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What if? What might have been? What could have been?

What if? What might have been? What could have been?

These are interesting questions when considering the big questions about the past.

This area of history writing involves speculation about the past and the way history is interpreted and understood.  One young historian who has addressed these questions is Wollongong independent scholar Amy Penning. She has written a critique of counterfactual history. This is a controversial area of history theory and practice. Penning has written a lively discussion that analyses a contested area of historiography.  In deciding whether to publish this essay I considered editing the text and decided against it. I feel that the essay is worth reproducing here in full.

The aim of publishing the essay on this site is to give the essay and its author a wider audience. I hope you enjoy reading this very interesting and worthwhile contribution to history theory and practice.

Counterfactural Penning 2 2020
What if? (mega)

 

What if? What could have been? Counterfactual history

Amy Penning

 Counterfactual history is the historiographical method premised on hypothetical alternatives about outcomes of the past events and circumstances which actually occurred. Through questioning and speculating upon what could have happened, the past becomes reinvigorated.  As counterfactual history allows for a deeper understanding of the reconstruction of history; as not simply a set of predetermined contingencies but rather an examination of the causation of events and the role of human agency. However, counterfactual claims without historical evidence are simply fantasying and are thus frivolous to historical study. Therefore, historians who employ a counterfactual paradigm have a scholarly responsibility to distinguish the conditions under which these ‘what if’ events are probable with accurate evidence to make these claims plausible and valid for the reconstruction of history.

 

A contested debate

As with all historiographical philosophies, counterfactual history has been subject to great debate, especially in recent years. Scottish historian Niall Ferguson a foremost proponent of counterfactual history deems virtual history as a necessity for understanding the past. He contends that through using empirical evidence, counterfactual analysis can enable a holistic and rigorous understanding of the past. Conversely, traditionalist historians, including academic Sir Richard J. Evans maintain that because counterfactuals are imaginative reconstructions, questioning the past using ‘what if’ scenarios are futile. He argues that personal speculation and curiosity is not history; that truth is truth and fact is a fact.  Evans is right to insist on the primacy of facts in any historical inquiry – to do otherwise would render historical works fictitious. This does not, however, invalidate the potential merits of a counterfactual approach. By examining the conflicting views of Ferguson and Evans (among other historians) the contentions but also potential regarding counterfactual history is clearly illustrated.

 

Reconstruction of history

Counterfactual history has significant value in the reconstruction of history as it allows for a re-examination of causation, however many historians have interpreted this as a disregard of the past.  It has thus been neglected among most academic historians across time and political ideologies ‘as having little epistemic value’. [1]

 

A definitive opponent to counterfactual history is E.H Carr (an English historian and opponent of empiricism) who in his famous book What is History? (1961) responded to Isaiah Berlin’s (British- Russian philosopher) criticism of those who do not give ‘priority to the role of the individual and accident[2], thus those who neglect counterfactual history, the role of human agency (humans action) and chance.  E.H Carr responded to this by the dismissive phrase that ‘counterfactual’ history is a mere ‘parlour game’, a ‘red herring’.[3]  This was because for Carr, an investigation of causes and to suggest that something other than what did happen, might have occurred was a violation of the historical discipline. Strangely, ‘despite (Carr’s) denial of the value of counterfactual history in the book, it remains a landmark for understanding counterfactual history’. [4]  As What is History ‘became the most influential text to examine the role of the historian…in the 1960s and is still widely read today’. [5] This is supported by the sheer amount of historians who use his definition of counterfactuals. [6]

Counterfactural Penning 2020
What if I went this way or that way? (Shutterstock)

 

The issue is that Carr’s definition of counterfactualism is not conclusive nor does it provide a true understanding of what counterfactual history is: a deeper look into causes, effects, and actors through questioning the past.  It can be argued, therefore, that ‘for a long time, Carr’s criticisms made ‘what-if-history’ suspect for serious scholars’. [7] That is not to say, all historians of recent times disagree with counterfactual history as a result of Carr.  However, his basic argument that reevaluating the past as more than predetermined contingencies poses a threat to the historical discipline, unfortunately, sums up the attitude of generations of historians on the subject.

