Counter-Factual History

Reader Ken B. is puzzled: "I don't see how you can deny that without denying the use of historical counterfactuals in toto."

First of all, to be very clear, no one is "denying the use" of anything in what follows, or in what went before. When I noted Fukuyama's remarks about "hijacking" the course of events, I was not trying to say he can't write like that: I was saying he is not writing as an historian when writing like that.

And in what follows, I draw heavily on Michael Oakeshott. He was once asked, by my PhD advisor, David Boucher, if his ideas meant it was illegitimate for historians to write certain things. Oakeshott responded that he had no interest in telling historians what to put in their books. What he was (and I am) interested in is conceptually identifying a certain attitude to the past we can term "historical."

And this is a very important point: Oakeshott made clear that there are pasts besides the historical past, which he identified as the past investigated in terms of what really did happen. A significant and different past he called "the practical past": this is a past from which we draw lessons concerning our present conundrums. Here are some things Oakeshott says about the practical past, all from his last work, On History:

"There are some well-known items which are so often used in the world outside that they may be said to be on permanent loan to the present of practical engagement. Here are Cain and Abel, Moses, Horatius, Caesar crossing the Rubicon, Athanasius at Nicaea, Canute on the seashore, King Arthur, Wilhelm Tell, Luther at Worms, Nelson putting his telescope to his blind eye at Copenhagen, Robin Hood, Captain Oates, Davy Crockett, and here is Colonel Custer making his last stand." (p. 44)

"Sometimes a search of this storehouse will you hold something more closely and usefully linked to our practical engagements. It may disclose a purported authority for doing what we want to do, a precedent for taking a certain course of action, a warning or encouragement...

"In short, the contents of the storehouse are altogether different from the recorded past of performances, artifacts and utterances, in which in historical inquiry begins. It is not a collection of exploits but of emblems; not evoked in the procedure of critical inquiry into the authentic character of a not-yet-understood survival, but merely recalled as unproblematic images; and valued, not for an historically understood past which may be inferred from them, but for their present usefulness." (p. 45)

"this collection of symbols is valued in respect of the support it may give to what it is recognized to be a desirable present a practical engagements, and what it is found to be valuable we may say that 'history is on our side.'" (p. 47)

"What I have called a practical past is, then, a present of objects recognize to have survived. It is an indispensable ingredient of an articulate civilized life. But it is categorically distinct from both the survivals which compose the present of an historical enquiry and from an historically understood past which may be inferred from them." (p. 48)

Once one understands the distinction Oakeshott is making, it is clear that counter-factual "history" is actually an element of the practical past: "If only Chamberlain had taken on Hitler earlier, World War II could have been avoided." This is trotted out repeatedly as a lesson for facing down some current dictator. But it is certainly not the conclusion of any historical investigation, since there is no historical evidence for events that didn't happen! That firmness on Chamberlain's part would have stopped Hitler is a practical, not a historical, judgment.

And, again, this does not mean that no historian should put such a judgment in her books!



31 comments:

  1. "That firmness on Chamberlain's part would have stopped Hitler is a practical, not a historical, judgment."

    Just as is "If you had tightened the lid before you drank from the thermos you wouldn't have spilled all the coffee on your shirt" or "I would have hit the car ahead of me if my breaks failed."
    Counterfactuals always refer to something that didn't or won't happen.
    But then if you write history I think you are always engaged in "practical" history. One selects which events to investigate, record, mention. Why record that FDR won the election in 1940? Because had he not -- practical -- he would have not been president. Why record that the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima if you do not believe not dropping it would not have affected Hiroshima? Causality, whether physical, social, psychological, whatever, is inherently involved with counterfactuals.

    I agree that the judgment about Chamberlain is more of a reach than the judgment about the inauguration ceremony of 1941, but because there are more links in the chain, not because there there are no links in the FDR chain.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well Ken, all I can say is that Oakeshott spent his entire adult life contemplating the philosophy of history, and I have spent a decade contemplating what he wrote on it. We have both reached the conclusion that the historical past is mortally different than the practical past. You might check out On History for more on this point

      Delete
  2. Gene, even if we define the historical past as the set of events which actually occurred, presumably you don't believe that historical inquiry consists of just finding out which event took place when, and calling it a day. Surely historical inquiry also involves understanding the relationships between historical events. And if the statement "If Chamberlain had taken on Hitler earlier, World War 2 would never have happened" is true, then doesn't that say something significant about the relationship between the events "Chamberlain chose not to take on Hitler" and "World War II took place"?

