Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Defending the counterfactual: A Historical Perspective

- Srijan Sandip Mandal (MA History, II Year)

E. H. Carr, in What is History? – a book familiar to most students of history , wrote, ‘One can always play a parlour-game with the might-have-beens of history. But they have nothing . . . to do with history’. Of course, he was and is not alone in this trenchant critique of the counterfactual in history. Others such as A. J. P. Taylor, D. H. Fisher, and E. P. Thompson have also written virulently against the same, though the critical and popular appeal of Carr’s aforementioned work has given his critique a halo not accorded to the others, at least not in this case.

It is, therefore, ironic to discover Carr smuggling counterfactuals, albeit unconsciously, into his ‘factual’ narrative with his insistence that the Bolshevik Revolution was hijacked by Stalin, the implication being, to quote R. N. Lebow, “that socialism would have developed differently without him”. However, it is also indicative of the symbiotic relationship that the counterfactual and the ‘factual’ share as the latter derives its probability from the improbability of the former, especially, in cause-and-effect chains – an important theme in Carr’s understanding of history.

Many historians, including Carr, have cited the absence of ‘facts’ in the counterfactual as one of the principal reasons, if not the only one, for the wholesale rejection of its use in history, though, as Lebow has pointed out, ‘philosophers have long recognized that “facts” are social constructions . . . reflections of the concepts we use to describe social reality, not of reality itself.’ If that be accepted, it would seem that the hierarchical binary of the factual and the counterfactual which presumes the primacy of the former and the derivation of the latter is revealed as fallacious, thus requiring a displacement of this opposition and throwing in turmoil the assumption that ‘factual’ history is, somehow, superior to its counterfactual Other.

The discipline of history, by virtue of its nature, is blessed or cursed, depending on the historian, with the boon or bane of hindsight that allows some such as Carr to construct a chain of causes which explain the already-known effect, and yet prevents others from exploring the possibilities that did not materialise, handicapped as they are with the pervasive influence of the present, which obscures their view of the past. It is only the use of counterfactuals that can shatter the ‘retrospective determinism’ of Carr and others, and establish the past, too, as no less contingent than the future.

It would, thus, seem in the light of the above discussion that counterfactuals are indispensable to the study of history. To quote Hugh Trevor-Roper:

‘It is only if we place ourselves before the alternatives of the past, as of the present, only if we live for a moment, as the men of the time lived, in its still fluid context and among its still unresolved problems, if we see these problems coming upon us, as well as look back on them after they have gone away, that we can draw useful lessons from history.’

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