Concerning Altered Pasts: Reflections of an Early Modern Historian

in Journal of the Philosophy of History
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This essay provides an extended commentary on Richard Evans’ book Altered Pasts from the perspective of a historian of a much earlier period, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The essay considers much of the literature discussed by Evans, explores the “scope” and “range” of counterfactual arguments, and offers suggestions as to how and when legitimate counterfactual historical thinking itself came into being. The essay also argues that the problems inherent in counterfactual history lie less in the logic of their arguments than in the use that is made of them: specifically that a device useful, heuristically, in evaluating the impact of certain factors (or their absence) on events has been stretched by some historians beyond the weight it will bear. In the final section, the relation between fictional and nonfictional counterfactuals is explored.

Concerning Altered Pasts: Reflections of an Early Modern Historian

in Journal of the Philosophy of History



  • 1

    John C. Murrin‘The French Indian War, the American Revolution, and the Counter-factual Hypothesis: Reflections on Lawrence Henry Gipson and John Shy’Reviews in American History 1 (1973): 307–18.

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  • 2

    Philip RothThe Plot against America (New York: Vintage books2005) pp. 113–14.

  • 9

    Johannes Bulhof‘What If? Modality and its History’History and Theory38 (1999) 145–68.

  • 31

    OakeshottExperience and its Modes128.

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    Quoted from BlackWhat If?191.

  • 36

    FergusonVirtual History87; but see the counterargument of ethnographer Ross Hassig ‘Counterfactuals and Revisionism’ 70 note 2.

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  • 37

    Murrin‘What If?’307.

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