There is Counterfactual History as Science and Counterfactual History as Speculation

tags: history

Yoav Tenembaum is a lecturer in the Diplomacy Studies Program at Tel Aviv University. He obtained his doctorate degree in Modern History from Oxford University and his master’s degree in International Relations from Cambridge University. He did his BA in History at Tel Aviv University. Articles by him have been published in various journals, magazines and newspapers in the United States, Britain, Israel, Argentina and other countries. Yoav Tenembaum was born in Argentina and has lived in various countries including Argentina, Britain, the United States and Israel.

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Sir Winston Churchill.

Is there a way to understand better what happened and to narrow down the possibilities of what might have happened in history by resorting to counterfactual history?

Could counterfactual history be a means to clarify what happened and rule out what could not have happened in history?

Can counterfactual history become a solid research device that can help us sharpen our understanding of what happened by clarifying the viability of what might have happened?

In order to answer these questions, we need to distinguish between two distinct versions of counterfactual history: Loose Counterfactual History and Tight Counterfactual History.

A loose counterfactual question allows a change of a variable in the event being studied by introducing an external variable, beyond the variables that are an integral part of the story.

For instance, posing a question such as "Would Britain have adopted a different policy towards Nazi Germany had Neville Chamberlain not been appointed as British Prime Minister in 1937?" would constitute a loose counterfactual question.

Why? Because the question entails a change of the story as we know it by assuming a modification of a protagonist in it. Such a modification presupposes that a different person, rather than Neville Chamberlain, could have served as British Prime Minister between 1937 and 1940.

Thus, a variable that is part of the event being studied (in this case, Neville Chamberlain) is altered by introducing and external variable that is not part of the event as we know it (a different individual who might have assumed the role of prime minister).

A tight counterfactual question, on the other hand, entails a change in a variable in the event being studied but without introducing an external variable that is not an integral part of the same event, and only if such a change is rendered historically coherent and logically plausible by the facts as are known to us.

For instance, posing a question such as "What would have happened had the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler in July 1944 been successful?" might be an example of a tight counterfactual question.

Why? Because the variable being changed in this question is an internal one, which is part of the story as we know it. No external variable is introduced in this question. All the facts are true except the outcome presupposed in the question being posed.  We know that there was a plot to assassinate Hitler that was actually carried out in July 1944. We know that Hitler was wounded. Thus, the only variable being changed would be the outcome of the plot that was undertaken.

Still, a tight counterfactual question allows for a change of a variable, but only if it fits logically to the event as it actually happened. The change in the variable is internal, and must conform to the other variables in the story.

I would argue that a tight counterfactual question represents a more efficient analytical device than a loose counterfactual question both to understand what happened and to narrow down the possibilities of what might have happened.

In a sense, a tight counterfactual question presupposes posing a question as to whether a counterfactual question can be asked to begin with. One asks a question to know if the question being asked is plausible or not. Only a knowledge of the other pertinent events and decisions and an assessment of their repercussions can allow us to determine whether the counterfactual question being asked is warranted by the other variables in the story or not. 

For instance, let us assume that we asked the following question: “Would Britain have lost World War II had the United States not entered the War in December 1941?” What we would need to do is ask whether there was any chance, considering the historical facts that are known to us, that the United States would not have entered the war following Japan's attack at Pearl Harbor and Germany's declaration of war. In order to answer the question in a historically coherent and logically plausible manner we would need to alter two important variables in the story as it is known to us. First, Japan would have had to refrain from attacking the United States at Pearl Harbor and consequently Germany would have had to refrain from declaring war on the United States. Without changing those two historical facts, the question becomes devoid of historical coherence.

How many variables in the story would we have to change for the question being asked to have had a plausible chance of becoming true?

The moment we are compelled to change more than one variable in the story we cease dealing with a plausible alternative scenario.

Even if only one internal variable is altered, a tight counterfactual question would be pertinent if the historical facts warrant it.

For instance, if we were to pose the following question, "What would have happened if the United States had decided not to help Israel with the considerable delivery of weapons during the Yom Kippur War in October, 1973?" we would need to ask ourselves whether the historical facts that are known to us render it logically plausible for such a counterfactual scenario to have emerged.

For example, did President Richard Nixon contemplate not meeting Israel's urgent requests for US weapons? Was he in two minds about it? Was there substantial pressure on him within his administration to refuse Israel's request? What had been Nixon's policies toward Israel until then? Was he being asked to agree to something which went considerably against his political instincts or his strategic world-view? These questions would be intended to clarify to us whether the counterfactual question being asked is historically coherent and can thus be advanced.

Tight counterfactual history narrows the plausibility of what might have been by asking questions about what has been.    

A loose counterfactual question endeavors to imagine the possible. A tight counterfactual question attempts to enquire the viability of the probable.

The difference between a loose counterfactual question and a tight counterfactual question is like the difference between speculating what might have happened and assessing what might have happened.

By following a methodical and structured form of questioning to assess whether a counterfactual question is plausible and thus acceptable, tight counterfactual history is the closest form of conjecture there is to knowing the truth as it was and as it might have been. 



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