Other Pasts, Different Presents, Alternative Futures

Other Pasts, Different Presents, Alternative Futures

Other Pasts, Different Presents, Alternative Futures

Other Pasts, Different Presents, Alternative Futures

Synopsis

What if there had been no World War I or no Russian Revolution? What if Napoleon had won at Waterloo in 1815, or if Martin Luther had not nailed his complaints to the church door at Wittenberg in 1517, or if the South had won the American Civil War? The questioning of apparent certainties or "known knowns" can be fascinating and, indeed, "What if?" books are very popular. However, this speculative approach, known as counterfactualism, has had limited impact in academic histories, historiography, and the teaching of historical methods. In this book, Jeremy Black offers a short guide to the subject, one that is designed to argue its value as a tool for public and academe alike. Black focuses on the role of counterfactualism in demonstrating the part of contingency, and thus human agency, in history, and the salutary critique the approach offers to determinist accounts of past, present, and future.

Excerpt

The 2010s are a decade of commemorative anniversaries, most of which invite questions about whether other outcomes were possible and, if so, what would have happened. What if there had been no World War I or no Russian Revolution?—the latter incidentally an unlikely occurrence had there been no such war. What if Napoleon had won at Waterloo in 1815?; or if the Jacobites had won in 1715?; or if there had been no Bohemian Revolt leading to the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War in 1618?; or if Martin Luther had not nailed his complaints to the church door at Wittenberg in 1517?; or if Henry V had not won at Agincourt in 1415?; or Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn in 1314? Or if King John had not been obliged to accept Magna Carta in 1215?

The list can be readily extended, as well as varied by country and theme. the common element is the questioning of apparent certainties, or “known knowns,” to quote Donald Rumsfeld. Indeed, “What if?” books today take a prominent role in airport bookshops, and have been a major publishing success over the last two decades.

Yet this approach, generally known as counterfactualism, has had only a limited impact in academic history and, more particularly, in historiography and the teaching of historical method. Indeed, there have been significant attacks on the counterfactual approach. This is unfortunate, as counterfactualism has much to offer. in this book, I offer a short guide to the subject, one that is designed to argue its value as a tool for public and academe alike. in particular, I focus on the role of counterfactualism in demonstrating the part of contingency, and thus human agency, in history, and on the critique the counterfactual ap-

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.