Are We Living at the "Hinge of History"?Historians in the News
tags: climate change, global history, philosophy, extinction, pandemic, futurism
What is the best word to describe our present moment? You might be tempted to reach for “unprecedented”, or perhaps “extraordinary”.
But here’s another adjective for our times that you may not have heard before: “hingey”.
It may not be a particularly elegant term, but it describes a potentially profound idea: that we may be living through the most influential period of time ever. And it’s about far more than the Covid-19 pandemic and politics of 2020. Leading philosophers and researchers are debating whether the events that occur in our century could shape the fate of our species over the next thousands if not millions of years. The “hinge of history” hypothesis proposes that we are, right now, at a turning point. Is this really plausible?
The idea that those alive today are uniquely influential can be traced back several years to the philosopher Derek Parfit. “We live during the hinge of history,” he wrote in his book On What Matters. “Given the scientific and technological discoveries of the last two centuries, the world has never changed as fast. We shall soon have even greater powers to transform, not only our surroundings, but ourselves and our successors.”
The hinge of history hypothesis has been gaining fresh attention in recent months, however, as academics attempt to address the question in a more systematic way. It began last year when the philosopher Will MacAskill of Oxford University posted an in-depth analysis of the hypothesis on a popular forum dedicated to effective altruism, a movement that aims to apply reason and evidence to do the most good. It sparked more than 100 comments from other scholars approaching the question from their own angle, not to mention in-depth podcasts and articles, so MacAskill published a more formal version, as a book chapter in honour of Parfit.
As Vox Future Perfect’s Kelsey Piper wrote at the time, the hinge of history debate is more than an abstract philosophical discussion: the underlying goal is to identify what our societies should prioritise to ensure the long-term future of our species.
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