 

The validity of the counterfactual inquiry

Further, many other influential historians have disregarded the validity of counterfactual inquiry in understanding history by dismissing it’s questioning into known historical events and causes as unhistorical practice. As counterfactual history ‘ambition to be consequential’ (aim to have important value in the historical discipline) is often misunderstood academic historians ‘(as a) distortion (of) scholarship‘. [8]

 

Therefore, questioning and reconstructing the past is threatening to some academic historians whose own study and understanding of history which have been cemented in traditional deterministic history (predestined nature of the past).[9] Historian Marxist E. P. Thompson once famously called counterfactuals ‘Geschichtswissenschlopff, unhistorical garbage’.  Furthermore, conservative philosopher and historian Michael Oakeshott ‘who rarely agreed with Thompson’ (Sustein, 2014) said that the ‘distinction between essential and incidental events does not belong to historical thought at all’.  This reveals the ignorance and unwillingness of many historians to understand what counterfactual history is actually is; the assigning of the importance of events, understanding the significance of human actors and a deeper look at the causation of all which are important principles of historical study.

 

Further, this demonstrates that prominent and scholarly historians of varying ideologies and beliefs have labelled counterfactual history as a historical tool unworthy of study or use. The impact of this is significant on the study and use of counterfactualism in history, as Niall Ferguson reveals when he states ‘hostile views from such disparate figures’ could explain why counterfactual inquiry ‘has been provided by writers of fiction (rather than).. historians’.[10] Therefore, revealing that academic historians who simply denounce counterfactual history as unhistorical fantasy, have failed to understand the definition of counterfactuals (as counterfactual principles do align with historical practice) and consequently have been unable to see counterfactualism’s value and use in history.

 

Contentions

The contentions surrounding the worth of counterfactual inquiry in reconstructing history have been debated by the two leading historians Richard Evans and Niall Ferguson in recent years. Sir Richard Evans a widely renowned historian agrees with Thompson and Oakeshott, as he insists that counterfactual history is ‘speculation, not history.’ Evans laments that this fantasizing ‘threatens to overwhelm our perceptions of what really happened in the past, pushing aside our attempts to explain it.’[11]  However what Evans neglects is Ferguson’s point, that counterfactual hypotheses are ‘only legitimate if one can show if what if your discussing is one that contemporaries seriously contemplated’ by showing evidence.’ [12] Ferguson explains this through the example of ‘what would have happened in 1948 if the entire population of Paris had suddenly sprouted wings’[13] where he argues that this offers no historical insights, as this is not a realistic conjecture.[14]  Therefore, the basis for counterfactual arguments to be valid in reconstructing history must be provable plausibility through historical evidence.

 

Another counterfactual hypothesis which demonstrates the importance of historical evidence is provided by John Keegan a British military historian who contributed an essay to the military history journal[15]  about how Hitler could have won World War II ‘In 1941, Hitler controlled the world’s biggest tank fleet, and one of the biggest air fleets, and if he had decided to use them differently…he could have won’. Therefore, revealing how with factual evidence (the number of tank and fleets Hitler had), the counterfactual hypothesis can provide a greater understanding of the past; as through this inquiry, Keegan highlights the significance of the human actor in historical outcomes, particularly in military history. This is because ‘outcomes of battles were so often determined by the actions and decisions of a single leader’[16]. Therefore, through providing historical evidence counterfactual claims are plausible and are useful as they provide a deeper understanding of the significance of causation and the role of human agency on historical outcomes.

Counterfactural Penning 2 2020
What if? (mega)

 

Predetermined nature

Additionally, the predetermined nature of the past or determinism is a controversial issue for Evans and Ferguson when evaluating counterfactuals use and value in history. Ferguson sees counterfactual history as the ‘necessary antidote’ to the close-mindedness of historical determinism.  In Ferguson’s words, ‘the past does not have a predetermined end. There is no author, divine, or otherwise only characters and a great deal too many of them’.[17] Therefore, Ferguson reveals the non-deterministic and true complex contingency of the past as a result of human agency (human action and ability to alter history).

