August 04, 2003

What's a Speculist?

The poet's eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!

A Midsummer Night's Dream
Act V Scene I



\Spec"u*list\, n. One who observes or considers; an observer. [R.] --Goldsmith.

Source: Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, © 1996, 1998 MICRA, Inc.
(found on

The word speculist gets so little use that I hope no one minds if I do a little tinkering with its definition. We already have the word observer to convey the idea expressed in the above definition. What do we typically call one who observes? An observer.


Even if we choose to emphasize the "or considers" language in the definition, there are words like "analyst" and "pundit" that not only cover this idea adequately, but that are actually used pretty freqently. This leaves us with the word "speculist" serving no particular purpose and all but forgotten.

Meanwhile, there is a great need (in my view) for a word for someone who does what Shakespeare talks about in the above excerpt from A Midsummer Night's Dream. What do we call someone who looks heavenward and back, and whose imagination "bodies forth the forms of things unknown...and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name?" Shakespeare (via the character Theseus) ascribes these activities to poets. And, yes, this is the work of poets. But it's also the work of those who write science fiction and fantasy. And then on top of that we have theorists and scenarists and futurists and military strategists and economists and take-the-long-view types and on and on, all of whom engage in attempting to make the ineffable, effable.

I want to group all these folks under the common heading of speculists: anyone who defines, looks for, attempts to unravel, or otherwise contends with what might be, what might not be, what might have been, whatever — and then who takes that understanding and tries to make it into something useful. That's a speculist.

I think it's important to note that Theseus isn't exactly singing the praises of speculists in the above excerpt. And who can blame him? He has a city to run and a new bride to bed, more than enough on his plate without worrying about a spat in the royal house of the fairies, or some working stiff who got his head swapped out with a donkey. Why should he waste his time on the forms of things unkown when things known are so pressing?

Why? Because the things unkown become the things known. It happens all the time, every second. It may be a waste of time to dwell on some imaginary bringer of imaginary joy. But it's no waste looking for the things that can bring us joy in the days to come, or even right now. And it may be silly to mistake a bush for a bear, but, hey — Theseus, old buddy — isn't it downright dangerous to make the opposite mistake?

Besides, we all know that any time things got truly out of whack in Athens, the Duke himself would hop an express train to Delphi and ask the Oracle what was going to happen next.

Speculism is a growth area. We live in an age of accelerating change and geometrically expanding possibility. The things unknown are becoming the things known faster than they ever have before. This rate of change leaves plenty of room for those who would focus their attention only on the latter, but at what cost? Change brings us opportunity and risk. Accelerating change means accelerating levels of both. Whoever would take advantage of these opportunities, or work to avoid the risks, is going to have delve into the realm of the possible and, as best they can, body forth the forms of things unkown. So today I take up my (metaphorical) pen and begin the work of giving a local habitation and a name to the airy nothings that soon may be the all-too-substantial somethings that define our daily lives. This website is that habitation, and I'm honored to have you here as my guests. I hope that you will join me in giving both shape and name to these images of what might be. We have a lot of work to do.

And now...on to the future.

Posted by Phil at August 4, 2003 05:35 AM | TrackBack


I was considering your definition of speculist and it set my mind to wandering and wondering. (Yes, undoubtedly it needs a leash.) I have two questions. Are speculist and speculator just variant spellings of the same person? Are speculists risking anything?

In trading equities and financial futures we refer to those traders who try to predict the short-term future as speculators. The first part of the definition you provide "I want to group all these folks under the common heading of speculists: anyone who defines, looks for, attempts to unravel, or otherwise contends with what might be, what might not be, what might have been, whatever and then who takes that understanding and tries to make it into something useful. That's a speculist." seems to imply that speculists deal with the metaphysical world of ideas rather than something as concrete as predicting the direction of the economy or the outcome of an election. If that indeed is the case, then speculators may not be speculists but merely risk-takers. But the final part of your definition indicates that speculists leave the world of the metaphysical when they try to make it "useful." Therefore a speculator may be an 'applied speculist' but only if in some way it can be demonstrated that the musings of the speculist involve some sort of risk. Risk can only be possible if some type of capital outlay (cost) is demonstrable. Otherwise speculation on the future is merely mental exercise. Therefore I think that the speculist must be able to articulate the risk associated with his futurevision. Predictions without consequences have little utility. If they do not permit a method of interacting with the anticipated future they amount to philophosical determinism. I have no insight about how one would go about assessing risk but it seems that it remains a duty of the speculist.

I am going to speculate that I will enjoy your blog.


Posted by: Robert Baker at August 4, 2003 08:26 AM

A speculator is, indeed, an applied speculist. If I'm not 100% comfortable with the "applied" part, it's only because I am attempting to build the notion of application into the definition (making understandings "useful," as you pointed out.) Risk is an inherent factor in doing what I call navigating possibility space. The only distinction I would make from what you wrote is that I belive that making our understandings of the future useful (that is, selecting an outcome and working to realize it) can have as much to do with mitigating risk as with assuming it.

Posted by: Phil at August 4, 2003 08:59 AM

A very appealing definition and job description Phil. I like the way that 'speculist' reminds me of the spectacles that we all use to perceive 'The forms of things' and how different shades and tints produce different visions.

Posted by: Colin at December 5, 2003 11:04 AM
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