reinhart Koselleck, Vergangene Zukunft (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1989), 8; English translations from Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).


Ibid., 359.


Ibid., 363.




The list is long. See, for example, Vanessa Ogle, The Global Transformation of Time 1870–1950 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015); Thomas M. Allen, A Republic in Time: Temporality and Social Imagination in Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008); Peter Louis Galison, Einstein's Clock: Empires of Time (New York: W.W. Norton, 2003); Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space, 1880–1918 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003); David S. Landes, Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000); Gerhard Dohrn-Van Rossum, History of the Hour: Clocks and Modern Temporal Orders (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998); Peter Osborne, The Politics of Time: Modernity and Avant-Garde (London: Verso, 1995).


Niklas Olsen, History in the Plural: An Introduction to the Work of Reinhart Koselleck (New York: Berghahn Books, 2012), 224.


Melvin Richter, “Reconstructing the History of Political Languages: Pocock, Skinner, and the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe,” History and Theory 29, no. 1 (1990): 38–70, here 47,; Koselleck, Futures Past, 80; for the German original, Koselleck, Vergangene Zukunft, 113; Jussi Kurunmäki and Jani Marjanen, “A Rhetorical View of Isms: An Introduction,” Journal of Political Ideologies 23, no. 3 (2018): 241–255,


Bevernage and Lorenz provide an excellent state-of-the-art of this topic in historical scholarship in the introduction to their edited volume, Lorenz and Bevernage, Breaking up Time, 7–35.


Lucian Hölscher, “Mysteries of Historical Order: Ruptures, Simultaneity and the Relationship of the Past, the Present and the Future,” in Lorenz and Bevernage, Breaking up Time, 134–154, here 145.


Lucian Hölscher, Semantik der Leere: Grenzfragen der Geschichtswissenschaft [Semantics of the void: Borderline issues in the science of history] (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2009); Lucian Hölscher, Die Entdeckung der Zukunft [The discovery of the future] (Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 1999).


Franco Moretti and Dominique Pestre, “Bankspeak: The Language of World Bank Reports,” New Left Review 92 (2015): 75–99, here 99.


Ibid., 98–99.


See for “acceleration”: Hartmut Rosa, Alienation and Acceleration: Towards a Critical Theory of Late-Modern Temporality (Malmö: NSU Press, 2013); Hartmut Rosa, Beschleunigung: Die Veränderung Der Zeitstrukturen in Der Moderne [Acceleration: The change in time structures in modernity] (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 2005); Hartmut Rosa and William E. Scheuerman, eds., High-Speed Society: Social Acceleration, Power and Modernity (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2009); See, for “present-orientation”: Hartog, Regimes of Historicity.


The data are available at “Dutch Parliamentary Proceedings 2012–2013 in XML,” Data Archiving and Networked Services, (accessed 21 September 2021), courtesy of Maarten Marx, University of Amsterdam.


Instructions can be found at Data Community Open Data, (accessed 11 September 2001).


We have used off-the-shelf technologies in the programming language Python. For n-grams we removed punctuation, made lists of words (retaining stopwords), and included only n-grams with a frequency higher than 4, using the nltk library ( For word vectors (embeddings) we employed the Gensim library ( The following Word2Vec parameters were used: size = 160, window = 10, iter = 12, min_count = 3, workers = 3; the results were not noticeably different from those based on the default parameters.


J. G. Van Nes van Meerkerk (Financial Opposition), HTK, 17 November 1832 (0000450146); J. J. Rochussen (Pro-Government), HTK, 27 May 1843 (0000447378); W. R. van Hoëvell (Liberal), HTK, 26 November 1859 (0000433258); A. Blussé (Liberal), HEK, 18 January 1872 (0000416873), C. Lely (Liberale Unie), HTK, 25 January 1917 (0000330121); B. Ch. de Savornin Lohman (CHU), HEK, 23 February 1939 (0000068645); C. M. P. S. Eurlings (CDA), HTK, 7 April 2010 (h-tk-20092010-65-5657).