 

However, Evans contends that the very idea of determinism is too broad, as in terms of history moving towards an end ‘counterfactuals can only cast doubt on theories of history’ but can’t ‘undermine history as a whole because we don’t know where that trajectory will end’.[18] Thus, he argues that since we already know the course of history, historical speculation on what might have occurred is pointless because it didn’t happen.  However, Evans ignores that the unpredictable nature of human actors and that chance itself can both be significant factors in historical outcomes. Therefore, although ‘what if’ questioning will always remain hypothetical, chance and human agency do play a significant role in history. Consequently, study into alternative outcomes will always remain important and relevant for deepening the reconstruction of history.

 

Reconstructed history

Furthermore, throughout time counterfactuals have been used and will be continued to be used to reconstruct and understand history. This a result of the innate human desire to re-examine the past and to wonder ‘what if?’. In daily life, humans often speculate about what might have happened: ‘either grateful things worked out as they did or regretful that they did not occur differently’.[19] As Niall Ferguson explains ‘(counterfactuals) is a vital part of how we learn’, because ‘decisions about the future are usually based on weighing up consequences of alternative courses of action’.[20]  As a consequence, of counterfactual questioning being innately human, historians throughout time have employed counterfactualism in their historical inquiry: sometimes unknowingly.

 

The origins of posing counterfactual historical questions date back ‘to the beginning of Western historiography ‘when Thucydides and Livy wondered how their own societies would have been different ‘if Persians had defeated the Greeks or if Alexander the Great had waged war against Rome’.[21] In modern history, an anthology published in 1931 included an essay by Winston Churchill called ‘If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg’, which imagines a world in which the Confederacy had won the Civil War. [22]

 

A further recent example is Robert Cowley, the editor of the military history quarterly who in 1998 used the counterfactual of ‘the fog on the East River on the night of Aug. 29, 1776, which permitted Washington to escape unnoticed by the British and save the Revolution from a Dunkirk. What if no fog?’. [23]  Thus, as a consequence of counterfactual questioning being a part of human nature, it has been used and will be continued to be used throughout time, to better understand the complexity of the causation and events of the past.  The innate human quality and use of counterfactuals in history further reinforced by historian and author Aviezer Tucker’s specialist in the philosophy of historiography and history. He reveals how to a certain extent, all historians use counterfactualism ‘when they assign cause, effects and the degree of importance to these causes’ because ‘The assignment of necessary causes assumes that had the cause not occurred, neither would the effects’.[24]  As all claims of causation, require the historian to give importance and necessity to events, people, and factors and their subsequent influence on the final outcome.  As Jon Elster (Norwegian social and political theorist) explains historians ‘have been talking counterfactually all the time without knowing it’.[25]

 

An interesting argument regarding the human quality of counterfactualism is put forward by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld a Professor of History, who uses examples of counterfactual history throughout time to reveal how ‘alternate history has consistently functioned as a means of using alternate pasts to expose the virtues and vices of the present.’ [26]  That is to say, the counterfactual questions asked throughout time reflect contemporary’s fears, attitudes and beliefs.  Rosenfeld uses the example of American authors’ common use of the Nazis winning World War for to demonstrate this ‘For the first three decades of the postwar era most allo- historical (alternative) narratives.. depicted a Nazi wartime victory. This reflects the postwar history of the United States…(glorifying) the American decision to intervene in the war against, and ultimately defeat Nazi Germany’. Thus, (counterfactual history) ‘reflects its authors (current) hopes and fear.’ [27] This reveals that counterfactual history is extremely useful to the historical discipline, as counterfactuals are inherently presentist. Therefore, counterfactual history gives insight into the evolution of historiography which makes it very useful to historians as documents of attitudes, values, perspectives and belief systems of individuals from that particular time.

 

Utilising the pre-existing conditions

Further, counterfactual claims can be valid through utilising the pre-existing conditions of the event developed over time. An example that demonstrates this, is the Greek’s defeat over the Persians at the Battle of Salamis in 480 B.C. The battle ended with a Greek victory, in which the swifter and far more numerous fleet of the Persian emperor Xerxes was destroyed. ‘However, this victory was dependent on a subtle manoeuvre by admiral Themistocles’. [28] A Persian win would have prevented the emerging Greek conceptions of freedom and the individual and thus ‘the great strengths of present-day Western culture is due to Themistocles September victory off Salamis’. [29] In approaching this ‘what if’ historical question one must neglect the ‘anything could follow anything’[30] mentality. As this kind of counterfactual narrative is based on speculation and is consequently problematic as to ‘extend counterfactual history speculation is to exhaust the connection between facts and realities’. [31]

