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.”

Professors Lebow, Tetlock, and a third conference organizer, Geoffrey Parker, decided to explore the counterfactual approach by way of a very large case study: “why the West (and not the East) rocketed to economic, technological, and geopolitical supremacy from roughly 1500 onward and why Western hegemony has taken the forms it has (as opposed to more malign or benign alternatives).” Participants in the project each chose a different moment in which the West might have been “unmade.” For instance, Victor Davis Hanson considered the result of a Persian victory at Salamis in 480 BC., while Ross Hassig pondered what might have happened if the Aztecs had defeated Cortes. Some participants postulated radical re-routings of history. Others charted more modest changes, while at least one wrote an essay arguing that the rise of West was more or less inevitable. Regardless of the approach the participants took, the conference organizers gave everyone a common set of analytical questions to consider:

1. How easy or difficult is it to rewrite diplomatic, military, technological, intellectual, cultural, economic, or even epidemiogical history in ways that ‘undo’ the global ascendancy of Europe and its colonial offshoots?

2.  Is the outcome easier to ‘undo’ by altering initial historical conditions within Western history (thereby weakening the West in key respects) or by altering initial conditions in the Islamic world, in China, or in other potential rivals (thereby strengthening the competition)?

3.  At what point does Western dominance become extremely difficult, arguably impossible, to reverse?

4.  Did Western dominance have to take the forms it did? Could it, for example, have taken more malign or more benign forms?

5.  Regardless of whether the ‘results’ of the counterfactual thought experiments point to strongly deterministic conclusions (things pretty much had to work out as they did) or to radically indeterminate conclusions (the world that did occur was, ex ante, one of the least probable of a large set of possible worlds), can you identify those schools of thought that are most likely to be offended?

They also made three procedural requests of all contributors:

1.  To be explicit about what they consider to be the key choice points at which history might have been re-directed, about how they singled out these choice points, and about the assumptions they had to make in drawing inferences about what would have happened if key antecedent conditions had taken on different forms from the ones they did;

2.  To make a strong case about what would have happened in the hypothetical worlds that they do construct but to remain sensitive to the rapidity with which specific counterfactual scenarios become improbable as we embellish them with speculative details;

3.  Most important, to acknowledge the preconceptions with which they approached the counterfactual exercise and to specify what, if anything, surprised them in the course of working through the exercise . . . what, if anything, they learned from working through their counterfactual thought experiments.

As I indicated, the counterfactual approach has a lot of potential to provoke eye-rolling. The organizers spent a lot of time responding to the traditional objections in their introduction to the volume, and Prof. Lebow answered them in an essay he once wrote entitled “Counterfactual Thought Experiments:  A Necessary Research Tool.” The most telling response to the objectors, it seems to me, is this. The objectors rarely despair of the possibility of understanding the past. Instead, they simply champion the “factual” approach as the only valid way of coming to grips with it. But, Prof. Lebow writes:

Any sharp distinction between factuals and counterfactuals rests on questionable ontological claims. Many of the scholars who dismiss counterfactual arguments do so because they do not believe they are based on facts. Philosophers have long recognized that “facts” are social constructions. They do not deny the existence of reality quite independently of any attempt to understand it by human beings, or that some understandings may transcend culture. Physical scientists may be correct in their claim that fundamental concepts like mass, volume and temperature are essential to the study of nature, and that extraterrestrial scientists would have to possess the same concepts to understand the universe. This is not true of social concepts, which vary across and within human cultures. There are many ways of describing social interactions, and the choice and utility of concepts depend largely on the purpose of the “knower.”

“Temperature” is undeniably a social construction, but it is a measure of something observable and real: changes in the energy levels of molecules. Social and political concepts do not describe anything so concrete. There is no such thing as a balance of power, a social class or a tolerant society. Social “facts” are reflections of the concepts we use to describe social reality, not of reality itself. They are ideational and subjective, and even the existence of “precise” measures for them–something we only rarely have–would not make them any less arbitrary. . . . The construction of “factual” history is therefore imaginary, and its only claim to privilege is that the concepts and categories in terms of which it is constructed tell us something useful or interesting about the social world. The same is true for counterfactual history.

