The Ways We Wonder “What If?”

Towards a Typology of Historical Counterfactuals

In: Journal of the Philosophy of History
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  • 1 Fairfield University

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In this essay, I seek to refine our understanding of historical counterfactuals by classifying them into a new typology. After providing a systematic definition of counterfactuals, I divide them up into five different categories: causal, emotive, temporal, spatial, and manneristic. Within each of these categories, I identify eighteen different types of counterfactuals, which I classify with descriptive names and illustrate with specific examples from recent works of historiography. The different types of counterfactuals vary in numerous ways, but they are all linked by their rhetorical elements. These elements, in turn, help explain the present-day popularity of wondering how history might have been different.

  • 3

    Gavriel Rosenfeld, “Welcome to the Counterfactual History Review,” The Counterfactual History Review, May 8, 2013.

  • 10

    Lebow, Forbidden Fruit, 15.

  • 19

    Tetlock and Belkin, “Counterfactual Experiments in World Politics,” 3. Harvey, Explaining the Iraq War, 23–26. See also Simon Kaye, “Challenging Certainty: The Utility and History of Counterfactualism,” History and Theory, February, 2010, 38.

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  • 20

    Lebow, Forbidden Fruit, 40.

  • 21

    Eric Foner, “If Lincoln Hadn’t Died . . .,” American Heritage (Winter 2009), 47.

  • 24

    Fritz Ringer, “Max Weber on Causal Analysis, Interpretation, and Comparison,” History and Theory, May, 2002, 168.

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    Jeremy Black, What If? Counterfactualism and the Problem of History, 5, 10.

  • 39

    Gavriel D. Rosenfeld, “Why Do We Ask ‘What If?’ Reflections on the Function of Alternate History,” History and Theory, December, 2002, 90–103.

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  • 40

    See Tetlock, “Close-Call Counterfactuals and Belief-System Defenses: I Was Not Almost Wrong But I Was Almost Right,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Nr. 3, 1998, 639–52.

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  • 41

    Neal J. Rouse and Mike Morrison, “The Psychology of Counterfactual Thinking,” Historical Social Research, Nr, 2, 2009, 16–26.

  • 42

    See Rosenfeld, Hi Hitler!, 125.

  • 44

    Rosenfeld, Hi Hitler!, pp. 140–41.

  • 48

    See Adam Kozuchowski, “More Than True: The Rhetorical Function of Counterfactuals in Historiography,” Rethinking History, March, 2014, 337–356.

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  • 49

    Laura J. Kray, et al., “From What Might Have Been to What Must Have Been: Counterfactual Thinking Creates Meaning,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Nr. 1, 2010, 106–118.

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  • 53

    Hans Hoeken, “Suspense, Curiosity, and Surprise: How Discourse Structure Influences the Affective and Cognitive Processing of a Story,” Poetics, 26, 2000, 277–286.

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  • 56

    See Gavriel Rosenfeld, “Gary Hart and Donna Rice’s “Nose,” The Counterfactual History Review, September 22, 2014.

  • 65

    Barbara Tuchman, “If Mao Had Come to Washington: An Essay in Alternatives,” Foreign Affairs, October, 1972, 62.

  • 68

    Josef Joffe, “A World Without Israel,” Foreign Policy, October 22, 2009.

  • 70

    Tetlock and Parker, “Counterfactual Thought Experiments,” 19.

  • 71

    Tetlock, “Close Call Counterfactuals,” 641.

  • 72

    Collins, “Turning Points, Bottlenecks, and the Fallacies of Counterfactual History,” 254.

  • 79

    Gavriel Rosenfeld, “The Man Who Could Have Shot Hitler,” The Counterfactual History Review, January 21, 2014.

  • 80

    Geoffrey Parker, “What If . . . Philip II Had Gone to the Netherlands?” History Today, August, 2004, 40–46.

  • 86

    Gavriel Rosenfeld, “What If Martin Luther Had Died Earlier?”, The Counterfactual History Review, June 4, 2015.

  • 87

    Rosenfeld, Hi Hitler!, 133.

  • 88

    Charles Paul Freund,“Spilt History,” Reason, December, 1999.

  • 89

    Walter Laqueur, “Disraelia: A Counterfactual History, 1848–2008,” Middle East Papers: Middle East Strategy at Harvard, April 1, 2008, 1–21.

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  • 93

    Gavriel Rosenfeld, “Nigel Farage’s Counterfactual Conclusion to World War I,” The Counterfactual History Review, November 13, 2014.

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  • 95

    Gavriel Rosenfeld, “What If the Jews Really Defeated Hitler?” The Counterfactual History Review, August 29, 2013. See also “Nuking Berlin (Again): Steven Shapin on Churchill and the British Atom Bomb,” The Counterfactual History Review, February 2, 2015.

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  • 97

    Gavriel Rosenfeld, “The ‘Clockstopper’ Counterfactual and the Holocaust,” The Counterfactual History Review, May 11, 2013.

  • 99

    Gavriel Rosenfeld, “Victor Davis Hanson’s Anachronistic Counterfactual About Obama Appeasing Hitler,” The Counterfactual History Review, February 26, 2015.

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  • 100

    Quoted in Rosenfeld, Hi Hitler!, 134.

  • 103

    Fred Hiatt, “U.S. Leadership Matters Today, Just as it Did After World War II,” The Washington Post, March 28, 2016.

  • 104

    Gavriel Rosenfeld, “‘What Ifs?’ and the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman Case,” The Counterfactual History Review, July 15, 2013.

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  • 106

    Gavriel Rosenfeld, “From the Archives: How the Irish Viewed a German Defeat of Great Britain in WWI,” The Counterfactual History Review, May 11, 2015.

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  • 112

    Gavriel Rosenfeld, “How the States Got Their Shapes: A Few Counterfactuals,” The Counterfactual History Review, December 13, 2013.

  • 115

    Rosenfeld, The World Hitler Never Made, 127.

  • 119

    Steven Shapin, “Fat Man,” The London Review of Books, September 26, 2013.

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