Counterfactural Penning 2020
What if I went this way or that way? (Shutterstock)

 

A stronger counterfactual inquiry instead uses pre-existing conditions as it’s basis. ‘The Persians could not have been defeated in any other battle, Salamis was the Greeks only opportunity. Had Alexander not lived to build a Macedonian Empire, no one and nothing else could have replaced him. Consequently, the individualist culture that flowered in Greek city-states could not have emerged anywhere else.’[32]  In this version, the counterfactual questioning is a historical inquiry into contingency as it is grounded in the pre-existing conditions of the ‘event developing over diverse conditions across large expanses of geographical and social territory’ [33]. Thus, through the utilising existing circumstances and conditions, the counterfactual hypothesis can be valid in historical practice.

 

A deeper understanding of the reconstruction of history

In conclusion, a deeper understanding of the reconstruction of history can be achieved through speculation into the ‘what if’ questions of the past. The contentions and potential regarding counterfactual history are illustrated by examining the conflicting views of historians Ferguson (argues is necessary for holistic understanding) and Evans (argues it is imaginary and thus futile). Furthermore, influential historians such as E.H Carr dismissal of counterfactualism as unhistorical fantasy makes evident that counterfactual history’s definition has been skewed; as assigning importance to cause and effect are important historical practices. Through Evans and Ferguson’s arguments, it can be deduced that although counterfactuals claims will always be hypothetical in nature, they can be valid with historical evidence. These plausible counterfactual scenarios can then provide a deeper understanding of history. Historian John Keegan demonstrates through the counterfactual that ‘Hitler could have won World War II by acting differently’ the significance of human agency on historical outcomes. Moreover, counterfactual questioning and has been used by historians throughout time (e.g Thucydides, Livy, and Churchill) as it is inherently human. Consequently, counterfactual claims give insight into the memory and belief systems of individuals throughout time.  Finally, through utilising existing circumstances and conditions counterfactual hypothesis can be valid historical practice.  Therefore, counterfactual history has important value in the reconstruction of history, as questioning and rethinking the past reinvigorates and opens history; to not simply a set of predetermined contingencies but rather an examination of the causation of events and the role of human agency.

 

Author Biography

Amy Penning is an independent scholar based in Wollongong, NSW. She is interested in the philosophical nature of history.

Amy Penning can be contacted by email amypenning@y7mail.com

Counterfactual Amy Penning Portrait 2020
Amy Penning, Independent Scholar

 

References

[1] Maar, A., 2014, ‘Possible Uses of counterfactual thought experiments in History’, Principia vol.18, no.1, pp. 103-103, accessed 25 March 2019, State Library of New South Wales.

[2] Talbot, A., 2009, ‘Chance and Necessity in History: E.H. Carr and Leon Trotsky Compared’, Historical Social Research / Historische Sozialforschung, vol. 34, no. 2, pp. 88-96 accessed 10 May 2019, JSTOR.

[3] Ferguson, N., 1997, Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals p.4

[4] Rodwell, G., 2013, ‘Counterfactual Histories and the Nature of History’, Whose History?: Engaging History Students through Historical Fiction, pp. 83, accessed 29 Jun. 2019 University of Adelaide Press, South Australia, JSTOR.

[5] Godfrey, K ‘BBC Radio 3 – The Essay’, What Is History, Today?, Episode 1, BBC, 2011, accessed 29 June 2019  <https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b017575t&gt;.

[6] For example, Martin Bunzl a professor of philosophy article ‘Counterfactual History: A User’s Guide’, Richard Evans in his book Altered Pasts and Professor of history Peter J Beck in Presenting History: Past and Present all refer to and use Carr’s definition.

[7] Hekster. O., 2016, ‘The Size of History: Coincidence, Counterfactuality and Questions of Scale in History The Challenge of Chance Springer’, pp. 215-232, accessed 28 June 2019, Springer, Cham.