    So I think that historical counterfactuals can offer insight not just into the lessons we can draw from the practical past, but also insight into the relationships between historical events, a vital part of understanding the historical past even if you're not interested in practical lessons for the present.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "Surely historical inquiry also involves understanding the relationships between historical events."

      Yes, but that relationship is understood through adding more historical detail, not by speculating on "what ifs".

      Delete
    2. OK, but gathering more and more historical details isn't the end of the process, is it? At some point don't you have to actually use those details to try to draw conclusions about the relationships between historical events? That's the step where I think counterfactual reasoning can play an important role.

      To take Ken B's example, if you want to understand the relationship between the events "a nuclear bomb was dropped in Hiroshima" and "large numbers of people died in Hiroshima", then wouldn't the fact that "if the bomb hadn't been dropped, large numbers of people wouldn't have died in Hiroshima" be relevant to that analysis?

      Now of course, in determining the truth of that counterfactual statement, you might rely on information like "nuclear bombs are destructive". But you're still engaging in counterfactual reasoning. And I think the use of such reasoning can be vital to historical inquiry.

      Delete
    3. The details are the relationship.

      Delete
    4. I don't even know what that means. I assumed by details you meant the details of historical events. So I'm not sure what it means to say "the details are the relationship"?

      Delete
    5. I was going to write my reply before reading yours, but I cheated and looked. But I was right as to what I had to respond:

      Historical events are internally related. They do not need some extra, nonhistorical third term to relate them.

      Delete
    6. OK, let me ask you this: if true, does the statement "if Chamberlain taken on Hitler, then World War II wouldn't have occurred" shed absolutely no light on the internal relationship between the historical events "Chamberlain chose not to take on Hitler" and "World War 2 took place"?

      Delete
    7. I am not in the least denying that that is an interesting question, and am not at all forbidding anyone to ask it. I am just saying that the historian qua historian has no special ability to answer it, since there is no historical evidence about things that did not happen!

      Delete
  3. Well part of what I see in the passages you quote is, implicitly, the claim that we carry around little historical tableaus, like Chamberlain at Munich, that may have little relation to what, from the fullest evidence, actually happened. Here's an example: most people believe early movie goers panicked at the film of an approaching train, which is almost certainly false. So far so good, nothing controversial.
    But that doesn't seem directly related to the point I made originally that you link to, or the use of counterfactuals in history. It just means when someone says "history proves that" he really means "these tableau illustrate that". These tableau seem to me what Oakeshott calls "practical history".
    But as Keshav and I are saying, the other kind of history is still implicated in the use of counterfactuals and ideas of what is relevant or causal. It's part of deciding what is relevant. Why discuss Chamberlain at all, rather than the sleeping chimney sweep in a third floor garret in Soho?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Are you saying that people investigate, say, ritual sacrifice among the Aztecs... what? To learn how to do them properly?

      Delete
    2. Gene, Ken B is saying that drawing practical lessons from the past is not the only use of counterfactuals. He's saying that even if you're interested in the past for it's own sake, you would still be naturally interested in counterfactuals.

      Delete
  4. Keshav, I'm not trying to tell anyone what they should or shouldn't be interested in.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. OK, but why did you include quotes about the practical past in your post? I assumed you were saying that the only reason a person would be interested in historical counterfactuals is because they were interested in the practical past. Is that not what you were trying to say?

      Delete
    2. Counter-factuals are certainly irrelevant to determining what actually occurred, which I take to be history proper.

      Delete
    3. Gene, would you agree with the following?

      "The task of a historian is to determine what historical events took place and when, and to determine the relationship between historical events. When someone uses counterfactuals to determine the relationship between historical events that actually took place, they are trying to achieve the same goal that a historians try to achieve, but they are doing it through methods that are not part of the discipline of history."

      Delete
    4. No: you're still thinking that determining what took place and determining the relationship between these events are two separate steps. Once the historian determines what took place, he is done: the relations are already there.

      Delete
  5. Keshav, I think you are laboring under the error that having fully understood what actually happened, there is some further step to take in order to "explain" it. But a full historical account of the situation fully explains it. Explanations in terms of "laws " or general principles of some sort or Bridgeman's of a full historical explanation, not completions of it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "But a full historical account of the situation fully explains it." Gene, suppose that you were somehow able to determine the motion of single molecule in the universe between 1925 and 1945. Then you would know exactly what events took place and when. But would just knowing that information instantly tell you what caused the Great Depression? I would say no; I think that once you've gathered all that information, you have to use your reasoning faculties. And part of the reasoning you'd presumably use is counterfactual reasoning.

