History and Counterfactuals
In response to Bryan Caplan’s excellent post, “What If Lenin’s Stroke Came [sic] Five Years Sooner,” historian Susan, in the comments section writes:
I’m setting aside the major problem of engaging in historical counterfactuals, which as a historian I find problematic and uninteresting.
Yet, if she really means that, then she is restricting history to a simple recitation of facts. If we can’t speculate about what would have happened if x hadn’t happened or if politician y hadn’t been been in charge, then what’s left other than recitation of facts?
Fortunately, I’m not sure she means it. The reason is that she goes on to–engage in historical counterfactuals. She writes:
But given the general tenor of European thought post-1848, I find it hard to believe that no one would have attempted a Hitler- or Mussolini-like project in the 20th century, or that genocide would have been forestalled.
Of course, attempting and succeeding are two different things. But that’s not my main point. My point is that Susan is saying that in the counterfactual world in which Hitler and Mussolini hadn’t existed, there’s a high probability that someone else in each country would have taken their place. She could be wrong and she could be right, but whichever she is, she is engaging in counterfactuals.
May 1 2010 at 12:19pm
And what would these “facts” of non-counterfactual history look like? Most of what commonly pass for “facts” includes some causal information. For example, “Minister X signed the peace treaty”; this means that a decision or an act of will on the part of Minister X *caused* his hand to grasp a pen and trace a certain pattern on the page. And causation is evidently a counterfactual notion (admittedly, I’m not sure about the details): “A caused B” implies that if A had not happened, neither would B (or something of the sort).
Non-counterfactual history would be incredibly poor and thin.
May 1 2010 at 1:24pm
You misunderstand what the study of history is actually about. History is not about the recitation of facts. Historians typically view the study of history as using historical facts and information to make an argument about why certain historical events happened in the way they did. Debating the influences and events that led up to a particular moment in history. Usually historians will piece facts together to create and argument about why event or movement or whatever happened. Historians are typically uninterested in counterfactuals because throughout history you will find seemingly small events playing major roles in history. That’s why historians are skeptical of playing the counterfactual game, because they are fully aware that small events can change the course of history rather easily.
That said, I think Susan is playing along, that doesn’t mean as a historian she doesn’t find them uninteresting it simply means she’s just responding to a post just for fun.
May 1 2010 at 2:21pm
While I think “Minister X signed the treaty” is a bad example, I otherwise agree with Philo (and David Henderson). Evaluating causality is always and everywhere equivalent to evaluating counterfactuals.
May 1 2010 at 4:59pm
As Philo and Moron, I don’t understand how you could make a historical argument without engaging in counterfactuals. The only way to evaluate how significant a specific event or cause was to the way things turned out is to alter or remove that particular event or cause while keeping everything else the same and then laying out the probable outcomes.
In science, we call it a ‘controlled experiment’.
May 1 2010 at 5:08pm
Good posts, but I think the difficulty of using counterfactuals in (economic) history has been well (and entertainingly) argued by Preston McAfee in his 1983 satire article American Economic Growth and the Voyage of Columbus, in the American Economic Review.
May 1 2010 at 5:57pm
History is littered with anecdotes. Those with too much time on their hands incorporate these anecdotes into something they call “arguments.” It’s not science. It’s fiction.
May 1 2010 at 8:42pm
It might not be quite on topic for this blog, but I’d like to read a post where you reconcile your libertarian economic views with your prescriptivist grammatical views. If our economic system should be based on some amalgamation of everybody’s preferences, why shouldn’t our language be as well?
May 1 2010 at 9:32pm
Seems to me there is nearly as much ‘fiction’ in economics as there is in history – everyone’s picking out the ‘facts’ they think are important, and putting together a narrative about how things work, why things happen. Not to say that there aren’t times where these stories become hugely influential!
May 1 2010 at 11:14pm
“I’m setting aside the major problem of engaging in historical counterfactuals, which as a historian I find problematic and uninteresting.”
I guess she wouldn’t be interested by my claim that Lincoln was a terrible president, because he should have tried to convince the Congress to buy all the slaves (at least among owners who owned 20 or fewer slaves) at full market value.
That would have avoided the Civil War and prevented the destruction of the South.
Why Lincoln was a terrible president
May 2 2010 at 1:19am
There’s a sci fi story about Hitler becoming a pacifist. http://escapepod.org/2009/02/07/ep187-summer-in-paris-light-from-the-sky/ The author seems to agree with Susan.
May 3 2010 at 3:58pm
Great post, David. I just read a C.S. Lewis essay called something like, “Why I’m Not a Pacifist” and he does the same thing Susan apparently did (I haven’t read the original to see if you are being fair). Lewis says something like, “The pacifists claim that if we lay down our arms, we will stop contributing to the root causes of violence and we will have peace. Yet this is a dangerous counterfactual, and I do not engage in such loose speculation….If the democratic nations had not stood up to Hitler, he would have marched over them and taken away the very freedoms that the pacifists enjoy.”
I am totally paraphrasing, but that was the gist of Lewis’ argument.
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