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pathways (essays)

Neil Munro


A point made in the third of these essays, on the value of history, was the widespread human enjoyment of a good story. It was suggested that history played a part in satisfying this need. The consistent success of fiction based on a simple form of counterfactual history — Robert Harris's "Fatherland" is a good recent example — seems to indicate that this type of history is equally appealing. Sometimes known as "what if", or "alternative" history, or, in the title of a recent collection of serious counterfactual essays edited by Niall Ferguson, "virtual history", it takes as its starting point some historical event, assumes that it turned out differently — Harold wins at Hastings or Napoleon at Waterloo — and develops a possible course of events from then on.

All of this has great potential for some intriguing speculation, particularly so in the case of events within living memory, as shown by Harris's bestseller. However is that all that can be said for counterfactual history? Is it no more than a supply of good storylines for novelists, shading perhaps into something not unlike science fiction? It certainly does do these things, no doubt thereby adding to the gaiety of nations, but I believe that there are some more serious points to be made in its favour, and that it is a wider concept than what has just been described. We shall however have to attempt to deal with some highly unfavourable opinions of counterfactualism held by many professional historians. Consideration of these views may in fact help us to a better understanding of the true meaning of counterfactualism.

I think there is certainly one dimension of alternative history which has as much philosophical content as merely fictional; it seems to provide philosophers of a particular metaphysical bent with some welcome grist to their mill. I refer to those for whom the notion of parallel worlds holds fascination, since every venture into alternative history involves by definition the creation of a parallel world. As I shall try to show, such parallel worlds, if they are to contain any meaningful truth, will need to correspond as closely as possible to the real world, but it is clear that an element of conjecture, or fantasy if a harsher term is preferred, is a necessary part of any such exercise. While this necessary limitation may lie behind the reluctance to accord counterfactualism academic respectability, it in no way invalidates the contention that there does seem to be a real human urge, and therefore legitimate grounds for philosophical investigation, to ponder over the questions raised by such fictional works as the "Back to the Future" films, or novels like Wyndham's "Random Quest"; the latter is of course a book, and subsequently a film, whose plot is firmly embedded in a world where twentieth century history has turned out very differently.

Good counterfactual history calls for the consideration not only of the main counterfactual — Napoleon's victory at Waterloo — but also for an intelligent appraisal of what in a different context E H Carr called the "significant" facts among a potentially infinite number of knock-on changes, the "Garden of Forking Paths" of the eponymous short story by Jorge Luis Borges. Such a need for careful analysis of cause is inherent in any serious writing of counterfactual history, and seems to me to speak strongly in its favour as a discipline for any historian.

There is one form of counterfactualism which we are all constantly using throughout our lives. Every time a businessman runs a sensitivity test on the economics of a new project he is undertaking a comparison of a number of possible worlds, of which at best one, more probably none, will represent what actually takes place, and obviously is itself not counterfactual. The businessman is working before, not after the event, but he is basing his assessment partly on his knowledge of the past. A different time perspective is found in certain legal situations, briefly assessed in the earlier essay on historical causation. In attempting to decide, for example, what really caused an accident to happen, the court cannot help becoming involved in considering what else might, ideally would, have happened had one or more antecedent factors not applied. This too is counterfactualism, differing from the example of the businessman in that it enjoys the benefit of hindsight.

And what are we to make of all the attempts that there have been to learn from history? In the essay on the value of history we saw that, in spite of various claims that we do not in fact learn from the experience of history, we nevertheless do not stop trying to do so. If we look at one or two examples it quite soon becomes clear that such efforts are themselves a kind of exercise in counterfactualism, of what I have called the after the event kind. How could we have prevented the Wall St crash in 1929, it was asked. By putting in place certain control and supervisory mechanisms, it is suggested. What would have been the effects of their existence is the next question, and right away we are in the business of evaluating alternative possible worlds. Perhaps the most frequently asked "what if" question is how could the Great War have been prevented; this usually ends up with counterfactual conjectures about possible different personalities for the Austrian, German or Russian emperors, alternative mobilisation procedures and imperatives, even different decisions by British cabinet ministers about going out of London for the weekend. Some of these conjectures undoubtedly informed post-war decision making, which led, inter alia, to the idea of collective action, initially through the League of Nations, later the United Nations.

