(The impossibility of) acting upon a story that we can believe

The historical sensibility of Western modernity is best captured by the phrase ‘acting upon a story that we can believe’. Whereas the most famous stories of historians facilitated nation-building processes, philosophers of history told the largest possible story to act upon: history itself. When the rise of an overwhelming postwar skepticism about the modern idea of history discredited the entire enterprise, the historical sensibility of ‘acting upon a story that we can believe’ broke apart into its constituents: action, story form, and belief in a feasible future outcome. Its constituent parts nevertheless still exist, either separately or in paired arrangements. First, believable stories are still told, but without an equally believable future outcome. Second, there still exists a feasible vision of a future (in the shape of what I call the prospect of unprecedented change, especially in prospects of technology and the Anthropocene), but this defies story form. And third, it is even possible to act upon that feasible future, but such action aims at avoiding worst-case scenarios instead of facilitating best outcomes. These, I believe, are the features of an emerging postwar historical sensibility that the theory and philosophy of history has yet to understand.