Blogs > Cliopatria > Straight-line History: Counterfactual Fantasy

Jul 6, 2004 4:58 am

Straight-line History: Counterfactual Fantasy

Counterfactual history, when conjoined with"Great Man" history, is heady stuff indeed, and Thomas Fleming is one of its boldest (read: most reckless) practitioners. Counterfactual history on this scale is not an argument, really: past a certain point -- and Fleming goes well past that point -- it becomes an exercise in plausible fiction, without all that troublesome dialogue. This week he's drawing on his new book about the Hamilton-Burr Duel to suggest that Burr's victory was, on the whole, a loss for us. Others more familiar with US history can comment on some of the specific twists and turnings of the story, but I want to point out one basic component to the argument which troubles me: linearity.

Fleming assumes that Hamilton's star will rise, and continue rising. He also assumes that Hamilton will consistently apply all the ideas which he held in the past, rather than moderating to suit circumstances or even changing his mind on his own accord. Finally, he assumes that all of the initiatives and policies will succeed.

Most glaringly obvious as potential failures are the (incredibly rapid) professionalization of the military prior to 1812 (without which most of the rest of the story falls flat), the early abolition of slavery (the slave states were, if memory serves, quite dominant politically at the time) and the education-industry revolution (French and Prussian development suggest a more evolutionary process).

In other words, he takes a turning point, and turns it into a straight line. But straight lines are rare things in history, as we well know.

It is an entertaining and vivid way to portray the ways in which Hamilton was different from the other Founders. And it also illustrates the importance of the ocassional illogical (not random, but not part of a process, either) event. But I can't help thinking that the story goes much too far to make those points, and in the process ignores the importance of process and the reality of non-linear development.

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Jonathan Dresner - 7/8/2004

Fair enough. I have the same reaction to "creative non-fiction"....

Richard Henry Morgan - 7/8/2004

I'm just a little put off by attaching the word 'history' in any way to anything we have good reason to believe actually didn't happen.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/8/2004

Actually, "alternative history" is the more common term. We sort of wandered into the other phrasing along the way, but I'm not sure it's all that terrible, either.

Richard Henry Morgan - 7/8/2004

Why don't we dispense with the expression 'counterfactual history', and call such accounts 'one of many competing counterfactual projections'?

Jonathan Dresner - 7/7/2004

I have seen alternative history fiction, usually in the Science Fiction category, which had a clear political statement to make. L. Neil Smith's libertarian fantasies are some of the clearest examples. And most SF doesn't project far enough into the future, so eventually it becomes alternative history.....

Van L. Hayhow - 7/7/2004

I am not sure why alternative history is getting such attention lately. It has been around forever. Its called fiction (usually historical fiction). Some of it is very good (the novel Fatherland, for example, or the Man in the High Castle) but much is not. I thought Professor Fleming's recent article was over the top and wouldn't be used as the outline for an historical novel by a good novelist.

Richard Henry Morgan - 7/7/2004

It is said, by the late David Lewis and others, that causal statements support counterfactuals (or as they also say, contrary to fact conditionals). By that it is meant, without the cause happening, the effect would not have occured. Now what does that tell us about what would have occurred in the absence of the cause? Nothing. We are left to speculate on the many plausible causal relations between the canceled effect and later effects to which it acted as cause. It may force us to try to separate out the robust causal chains from the non-robust, but I'm not sure we're equipped to do that, since at last look, we fall way short of the status of gods.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/6/2004

I guess you could put it that way, but I'm not sure I would. Counter-factual history is only valid to the extent that it is limited in scope (particularly chronological scope) and very cautious about evaluating the weight and interaction of causative factors.

It is easy to argue that "if Hitler hadn't lived the 20th century would have been different." But that doesn't mean that an industrialized genocidal atrocity would not have occurred (in fact, given Armenia, one already had, and several have followed), or that Jews would not have been the target of gross discrimination (the collapse of large scale anti-semitism in western civilization owes a great deal to recoil from the Holocaust). There still would have been at least one major war, because the Asian theater of WWII had nothing whatsoever to do with Hitler.

Like any form of logic, counterfactual argumentation is a tool which must be tempered with context and fact, as well as a humility about our blatant inability to project the future in consistently successful ways, which casts serious doubt on our ability to successfully weigh and project scenarios.

Ralph E. Luker - 7/6/2004

Jonathan, You've made a good case for the usefulness of counter-factual history in relation to historical causation, i.e., if this had not happened then that would not have happened. Does that mean that, for you, counter-factual history ceases to be that -- it crosses the line into historical fiction -- when it looses vital relationship to a theory of causality?

Jonathan Dresner - 7/6/2004

I'm more of a process historian myself, but there are individuals whose decisions are quite contrary to expectation and process, whose character and actions shape processes rather than the other way around. But my quibble is with the idea that these people operate in isolation from process.

One of the things which is quite interesting is the way in which recreations tend to replicate results. My aunt, who teaches HS History/Asian Studies, ran a post-WWI Versailles conference simulation which, in spite of the fact that the students knew the ultimate result of the conference and what happened after, nonetheless resulted in an agreement VERY much like the actual treaties. Did Wilson fail, or did process beat him?

I really am going to start referring to this as a form of historical fiction, without all the complicated characters and dialogue bits....

Manan Ahmed - 7/6/2004

I recently thumbed through Niall "the-most-talked-about-British-historian-of-his-generation" Ferguson's earlier edited volume">Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals. The piece on American Revolution was quite nicely done - looking at constitutional arguments in the 1760s and 1770s which could have played differently. Most of the other essays though concentrated on the "Great Men" approach: Hitler, Gorbachev, Kennedy, Stalin. So, if you buy that they were the primary movers and shakers of this arc of history, you would enjoy the what ifs (I am a process-person myself). In his afterword, Ferguson hypes "chaostory" which had something to do with chaos theory and history but my recollection is vague.
My main impression of the volume was that individual essays might serve as a good substitute for historical fiction but it, in no way, advanced the historian's task of grappling with the past.