The real problem with the counterfactual approach is that it is usually done in a sloppy though entertaining way. To make it a useful tool for understanding the past requires adherence to rules, in much the same way as is true for the “factual” approach. Prof. Lebow offers nine criteria that a good counterfactual must meet. I summarize them here; the full version, with supporting explanations and examples, are found on pages 32-36 of “Counterfactual Thought Experiments: A Necessary Research Tool”  (which used to be available on the Internet but apparently is no longer):

1. Realism: Good counterfactuals must arise from the historical context, and we must have compelling mechanisms to bring them into being that themselves require only minimal rewrites of history.

2. Clarity: All causal arguments should define as unambiguously as possible what is to be explained (the consequent in counterfactual arguments), which accounts for this outcome (the antecedent) and the principle(s) linking the two. Good counterfactuals should also specify the conditions that would have to be present for the counterfactual to occur.

3. Logical consistency or cotenability: Every counterfactual is a shorthand statement of a more complex argument that generally requires a set of connecting conditions or principles. The hypothetical antecedent should not undercut any of the principles linking it to the consequent.

4. Enabling counterfactuals should not undercut the antecedent: Some counterfactual scenarios may require other counterfactuals to make them possible. Researchers need to specify all important enabling counterfactuals and consider their implications for the consequent.

5. Historical consistency: While the “minimal rewrite” rule should be followed as closely as possible, the nature of the changes is more important than the number of changes. A minimal rewrite that makes only one alteration of reality may not qualify as a plausible world counterfactual if the counterfactual is unrealistic.

6. Theoretical consistency: It is useful to reference any theories, empirical findings, historical interpretations or assumptions on which the causal principles or connecting arguments are based. This will provide readers with a more explicit perspective from which to evaluate the counterfactual’s plausibility.

7. Avoid the conjunction fallacy: The probability of any compound counterfactual is exceedingly low. Counterfactuals might have changed the world, but in ways that become exponentially more difficult to track over time because of the additional branching points that enter the picture. As the probabilities associated with these outcomes will vary enormously, researchers accordingly need to specify if their counterfactuals are intended to produce a specific world, a set of worlds with a particular characteristic or any world (on a specific dimension) other than the one that actually came to pass.

8. Recognize the interconnectedness of causes and outcomes: Changes we make in the past may not only require other changes to make them possible, they may also produce additional changes beyond those we intend to lead to the consequent.

9. Consider second order counterfactuals: Even when there is good reason to believe that the antecedent will produce the desired consequent, the possibility remains that subsequent developments will return history to the course from which it was initially diverted by the antecedent. Researchers should try to identify what in their view is the most likely course of events that could unravel their consequent or negate its value as an outcome.

“These criteria,” Prof. Lebow concedes, “will not allow researchers to validate plausible world counterfactuals, but they will help them weed out poor counterfactuals primarily on the basis of clarity, logical and substantive completeness.”

Bottom line:  I’ve obviously been much persuaded by these arguments and by the way in which the organizers of Unmaking the West organized the project.  I very much commend counterfactual thought experiments to historians, especially military historians, since contingency figures so strongly in much of our subject matter.

4 thoughts on “On Counterfactual History

  1. I have been pretty skeptical of counter factual history in the past, but am coming around. The difficulty, to me, is that your “counter facts” can be any damn thing at all. I remember a grad school seminar where my professor had us read a book about underground printing in pre-revolutionary France and the Autobiography of Ben Franklin. For discussion, he proposed that we consider what might have happened if instead of becoming a printer in London, Franklin had gone to Paris in the 1760s.

    It was a brilliant set up, and I ruined it by repeatedly asking “And what if he also had a phaser. But it only had enough charge to shoot once to kill or twice to stun. What would happen then?” I guess I should look up my old professor and apologize…

  2. Excellent article on counterfactual history, Mark – a friend sent me the link. Would love to get your thoughts on my counterfactual analysis of the Iraq War. I am also including a review of the book by Ned Lebow, my reply, and his rejoinder.





    The key point I want to make by providing this material is that counterfactual analysis is not exclusively designed to challenge determinism – the approach can also provide a compelling case for determinism, as I argue in my book. Lebow confirms this point in his rejoinder.

  3. I’m also a fan of counterfactual history, having spent many hundred hours on soc.history.what-if when I should have been working on my thesis. There’s a lot of high-grade military counterfactual history in its achives (though I admit, there’s other content too). Another useful examination of the ‘non-fiction’ approach to counterfactual history is contained in Geoffrey Hawthorne’s book Plausible Worlds

  4. 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.

    This is an excellent point — by which I mean, of course, that it’s a point I’ve often made myself!

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