The Encyclopedia Galactica, a fictional volume detailing the knowledge of the human race across the galaxy, as described by Asimov in his sci-fi novel Foundation (1951), defines psychohistory as a “branch of mathematics which deals with the reactions of human conglomerates to fixed social and economic stimuli.” Fusing mathematics and psychotherapy, and creating a branch of fictional science called psychohistory, Asimov attempts to model a Code of Nature that enables a quantitative description and accurate predictions of collective human behaviour. In Foundation, this science of psychohistory is conceptualised by a scientist named Hari Seldon who forecasts the fall of the Galactic Empire, and tries to develop a system of knowledge that would minimise the extent of destruction and help the human race survive the galaxy-wide doom.
Foundation marked the departure of what is now know as the Pulp Era of Science Fiction where empirical science took a backseat and made way for fantastical elements such as space monsters, inter-stellar wars and cowboys adventuring through the corners of the galaxy. Asimov, a scientist himself, strays away from fantasy and invents a statistical science capable of charting the rise and fall of civilisations. Critics have argued that the underlying logic behind psychohistory may be Boyle’s Gas Law which states that the molecules in a gas move in a purely random way, and yet, collectively, that random behaviour becomes predictable. In Prelude to Foundation (1988), Hari Seldon explains psychohistory as being analogous to quantum mechanics: “Consider the manner in which scientists have dealt with subatomic particles. There are enormous numbers of these, each moving or vibrating in random and unpredictable manner, but this chaos turns out to have an underlying order, so that we can work out a quantum mechanics that answers all the questions we know how to ask. In studying society, we place human beings in the place of subatomic particles, but now there is the added factor of the human mind. Particles move mindlessly; human beings do not.” So if a human conglomerate large enough is taken as a sample for experimentation, psychohistory could reduce the apparently random actions of those humans to physical laws predicting the behaviour of civilisations.
This theory of psychohistory finds application in the Galactic Empire which, after controlling thousands of inhabited worlds for twelve thousand years, finds itself on the verge of breakdown. Left on its own, the Galaxy would have to endure thirty thousand years of chaos and disorder before a new Empire formed. However, Seldon, using psychohistory as his guide and working with an army of physicists and mathematicians, plans on reducing the thirty thousand years of darkness to a mere millennium while continuing to hold on to the knowledge systems that humans have developed over time. In this respect, as critic J. Joseph Miller claims, Seldon mirrors the contemporary utilitarian Peter Singer, who argues famously that “if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.”
The application of psychohistory in Foundation may be seen through the lens of the past, present and future. Seldon refers to the fall of the Galactic Empire as an event that ushers in the “Dark Ages”, “one thousand generations of suffering humanity”. This is perhaps an allusion to the Greco-Roman times, a highly tumultuous period marked by political upheavals and endless wars such as the Greco-Persian War, the Persian-Macedonian War, and the Roman-Sassanian Wars. It is the belief of many critics that the inspiration for the story of the decline of an empire was actually aroused in Asimov through a re-reading of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The similarities in the fall of the Roman Empire, and that of the Galactic Empire in Foundation are uncanny. As Seldon explains, “It will be the climax to an intricate drama which was begun centuries ago and which is accelerating in pace continuously. I refer, gentlemen, to the developing decline and fall of the Galactic Empire.” The dark ages of the galaxy may also refer to the Dark Ages that were ushered in by the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD. The Italian scholar Francesco Petrarach coined the phrase “Dark Ages” to express his frustration with the lack of Latin literature during this time or other cultural achievements, mostly due to suppression by the Catholic Church. Similarly, the fall of the Galactic Empire is also one that is marked by the “destruction of our social fabric.”
Asimov’s depiction of an apocalyptic world could perhaps also be in response to the socio-political atmosphere of the 1950s, that is, his contemporary environment. With the Second World War bringing in a post-humanist age and a severe existential angst, and the Cold War in full swing, it is clear why Asimov foresaw a future for the Galactic Empire where “Interstellar wars will be endless; interstellar trade will decay; population will decline; worlds will lose touch with the main body of the Galaxy…” In the novel, Seldon also claims that the fall is “dictated by a rising bureaucracy, a receding initiative, a freezing of caste, a damming of curiosity…” Finally, the time period in which the novel is set, the twelfth millennium, allows us to see through Asimov’s vision of the future – humans are able to commute through space and inhabit various planets across the galaxy. What is remarkable here is that Asimov is able to imagine and conjure up the idea of interstellar travel even though the first spacewalk didn’t take place until 1961, and the first moon-landing until 1969.
Seldon’s psychohistory establishes him as an almost prophet-like figure in the novel who predicts the future of the human race. The reader, who shifts between Asimov’s reality and Asimov’s fantasy throughout the novel, creates for himself the cognitive horizon that is required in order to approach science fiction with a “willing suspension of disbelief”. In terms of Darko Suvin’s approach towards Sci-Fi, we see the Empire of Foundation as an “articulate and collective daydream” which “educates us in the unactualised possibilities and relationships between people.” Asimov’s psychohistory also resembles Karl Marx’s notion of historical materialism which was one of the first attempts at a scientific approach to history. As scholar Mark Cole suggests, the only difference between the two seems to be that while Marx pictures a clear, evolutionary progress, each stage representing a more advanced society than the last, Hari Seldon’s science predicts not a progression, but the cyclic rise and fall of civilisations.
We hence see the science of psychohistory emerging as system of knowledge that is applied to social development, backed by empirical evidence and mathematical proofs. Asimov, through Foundation, thus heralds in a new age of science fiction that deals with the physical dimensions of mass, length, time and space, rather than fantastical realms.
- Asimov, I. (1951). Foundation (1995 ed.). Harper Collins.
- Asimov, I. (1988). Prelude to Foundation.
- Charles Elkins. (1976). Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” Novels: Historical Materialism Distorted into Cyclical Psycho-History.Science Fiction Studies, 3(1), 26–36. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4238993
- Joseph Miller. (2004). The Greatest Good for Humanity: Isaac Asimov’s Future History and Utilitarian Calculation Problems.Science Fiction Studies, 31(2), 189–206. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4241254
- Cole, M. (2012, November). Foundation and Reality: Asimov’s Psychohistory and Its Real-World Parallels. doi: http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/cole_11_12/
- Suvin, D. (1979). Science Fiction Studies (No.6). Greencastle: DePauw University.
- Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1872). Das Kapital: Kritik der politischen Oekonomie. Hamburg: Meissner.
- Singer, P. (1971). Famine, Affluence, and Morality.