G. A. van Hamel (Liberale Unie), HTK, 27 November 1917 (0000326138); C. G. W. H. van Boetzelaer van Oosterhout (independent), HTK, 20 November 1947 (0000078123); F. M. Feij (VVD), HEK, 1 February 1977 (0000187312); B. de Gaay Fortman (PPR), HEK, 28 November 1978 (0000173705).


A more dystopian study on the future, which focused on the consequences of technology, was likewise quoted in the 1950s and 1960s. Robert Jungk, Tomorrow Is Already Here, trans. Marguerite Waldman (London: Rubert Hart-Davis Ltd, 1954).


W. F. Lichtenauer (CHU), HEK, 10 February 1959 (0000269242).


CPB Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis, (accessed 4 September 2021).


B. W. Maris (ARP), HEK, 27 November 1979 (0000165381); Jacques Attali, L'Ordre cannibal: Vie et mort de la médecine [The cannibal order: Life and death of medicine] (Paris: Grasset, 1979). The saying is a version of an observation usually ascribed to George Santayana.


E. G. Terpstra (VVD), HTK, 3 December 1981 (0000149339).


J. H. Christiaanse (CDA), HTK, 22 November 1983 (0000131519), A. Stemerdink (PvdA), HTK, 25 March 1985 (0000123048), B. R. F. van Vlijmen (CDA), HTK, 25 April 1990 (0000035311).


The shorthand forms in English are respectively “{adjective/noun} of/on/for the future” and “future {noun}.”


Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens, and Scott Lash, Reflexive Modernization (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994), 62.


Beck, Giddens and Lash, Reflexive Modernization, vii.


Ibid., 58.




J. Kappeyne van de Coppello (Liberal), HTK, 18 November 1863 (0000428422), W. A. Schimmelpenninck van der Oye (Conservative), HTK, 12 January 1870 (0000419747).


J. W. Gefken (Anti-Revolutionary), HTK, 10 December 1868 (0000421627), D. J. Wijnkoop (CPH), 21 December 1932 (0000050354).


K. de Boer (Radicale Bond), HTK, 1-12-1896 (0000372958).


P. Drooglever Fortuyn (Vrijheidsbond), HTK, 2 March 1928 (0000293942).


H. van Riel (VVD), HEK, 23 April 1963 (0000255781); T. van Ark (VVD), HTW, 9 September 2014 (h-tk-20142015-12-9).


P. A. C. Beelaerts van Blokland (CHU), HTK, 6 March 1978 (0000181291); Herman Noordegraaf, “Thoenes, Piet (1921–1995),” Resources Huygens ING, 16 January 2017.


J. E. Andriessen (CDA), HTK, 4 November 1993 (0000003614).


W. Lemstra (CDA), HTK, 22 March 2005 (h-ek-20042005-879-915); HTK, 24 January 1995 (h-ek-19941995-15-516-552).


J. R. V. A. Dijsselbloem (PvdA), HTK, 25 September 2014 (h-tk-20142015-6-4); Andriessen, HTK, 4 November 1993 (0000003614).


D. Rijnders (CHU), HEK, 5 January 1971 (0000223205).


Hans Freyer, Mens en massa in deze tijd: een structuuranalyse (Theorie des gegenwärtigen Zeitalters) [Man and mass in our time: A structural analysis [Theory of the present age]) (Utrecht: Het Spectrum, 1958); M.W. Schakel (ARP), HTK, 19 November 1970 (0000223811).


J. F. Buurmeijer (PvdA), HTK, 12 March 1984 (0000132438); K. Zijlstra (PvdA), HTK, 18 june 1985 (0000122970); Buurmeijer in HTK, 19 November 1985 (0000114243); A. Jorritsma-Lebbink (VVD), HTK, 29 November 1990 (0000027130); B. J. van der Vlies (SGP), HTK, 19 September 2007 (h-tk-20072008-42-77); A. Pechtold (D’66), HTK, 12 November 2008 (h-tk-20082009-1787-1830.html); F. Leijnse (PvdA), HTK, 12 December 2005 (h-ek-20052006-441-481).


