Counterfactuals and Contingency

On Counterfactual History

For many years now I’ve been fascinated by counterfactual history. I make no claim to coming up with anything original by way of approaching it conceptually, but I’ve written a couple of articles about it for general audiences and contribute a “what if” column to each issue of World War II magazine. (So far I’ve published close of forty of them.)  I’ve also done workshops and team taught graduate courses on the subject with my colleague Geoffrey Parker

The genesis of my interest tracks back to a 1997 conference at Ohio State’s Mershon Center for International Security Studies, in which several scholars examined case studies concerning the rise of the West and key events that might have “unmade” it. The fruits of the study were published in 2006 as Unmaking the West:  “What If” Scenarios That Rewrite World History.  It’s the best and most accessibly written introduction to counterfactual history that I have yet seen.

Counterfactual history routinely gets a bum rap, mostly from people who haven’t taken time to explore it and reject “what if” scenarios out of hand.  One of the conference organizers, political psychologist Prof. Philip E. Tetlock of Berkeley, noted that many influential historians “have excoriated ‘might have been’ speculation,” adding, “The ferocity and stature of the critics are a bit unnerving.” Nevertheless, when historians explain why things happen they are implicitly employing a form of “might have been” history, for whenever they touch upon a key variable–an important decision-maker, social process, or even climate condition–they are in effect arguing that but for that variable, things might have turned out differently. Moreover, as the British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper eloquently expressed it: “To assume that what happened was bound to happen is to beg the question of why it happened and to deprive history, at one blow, both of its lessons and its life. . . . If we are to study history as a living subject, not merely as a colored pageant, or an antiquarian chronicle, or a dogmatic scheme, we must . . . leave some room for the imagination.”

Counterfactual history is a good corrective to the tendency to see developments as “overdetermined.” “Few predicted World War I,” writes Prof. Tetlock, “the rise of the East Asian tigers, or the collapse of the Soviet Union but virtually everyone today–who claims professional competence in such matters–stands ready to trot out half a dozen ‘fundamental’ or ‘structural’ causes why these outcomes had to happen roughly at the time and in the manner they did. Indeed, given the overwhelming array of causal forces often invoked, it is difficult for some contemporary observers to resist the inference that the original historical players were a tad dense not to appreciate where events were heading. Creeping determinism emerges as a key obstacle to the time-honored objective of historians to see the world as it appeared to the decision-makers of the day, not as it appears now with the benefits and curses of hindsight.” By contrast, the counterfactual approach can help sensitize scholars to the role of contingency in the problems they study.

It can also encourage scholars to think more carefully about the assumptions on which their theories and historical interpretations rest. For example, Prof. Richard Ned Lebow notes that “apologists for the Soviet system insist that communism would have evolved differently if Lenin had lived longer or had been succeeded by someone other than Stalin. Attempts to address this question have not resolved the controversy but have compelled historians to be more explicit about the underlying assumptions that guide and sustain contending interpretations of Stalin and the nature of the Communist party and the Soviet state. Those assumptions have now become the focus of controversy, and scholars have looked for evidence by which to evaluate them. This process has encouraged a more sophisticated historical debate.”

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