[lit-ideas] What If?

  • From: Jlsperanza@xxxxxxx
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Sat, 9 Jun 2012 09:47:33 -0400 (EDT)

What would have happened had Hitler drunk coffee instead of tea on the  
afternoon he committed suicide?

James C. Bresnahan (ed.): 
Revisioning the Civil War: Historians on  Counterfactual Scenarios.
Churchill, Winston. 
"If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg".  
The Churchill Centre. Archived 
Counterfactuals in History: The Philosopher's Viewpoint

In a message  dated 6/9/2012 5:39:29 A.M. UTC-02, 
lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx writes:
Hood  was never given enough troops to enable him to fight on an equal 
footing with  his Northern enemies. The Southern Draft never worked properly 
at some point  no more troops were forthcoming. So a “draw” for Hood was 
not the same as a  “draw” for Sherman’s generals. Sherman could replace his 
troops. Hood could not.  Had Hood been able to replace his troops as Thomas 
or Schofield did, he would  certainly have fared better. 
From wiki:
Counterfactual history: the study of historical events as they might have  
happened in different causal circumstances.
and a running commentary from
as we consider L. Helm's posts.
Grice should not have been altogether critical. Grice is credited for  
bringing in the Martians -- in philosophy. In "Some remarks about the  senses" 
(now in his book, WoW) he famously introduced the Martian way of seeing  
things, and this Thought-experiment was soon imitated. (But of course, the  
counterfactual thinking quite diverges from the Martian-type example that Grice 
explores -- even if the category 'thought experiment' can be used for  
Note below a few specific references to the Civil War: 
James C. Bresnahan (ed.): 
Revisioning the Civil War: Historians on  Counterfactual Scenarios.
"What if?" is the title of at least two collections on counterfactual  
history which has to be distinguished, as the wiki entry notes, from 'alternate 
history'. Grice was fascinated with the logical form of "if", which he 
thought  was too complex for simplistic philosophers like Strawson. For Grice, 
"if"  carries a conversational implicature, and not, as Strawson thought, a  
CONVENTIONAL implicature. 
Strawson thought that "if" works as "therefore" works in nonsubordinate  
clauses. (Strawson, "If and -->"). Grice had more than one occasion to  
respond to Strawson's simplifications. Further, in seminars with Nancy  
Cartwright, in the series, "Hands across the Bay", at Stanford and Berkeley  
(Cartwright taught at Stanford, Grice at Berkeley) they played with yet another 
logical operator, the "as if" (The philosophy of the as-if). This Grice used to 
explain some concoctions in the philosophy of physics (quantum physics). He 
 thought that as-if thinking can be profitable. AND THEN there's the "what 
if?"  which still requires a different sort of analysis, if alla A. C. 
Danto's terms  in 'basic statements', the better.
The wiki entry reads:
"Counterfactual history, also sometimes referred to as VIRTUAL  history, is 
a form of historiography that 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  
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 question of how  
important Hitler was as an individual and how his personal fate shaped the  
course of the war and, ultimately, of world history."

"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" 
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 
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  

"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 had there been 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, 
 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  
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 
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."

"Some scholars argue that a counterfactual is not as  much a matter of what 
happened in the past but it is the disagreement about  which past events 
were most significant."
"For example, William Thompson employs a sequence of counterfactuals for  
eight lead economies that have driven globalization processes for almost a  
thousand years."
"From Sung China to Genoa, Venice, Portugal, the Netherlands, Britain, and  
the United States, and claims that each actor in succession played an 
unusually  critical role in creating a structure of leadership that became 
increasingly  global in scope across time "

"Counterfactual history is  neither historical revisionism nor alternate  

"Counterfactual history distinguishes itself through its  interest in the 
very incident that is being negated by the counterfactual, thus  seeking to 
evaluate the event's relative historical importance. Such historians  reason 
arguments for each change, outlining changes in broad terms only, as  befits 
a mere byproduct of the exercise."

"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 
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"."

"Since it is a rather recent development in  historiography, many 
historians dismiss counterfactual history as sometimes  entertaining, but not 
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."

"Aviezer  Tucker has offered a range of criticism of this approach to the 
study of the  past both in his review of Ferguson's Virtual History in 
History and Theory and  in his book ‪Our Knowledge of the Past: A Philosophy of 

See also: Alternate history, Stalin's Missed  Chance, Jonbar Hinge

Martin Bunzl (June 2004).  "Counterfactual History: A User's Guide". 
American Historical Review. Retrieved  2009-06-02.

Churchill, Winston. 
"If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg". 
The Churchill Centre. Archived from the original on January 5,  2009.

Railroads and American Economic Growth: Essays in Econometric History |  
Book Reviews | EH.Net

Smoler, Frederic (September 1999). "Past Tense". American Heritage 50  (5).

Thompson. W. The Lead Economy Sequence in World Politics (From Sung China  
to the United States): Selected Counterfactuals. Journal of Globalization  
Studies. Vol. 1, num. 1. 2010. PP. 6–28 [1]

Review by Keith Brooke

Tucker, Aviezer (May 1999). "Historiographical Counterfactuals and  
Historical Contingency". History and Theory 38 (2): 264–276.  

Tucker, Aviezer (2004‬). ‪Our Knowledge of the Past: A Philosophy of  
Historiography‬. ‪Cambridge University Press. DOI:10.2277/0521834155. ISBN  

Further reading

James C. Bresnahan  (ed.): 
Revisioning the Civil War: Historians on Counterfactual Scenarios, ISBN  

Robert Cowley (ed.): What If?: The World's Foremost Military Historians  
Imagine What Might Have Been, Putnam Publishing Group, ISBN 0-425-17642-8; Pan 
 ISBN 0-330-48724-8

Robert Cowley (ed.): 
More What If?: Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been, Pan, ISBN  
0-330-48725-6; Berkley Publishing Group ISBN 0-425-18613-X

Robert Cowley (ed.): 
What If? America: Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been, ISBN  

Niall Ferguson (ed.): Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals,  
ISBN 0-330-35132-X; ISBN 0-465-02323-1; ISBN 0-330-41303-1

Geoffrey Hawthorn: Plausible Worlds: Possibility and Understanding in  
History and the Social Sciences, ISBN 0-521-40359-6; ISBN  0-521-45776-9

Roger L. Ransom: The Confederate States of America: What Might Have Been,  
ISBN 0-393-05967-7; ISBN 0-393-32911-9

Philip E. Tetlock and Aaron Belkin (eds.): Counterfactual Thought  
Experiments in World Politics, ISBN 0-691-02792-7; ISBN 0-691-02791-9

Philip E. Tetlock, Richard Ned Lebow, and Geoffrey Parker (eds.): Unmaking  
the West: "What-If?" Scenarios That Rewrite World History, ISBN 
0-472-11543-X,  ISBN 0-472-03143-0

External links
Counterfactual Thought  Experiments: A Necessary Research Tool - Academic 
discussion of counterfactuals  in history, and suggested ground rules for 
their use

Counterfactual History: A User's Guide - article by Martin Bunzl from The  
American Historical Review

Categories: Fields of history
Theories of history
Alternate  history


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