Counterfactual history

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Counterfactual history, also sometimes referred to as virtual history, is a form of historiography which attempts to answer "what if" questions known as counterfactuals.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] 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.”[3]

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