The German Kaiser was mentioned. His treatment of his mother after the death of his father, who reigned so briefly as the Emperor Frederick III, while certainly shameful, was probably influenced not only by his perception of her liberal influence on her like-minded husband, but more specifically by his assessment and fear of a possible future world where the German Empire would be run along what to him would be uncongenially liberal lines. That such a world did indeed turn out to be counterfactual may have been at least partly the result of his unattractive behaviour.

So, if we have shown that the concept of counterfactual history is not entirely frivolous, why have so many respected historians apparently resisted, or even despised it? They make an impressive array. E H Carr dismisses counterfactual history as a parlour game, one which may provide consolation to those who have suffered from some great historical event (in his case it will have been the Russian revolution), and who then let "their imagination run riot on all the more agreeable things which might have happened". This is a "purely emotional and unhistorical reaction". That may well be true, but does it entitle Carr to argue from the particular circumstances of aggrieved victims of the Bolshevik revolution to a general assertion that counterfactualism is without merit? He effectively equates counterfactual history with the accident view of the subject, the Cleopatra's nose theory which he so abominates. E P Thompson is even cruder in his objection to counterfactualism, but both Carr and Thompson may be described as determinist historians and as such should perhaps not be expected to have a great deal of sympathy with alternative accounts to what actually, and from their point of view presumably inevitably, did happen.

Niall Ferguson, in the introduction to "Virtual History", points to a problem which J S Mill has as a result of his awareness of the existence of counterfactual alternatives. In his "Elucidation of the Science of History", Mill acknowledges that without Caesar "the venue .... of European civilisation might .... have been changed", and that without William the Conqueror "our history or our national character would not have been what they are". Ferguson holds that this acknowledgement that counterfactual possibility exists weakens Mill's subsequent determinist claim that there is an increasing tendency for the evolution of mankind to "deviate less from a certain appointed track".

There are however others who are not seen as determinists, yet who show equal lack of sympathy for counterfactual theory. Benedetto Croce is one who will have no truck with it. "Historical necessity," he says, "has to be affirmed and continually reaffirmed in order to exclude from history the 'conditional' which has no rightful place there". He seems (ironically enough) to foreshadow Carr in referring to it as "a game which all of us in moments of distraction or idleness indulge in". If alternatives were pursued seriously he believes that this would lead to an "effect too wearisome to be long maintained." This last comment may perhaps be taken as a back-handed compliment, implying as it does recognition of the requirement inherent in counterfactual history thoroughly to explore causation, which we have already noted.

Michael Oakeshott, an idealist philosopher, and certainly no determinist, says that counterfactualism results in "the complete rejection of history". It is a "monstrous incursion of science into the world of history". If any room for doubt about his opinion were left, it would hardly remain after reading his claim that "the historian is never called upon to consider what might have happened had circumstances been different".

These objections from non-determinists may seem puzzling, since counterfactualism is compatible with accident theory, certainly with any idea of human agency, and as such could be expected to find favour with those not altogether out of sympathy with the concept of free will. One reason for their disdain may be the pride of the professional historian, reluctant to muddy his work with mere fiction, while a more defensible reason could be that the pursuit of alternatives is seen as a distraction from the real work of the historian, which is to examine and interpret what actually did happen.

