Counterfactual history  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Counterfactual history, also sometimes referred to as virtual history, is a recent form of historiography which attempts to answer "what if" questions known as counterfactuals It seeks to explore history and historical incidents by means of extrapolating a timeline in which certain key historical events did not happen or had an outcome which was different from that which did in fact occur.

The purpose of this exercise is to ascertain the relative importance of the event, incident or person the counterfactual hypothesis is negating. For instance, to the counterfactual claim "What would have happened had Hitler drunk coffee instead of tea on the afternoon he committed suicide?", the timeline would have remained unchanged — Hitler in all likelihood still would have committed suicide on April 30, 1945, regardless of what he had to drink that afternoon. However, to the counterfactual "What would have happened had Hitler died in the July, 1944, assassination attempt?", all sorts of possibilities become readily apparent, starting with the reasonable assumption that the German generals would have in all likelihood sued for peace, bringing an early end to World War II, at least in the European Theater. Thus, the counterfactual brings into sharp relief the importance of Hitler as an individual and how his personal fate shaped the course of the war and, ultimately, of world history.

Contents

Development

Although there are Victorian examples of counterfactual history, it was not until the very late 20th century that the exploration of counterfactuals in history was to begin in earnest.

An early example is If It Had Happened Otherwise (1931) which features a contribution by Winston Churchill who examined what would have happened had Robert E. Lee won at the [[Battle of Gettysburg Although this volume is notable for featuring imagined histories by serious historians, the histories are presented in narrative form (in most cases with a fairly whimsical tone) without any analysis of the reasoning behind these scenarios, so they fall short of modern standards for serious counterfactual history and are closer to the fictional alternate history genre.

A significant foray into treating counterfactual scenarios seriously was made by the economic historian Robert Fogel. In his 1964 book Railroads and American Economic Growth: Essays in Econometric History, Fogel tried to use quantitative methods to imagine what the U.S. economy would have been like in 1890 if there were no railroads. Fogel hypothesizes that, in the absence of the railroad, America’s large canal system would have been expanded and its roads would have been improved through pavement; both of these improvements would take away from the social impact of the railroad. He estimates that “the level of per capita income achieved by January 1, 1890 would have been reached by March 31, 1890, if railroads had never been invented."

Few further attempts to bring counterfactual history into the world of academia were made until the 1991 publication of Plausible Worlds: Possibility and Understanding in History and the Social Sciences by the Cambridge sociologist Geoffrey Hawthorn, who carefully explored three different counterfactual scenarios. This work helped inspire Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals (1997), a collection of essays exploring different scenarios by a number of historians, edited by the historian Niall Ferguson. Ferguson has become a significant advocate of counterfactual history, using counterfactual scenarios to illustrate his objections to deterministic theories of history such as Marxism, and to put forward a case for the importance of contingency in history, theorizing that a few key changes could result in a significantly different modern world.

Differences from alternate history

Counterfactual history is neither historical revisionism nor alternate history.

In general, the main distinguishing feature of counterfactual history is that it is interested precisely in the incident or event that is being negated by the counterfactual, and is seeking to evaluate its relative historical importance by means of the counterfactual. Thus, the counterfactual historian attempts to provide reasoned arguments for each change, and the changes are usually outlined only in broad terms, since the results of the counterfactual are not the point of the exercise but merely the byproduct.

An alternate history writer, on the other hand, is interested precisely in the hypothetical scenarios that flow from the negated incident or event. A fiction writer is thus free to invent very specific events and characters in the imagined history.

The line is sometimes blurred as historians may invent more detailed timelines as illustrations of their ideas about the types of changes that might have occurred. But it is usually clear what general types of consequences the author thinks are reasonable to suppose would have been likely to occur, and what specific details are included in an imagined timeline only for illustrative purposes.

The line is further blurred by novelists such as Kim Stanley Robinson, whose alternate-history novel The Years of Rice and Salt has a character talking of historians' use of counterfactuals, within the novel's alternate history. He dismisses this as "a useless exercise" .

Criticism

Since it is a rather recent development in historiography, many historians dismiss counterfactual history as sometimes entertaining, but not meeting the standards of mainstream historical research due to its speculative nature. Advocates of counterfactual history often respond that all statements about causality in history contain implicit counterfactual claims—for example, the claim that a certain military decision helped a country win a war presumes that if that decision had not been made, the war would have been less likely to be won, or would have been longer.

Since counterfactual history is such a recent development, a serious, systematic critique of its uses and methodologies has yet to be made, as the movement itself is still working out those methods and frameworks.

See also




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Counterfactual history" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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