[8]  Gallagher, C., 2018, Telling It Like it Wasn’t, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

[9] Ferguson, N., 1997, Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals

[10] Ferguson, N., 1997, Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals p.7

[11]  Sustein, CR., ‘What If Counterfactuals Never Existed?’, The New Republic, 21 September 2014, accessed 27 February 2019, <https://newrepublic.com/article/119357/altered-pasts-reviewed-cass-r-sunstein&gt; .

[12]  University of California Television (UCTV) 2004, Conversations with History: Niall Ferguson, online video, 15 February 2008, accessed 10 November 2018, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DtEwupxygBo&gt;.

[13] Ferguson, N., Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals1997 p.83

[14] B FitzSimons., ‘How do Ned Kelly’s murderous intentions at the Siege of Glenrowan support this statement?’, Teaching History, pp.37

[15] Cowley, R., (ed.) 2001, What If Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been?, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York.

[16] Honan, H.W., ‘Historians Warming To Games Of What If’, The New York Times, 7 Jan 1998, accessed 13 June 2019, <https://www.nytimes.com/1998/01/07/us/historians-warming-to-games-of-what-if.html >.

[17] Ferguson, N., 1997, Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals, p.68

[18] Evans, R., 2014, Altered Pasts Counterfactuals in History, p.58

[19] Gavriel, R., 2002, ‘Why Do We Ask ‘What If?’ Reflections on the Function of Alternate History’, History and Theory, vol. 41, no. 4, pp. 90-103, accessed 1 March 2019, Wesleyan University, JSTOR.

[20] Ferguson, N., 1997, Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals, p.68

[21]  Gavriel, R., 2002, ‘Why Do We Ask ‘What If?’ Reflections on the Function of Alternate History’, History and Theory, vol. 41, no. 4, pp. 90-103, accessed 1 March 2019, Wesleyan University, JSTOR.

[22] Sustein, CR., ‘What If Counterfactuals Never Existed?’, The New Republic, 21 September 2014, accessed 27 February 2019, <https://newrepublic.com/article/119357/altered-pasts-reviewed-cass-r-sunstein&gt; .

[23] Honan, H.W., ‘Historians Warming To Games Of What If’, The New York Times, 7 Jan 1998, accessed 13 June 2019, <https://www.nytimes.com/1998/01/07/us/historians-warming-to-games-of-what-if.html >.

[24]  Tucker, A., 1999, ‘Historiographical Counterfactuals and Historical Contingency’, History and Theory, vol. 38, no. 2, pp. 264-276, accessed 3 March 2019, Wesleyan University, JSTOR.

[25] Sustein, CR., ‘What If Counterfactuals Never Existed?’, The New Republic, 21 September 2014, accessed 27 February 2019, <https://newrepublic.com/article/119357/altered-pasts-reviewed-cass-r-sunstein&gt; .

[26] Gavriel, R., 2002, ‘Why Do We Ask ‘What If?’ Reflections on the Function of Alternate History’, History and Theory, vol. 41, no. 4, pp. 90-103, accessed 1 March 2019, Wesleyan University, JSTOR.

[27]Gavriel, R., 2002, ‘Why Do We Ask ‘What If?’ Reflections on the Function of Alternate History’, History and Theory, vol. 41, no. 4, pp. 90-103, accessed 1 March 2019, Wesleyan University, JSTOR.

[28]  Laibman, D., 2008, ‘What if? The Pleasures and Perils of Counterfactural History’, Science & Society, vol.72, no. 2, pp.131-135 accessed 12 November 2018, ProQuest, State Library New South Wales.

[29] Cowley, R., (ed.) 2001, What If Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been?, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York.

[30]  Robinson, R., 2002, The Years of Rice and Salt, Bantam Books, United States.

[31] Woolf, D., 2016, ‘Concerning Altered Pasts: Reflections of an Early Modern Historian’, Journal of Philosophy of History, vol. 10, no.3, pp. 418-428, accessed on 18 February 2019, JSTOR.

[32]  Laibman, D., 2008, ‘What if? The Pleasures and Perils of Counterfactural History’, Science & Society, vol.72, no.2, pp.131-135, accessed 12 November 2018, ProQuest, State Library New South Wales.

[33] Laibman, D., 2008, ‘What if? The Pleasures and Perils of Counterfactural History’, Science & Society, vol.72, no.2, pp.131-135, accessed 12 November 2018, ProQuest, State Library New South Wales.