Had Lenin’s train collided with the Berlin-Basle express

Charles Maier

  • Plausible Worlds: Possibility and Understanding in History and the Social Sciences by Geoffrey Hawthorn
    Cambridge, 192 pp, £27.50, September 1991, ISBN 0 521 40359 6
  • New Philosophy of Social Science: Problems of Indeterminacy by James Bohman
    Polity, 273 pp, £35.00, October 1991, ISBN 0 7456 0632 6

Certainly not the saddest for historians, according to Geoffrey Hawthorn’s wonderfully playful and intelligent book: rather, the most instructive. Hawthorn is intrigued by the philosophical standing of counter-factuals – hypothetical ‘other worlds’ – and their usefulness for historians and social scientists. Some historians resist the legitimacy of invoking counter-factual stories. They stringently insist that we can research and speculate only about what we believe actually occurred; anything else is merely fanciful. Call them factualists.

Hawthorn believes, as I do, that the factualists are mistaken both about what historians should do and what they actually do. If I read my colleagues correctly, they are continually, and properly, testing stories about what might have happened in order to figure out what did happen. To argue why the Han empire collapsed, why European populations contracted in the 14th century, why World War One erupted, why the United States decided to ‘contain’ Soviet Communism, usually requires demonstrating either why alternative outcomes did not occur or why other factors did not bring about the one that did. History as a story of wie es eigentlich gewesen always rests on at least an implicit wie es anders gewesen waere, how it might have been otherwise.

Probably what separates factualists from counter-factualists is a matter of temperament. For the factualist there is only one psychologically plausible world: the one that ‘is’. For counter-factualists the world as it is often rests on very thin ontological ice: for them, other worlds possess at least the same intensity of psychological presence as imaginary numbers offer the mathematician. Some of these other worlds, however, are more conceptually useful than others. Just because the historian departs from the actual world, he or she cannot wander like Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince unrestrained among infinite possibilities. As Hawthorn emphasises, counter-factuals that are too inclusive do not help test causal hypotheses. Not all worlds that are conceivable in what we might call hypo-space have equally privileged subjunctive status. The counter-factual evoked must be a plausible world, not a totally different one.

The most powerful objection to counter-factuals, Hawthorn maintains, is not the factualist’s stubborn conviction that there is only one actual world to explain. The weightier argument is that counter-factuals are not controllable as thought experiments; they cannot be fitted to the real world one variable at a time. The real world is so holistically interconnected that to change one element must be to change them all: ‘the sheer thickness of circumstance that constitutes any past precludes any alternative at all except a wholly different world unwinding itself from the start of all worlds.’ This view is most closely associated with Leibniz, who maintained that every substance or monad had determinate relations with every other – past and future as well as contemporary – in any given possible world. Any counter-factual speculation would thus require opening up all history and recalculating all the switching-points since the Creation, even if the historian sought to speculate, say, only about why the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

The historian or social scientist, however, must be able to think through imaginary changes one element at a time – the analogue in thought to a laboratory experiment. Mill outlined the procedure, which he called the ‘method of difference’, in his Logic, but he also seemed to caution that it was not really workable since societal factors, unlike those in the laboratory, could not be altered in isolation. (Mill fudged his rejection, however. Counter-factual states, he explained, could not be altered one element at a time when they pertained to definitional properties, though they might be selectively tested when they referred to empirical causal factors. For Leibniz there was no distinction between an entity’s definitional properties and its causal embeddedness in the world.)

Are counter-factuals, then, a seductive but hopeless strategy for the historical imagination? David Lewis argued in Counterfactuals (1973) that warranted counter-factuals not only had to obey causal logic, they had to imply a real alternative world, of which it seemed there must be an infinite number. Hawthorn along with earlier critics rejects this pluriverse, which for most common-sense analysts would entail rejecting all counter-factuals. More usefully, Jon Elster proposed that a valid counter-factual had to develop consistently out of a single historical branching-point: ‘the alternative state,’ he argued, had to ‘be capable of insertion into the real past’ (Logic and Society, 1978). Hawthorn endorses this criterion, which eliminates many badly-framed counter-factuals that pose alternatives before the historical preconditions for them had come into existence. As Hawthorn explains, in pondering why the Black Death abated in Europe, it is unacceptable to assume that the aetiology of the plague might have been understood earlier than it was.

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