This of course is a central theme of R G Collingwood, very much an idealist among philosophers of history, who insists that the role of the historian is to enter into the mind of the subject whom he is studying and of whom he is writing. The historian must understand what his subject was thinking, since, Collingwood believes, true history is the history of human thought. seems to me that in saying this Collingwood has immensely strengthened the case for what is admittedly a loosely defined form of counterfactualism, perhaps better described as the need closely to consider alternative courses of action. If the historian is really to understand what his subject was thinking, then one of the things which he must try to assess and appreciate is just what were the alternative courses of action which faced the subject and how did the subject, with the information available to him at the time, assess those alternatives. In other words the historian is doing an after the event analysis, but from a before the event perspective. To take the case of the Kaiser and his mother, which we looked at earlier, it is hard to see how one could begin to explain his actions without thinking about what he, the Kaiser, thought might happen if he behaved differently. And there is nothing special about the case of the Kaiser, for it seems unlikely that anyone's reasons for behaving in a particular way can be adequately explained without reference to their own assessment of the alternatives which they faced. Our businessman's calculation too was a before the event analysis.

I feel sure that Messrs Carr, Thompson, Oakeshott, Croce et al would agree with Collingwood that the basis on which both Kaiser and businessman make their decisions represents a necessary piece of information for anyone after the event to describe accurately why they behaved in the way they did. SO their objections, it would seem, lie elsewhere, and I think we can accept that so distinguished a group of professionals is likely to have a point. I think that the division of counterfactualism into before and after the event kinds may not be the only fault line which runs through the concept, perhaps not the most significant one either. If we look back at what we have already said about different kinds of counterfactualism, and different examples, we can see that we have sometimes referred to what would have happened, and sometimes to what might have happened. In discussing the case of the law court, we even brought the two ideas briefly together. If we then look again at some of the historians' quotations which we have used, we see for example, that Carr is ridiculing those who dwell on more agreeable things which "might" have happened, and that likewise Oakeshott is dismissing things which "might" have happened had circumstances been different. Are what these professional historians attacking not truly counterfactual judgements at all, but only speculations? Can we tighten up what we mean by counterfactual argument and still leave anything meaningful which is of value to the historian?

I think we can. The other word to which I referred is "would". There seems to be something altogether more solid in Mill's acknowledgement that things "would" not have been what they are without William the Conqueror: "would", not "might".

I do not suggest that there is any easy distinction between the ability to differentiate in a counterfactual sense between what might and what would have happened, but I do suggest that the more able the historian is, the further will he be able to travel along the road towards the (ultimately unattainable) goal of establishing just what would have happened. Such skill would involve the most detailed analysis of and insight into causation; the widest knowledge of what may have happened in similar historical circumstances, always allowing for the fact that "similar" can never mean "same"; the ability to construct a counterfactual world as consistent as possible with the actual historical world under discussion; and perhaps above all a most Collingwoodian ability to re-enact the past. It is by such use of serious counterfactual judgement that historians can come closest to a true assessment of the success or failure of historical agents in choosing courses of action most likely to lead to their desired ends. This can of course include judgements on how successful they may have been in preventing unwanted things from happening, with possible lessons to be learned for future behaviour.

As a footnote to the discussion of alternative history, one can add that the history of evolution could if one so desired be reduced to a process of what might be called iterative counterfactualism. Evolution produces a constant succession of random mutations as the raw material of natural selection, the survivors being those best adapted to the contemporary environment; the vastly greater number of mutations do not survive, but could well have done so in a different environment. Expressed thus, this is little more than stuff for Croce's "moments of distraction or idleness", but what about the mutations which have survived but seem to confer no benefit? Did they confer a benefit in the past? If so, in what sort of environment? Successfully to work the growing goldmine of knowledge about the history of our planet and its lifeforms calls for an approach in which the examination of countless possible alternatives plays an essential part.

So although we should probably concede that counterfactual history of the purely "might have been" kind may be more suited to fiction than to serious historiography, its main benefit lying in its entertainment value, we should still maintain that there are forms of counterfactual thinking which are of very real value to the historian. In addition to the use of the concept as an aid to understanding the evolutionary past which we have just mentioned, other benefits include not only understanding what alternatives would have been considered by historical agents, but also the possibility of making reasonable assessments of what would have been the likely outcomes of decisions which in fact were not made.