Handelspolitiek in een veranderende wereld [Trade policy in a changing world] (Parliamentary Report 19354:


M. J. M. van Poll (RKSP), HTK, 8 December 1939 (0000072177).


J. M. A. H. Luns (KVP), HTK, 9 February 1960 (0000264702).


G. C. J. D. Kropman (KVP), HEK, 27 November 1962 (0000255756).


D. J. D. Dees (VVD), HEK, 16 November 1999 (h-ek-19992000-88-123).


P. Rosenmöller (GroenLinks), HTK, 31 August 1994 (0000003679).


Eurlings, HTK, 19 November 2003 (h-tk-20032004-1773-1794).


J. S. Voordewind (ChristenUnie), HTK, 12 November 2008 (h-tk-20082009-1787-1830).


P. L. B. A. van Geel (CDA), HTK, 19 June 2007 (h-tk-20062007-4376-4415).


H. J. Ormel (CDA), HTK, 14 December 2010 (h-tk-20102011-34-56).


F. E. van Kappen (VVD), HEK, 31 May 2016 (h-ek-20152016-32-4).


R. K. Dik-Faber (ChristenUnie), HTK, 19 May 2016 (h-tk-20152016-85-17).


Dik-Faber, HTK, 22 April 2016 (h-tk-20152016-68-8).


E. Ouwehand (PvdD), HTK, 24 September 2015 (h-tk-20152016-6-7).


F. Koser Kaya (D’66), HTK, 2 December 2015 (h-tk-20152016-32-13).


H. C. P. Noten (PvdA), HEK, 13 October 2009 (h-ek-20092010-31-68).


N. K. Koffeman (PvdD), HEK, 13 October 2009 (h-ek-20092010-31-68).


Hartog, Regimes of Historicity, 18.


L. M. L. H. A. Hermans (VVD), HEK, 14 October 2014 (h-ek-20142015-4-3).


Van der Vlies, HTK, 20 September 1995 (h-tk-19951996-2-10-94).


Van Vlijmen, HTK, 25 April 1990 (0000035311).


G. Holdijk (SGP), HEK, 25 October 2011 (h-ek-20112012-4-2).

Contributor Notes

Joris van Eijnatten is professor of digital history at Utrecht University and general director of the Netherlands eScience Center. E-mail:

Pim Huijnen is assistant professor of digital cultural history at Utrecht University, the Netherlands. E-mail:

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    Figure 1.

    The relative frequency of toekomst (future) in the States General (1814–2018). Relative frequencies here and elsewhere are the number of hits in relation to the total number of words per year. The curve is a “smoothing” curve based on a local polynomial regression function (LOESS), which allows one better to see patterns. We have used the LOWESS function in statsmodels v0.12.0.

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    Figure 2.

    The relative frequency of toekomstig(e) (future) in the States General (1814–2018).

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    Figure 3.

    The productivity of composite words beginning with toekomst (future) in the States General (1814–2018). The broken line, plotted against the y axis on the right, has been added for comparison. Representing the number of unique words used in any given year, it reflects an increase in both the number of spoken words and rhetorical abundance.

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    Figure 4.

    The productivity of toekomstig(e) (future) in the States General (1814–2018).

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    Figure 5.

    The relative frequency of (on)voorspelbaar ([un]predictable) in the States General (1814–2018).

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    Figure 6.

    Words similar to scenario (scenario) in the States General (1981–2018). The radial graph shows the similarity score and frequency of each word in relation to “scenario,” for all values equal to or higher than 0.45.

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    Figure 7.

    The relative frequency of prognose (prognosis) in the States General (1814–2018).

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    Figure 8.

    The relative frequency of maakbaarheid (makeability) in relation to planning (planning) in the States General (1814–2018). Note that y-axes differ: the term “planning” (on the right) was much more popular than “makeability” (on the left).

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    Figure 9.

    The relative frequency of verandering(en) (change[s]) in the States General (1814–2018).

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    Figure 10.

    The relative frequency of ontwikkeling (development) in the States General (1814–2018).


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