      "Explanations in terms of "laws " or general principles of some sort or Bridgeman's of a full historical explanation, not completions of it." Sorry, does this sentence have a typo or something?

      Delete
    2. Historical events are not motions of molecules! And to arrive at what really happened, you would have already used your reasoning facilities. And once you have arrived at that, the historical exclamation is complete. You simply have not understood historical explanation if you feel some other added something is necessary.

      Yes, Siri got me wrong: The word was supposed to be "abridgments".

      Delete
    3. "And to arrive at what really happened, you would have already used your reasoning facilities. And once you have arrived at that, the historical exclamation is complete."

      OK, suppose God handed you a book describing in detail all the (relevant) events that happened between 1925 and 1945. And you somehow memorized the entire contents of that book. Now how would you use the information you had memorized to find out what caused the Great Depression? At that stage wouldn't you have to engage in reasoning? And wouldn't counterfactual reasoning come in handy?

      Delete
    4. Remember, Keshav, "The motion of every particle" is a mere abstraction from all that is going on. Of course it would not tell you what caused the great depression.

      Delete
    5. You would have to engage in reasoning to follow the account of all that went on between 1925 1945. You are not a computer, and this is not me or "information."

      But once you had done that, you would fully understand the situation, and would not be in any need of some further theory of depressions or anything of the sort.

      Delete
    6. OK, here's my question: does a historical account just include factual details, or does it also include details about modalities? For instance, in a complete historical account would you find statements like "A caused B"? Or are those sorts of statements things that would become clear to you as you read the historical account?

      Delete
    7. I'm using the word "modality" the way the term is used in logic and linguistics, by the way, as in "modal logic" and the like. Basically, judgments we can make about statements other than truth and falsity. So things like possibility, necessity, cause and effect, etc.

      Delete
    8. Keshav, I did my masters degree in one of the top analytical philosophy departments of the world: I know what "modality" means in the context.

      But I am not under any obligation to accept the categories of analytical philosophy. In history, you know what "caused" Cesar to cross the Rubicon in the exact same way that you know that Cesar did cross the Rubicon. There are not two steps, where first you have the "plain" facts and then you decide what caused these facts.

      Delete
    9. "Keshav, I did my masters degree in one of the top analytical philosophy departments of the world" Oh, I didn't know that. Most people I talk to on the internet have zero background in analytic philosophy.

      "In history, you know what "caused" Cesar to cross the Rubicon in the exact same way that you know that Cesar did cross the Rubicon. There are not two steps, where first you have the "plain" facts and then you decide what caused these facts." OK, so in your view modal statements and non-modal statements would be on equal footing in a historical account. Now that we have that cleared up, let's go back to what you said earlier:

      "Counter-factuals are certainly irrelevant to determining what actually occurred, which I take to be history proper." Well, if "what actually occurred" was restricted to non-modal statements, then what you're saying might make sense. But how is the counterfactual statement "If Chamberlain had taken on Hitler earlier, World War II would not have happened" irrelevant to determining whether Chamberlain's decision not to take on Hitler was one of the causes of World War II? I think it's highly relevant.

      Delete
    10. No, you are working with a wrong idea of causation here. What causes an historical event is simply the situation before it.

      Keshav, this is really hopeless. You want to fit everything I say into analytical philosophy categories. But I believe analytical philosophy is seriously mistaken in these regards, and is the very thing causing you all the problems you have with what I write.

      Delete
    11. "No, you are working with a wrong idea of causation here. What causes an historical event is simply the situation before it." Well, what do you mean by "the situation before it"? Before World War II, Johnny might have bought some cotton candy, and Chamberlain decided not to take on Hitler. How do you determine which of these caused World War II to happen?

      And what do you mean I'm working with a wrong idea of causation? Do you mean that my notion of cause is not how the word cause is used in English? Do you mean that my notion of cause is not a very useful notion in the discipline of history?

      "But I believe analytical philosophy is seriously mistaken in these regards, and is the very thing causing you all the problems you have with what I write." OK, maybe you should write a top-level post about how analytic philosophy is mistaken in these regards. That might clear up my confusion.

      Delete
    12. "Do you mean that my notion of cause is not how the word cause is used in English?"

      We established that a while back!

      But no Keshav, I'm busy: I can't keep playing.

      Delete