The Possibilities of History

In: Journal of the Philosophy of History
Daniel Nolan The University of Notre Dame

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Several kinds of historical alternatives are distinguished. Different kinds of historical alternatives are valuable to the practice of history for different reasons. Important uses for historical alternatives include representing different sides of historical disputes; distributing chances of different outcomes over alternatives; and offering explanations of why various alternatives did not in fact happen. Consideration of counterfactuals about what would have happened had things been different in particular ways plays particularly useful roles in reasoning about historical analogues of current conditions; reasoning about causal claims; and in evaluating historical explanations. When evaluating the role of alternative histories in historical thinking, we should keep in mind the uses of historical alternatives that go well beyond the long-term and specific scenarios that are the focus of so-called “counterfactual history”.

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