Inventing counterfactual histories is a common pastime of modern day historians, both amateur and professional. We speculate about an America ruled by Jefferson Davis, a Europe that never threw off Hitler, or a second term for JFK. These narratives are often written off as politically inspired fantasy or as pop culture fodder, but in Telling It Like It Wasn’t, Catherine Gallagher takes the history of counterfactual history seriously, pinning it down as an object of dispassionate study. She doesn’t take a moral or normative stand on the practice, but focuses her attention on how it works and to what endsa quest that takes readers on a fascinating tour of literary and historical criticism.
Gallagher locates the origins of contemporary counterfactual history in eighteenth-century Europe, where the idea of other possible historical worlds first took hold in philosophical disputes about Providence before being repurposed by military theorists as a tool for improving the art of war. In the next century, counterfactualism became a legal device for deciding liability, and lengthy alternate-history fictions appeared, illustrating struggles for historical justice. These early motivationsfor philosophical understanding, military improvement, and historical justiceare still evident today in our fondness for counterfactual tales. Alternate histories of the Civil War and WWII abound, but here, Gallagher shows how the counterfactual habit of replaying the recent past often shapes our understanding of the actual events themselves. The counterfactual mode lets us continue to envision our future by reconsidering the range of previous alternatives. Throughout this engaging and eye-opening book, Gallagher encourages readers to ask important questions about our obsession with counterfactual history and the roots of our tendency to ask “What if…?”
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About the Author
Catherine Gallagher is professor emerita of English at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of many books, including The Body Economic: Life, Death, and Sensation in Political Economy and the Victorian Novel.
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The History of Counterfactual History from Leibniz to Clausewitz
Theodicy and the Invention of Comparable Possible Pasts
Writers have used counterfactual thought experiments in narrating history since ancient times, but the practice underwent a significant change during the Enlightenment. Whereas the ancient instances were usually rhetorical exercises, designed to emphasize or call into question the importance of a person or event, the later ones are apt to imagine the reality that might have resulted from an alteration. When the Roman historian Livy asked what would have happened if Alexander the Great had invaded the Roman Empire, to take a prominent example, he tested a full-blown counterfactual hypothesis, which he attributed to the Greeks: if Alexander had invaded Italy, he would have interrupted the growth of the Roman Empire. This certainly qualifies as a past-tense hypothetical conditional conjecture ("if it had been the case that a, then it would have followed that b"), which is pursued when the antecedent condition (the if clause) is known to be contrary to fact. Alexander never invaded Italy, and yet Livy went into considerable detail about the possible battle that might have ensued if he had, which results in Alexander's defeat. The exercise, though, was mainly designed to praise the superiority of Roman armies and display their combined force in Alexander's time. Thus he used his historical counterfactual as a rhetorical showcase.
Livy did not speculate about possible alternative outcomes of the battle or long-term historical changes; that sort of conjecturing, some historians of history have argued, seems to require a more modern idea of history as the product of aggregated human actions over time, composed of sequences of causes and effects that might be explained without recourse to divine or supernatural intervention. The secularization of historical writing during the Enlightenment has thus been seen as a necessary condition for the appearance of the counterfactual mode, because divine determination apparently ruled out the very possibility of alternatives. Counterfactual speculation is thus supposed to have arisen as an offshoot of the new interest in causal explanation once teleological explanations were discredited. Some current advocates of the counterfactual mode have placed its appearance at an even more recent date, arguing that all forms of determinism — not only divine intervention and predestination but also modern "scientific" nineteenth-century determinism — needed to be discarded before the counterfactual mode could arise. These accounts, though, ignore the nature and contexts of the counterfactualism that was actually practiced during the Enlightenment. By examining those initial thought experiments, this chapter will present a very different, indeed almost an opposite, understanding of the mode's genealogy: instead of emerging inside a secularizing historical discipline, it arose out of the theorization of a new version of God's Providence. And instead of rejecting teleology, it embraced the practice of explaining events by identifying their overarching rational purpose. The first development in this actual history of counterfactual history was Gottfried Leibniz's apparently paradoxical theorization of contingent immanent historical causes as the basis of divine supervision.
Leibniz is usually seen as a preventer, rather than a progenitor, of modern counterfactualism because he is understood simply as a champion of providential determinism. He is, of course, the philosopher satirized as Pangloss in Voltaire's Candide, and he invented the mode of justifying actuality commonly known (and frequently reviled) as theodicy. But Leibniz's importance to the philosophy of history goes beyond these simplifications, for he also insisted that historical events were caused by natural and human activity rather than directly by God. History's events, he insisted, were contingent, and Leibniz's interest in contingency was a constant feature of his thinking. He was, after all, a pioneer of probability theory, often credited with the invention of the calculus underlying its modern mathematical transformation, who envisioned the actual as a subset (rather than the obverse) of the possible. And yet he insisted on combining his insight into historical contingency with the idea that God nevertheless exercises providential care. Scholars have offered various accounts of the connections between his theodicy and his understanding of probability, but central to most is the role played by contingent possibilities. When dealing with the topic of history, his book Theodicy (1710) argues that all actually occurring events ultimately serve the greatest good even though their efficient causes were produced by the play of random variations. To reconcile these apparently contradictory notions, he presented a God who chooses among naturally or humanly created contingencies, which do not lose their accidental nature simply by being chosen. History may therefore be "determined," in the sense that its causes and effects have been selected by God throughout eternity, without being "necessary" in the old Aristotelean sense of the word (Theodicy, 146–48). Admittedly, the difference between God causing events and his choosing among randomly occurring variations may seem small to us, but its impact on the development of counterfactual history was enormous.
Leibniz's peculiar providentialism gave alternative contingencies a prominent place in God's mind and thereby inspired the activity of counterfactual imagining; moreover, he posited a new mode of being for all of those unrealized possibilities by locating them in "possible worlds." The invention of these realms was a way of reconciling the fact of evil in this world with God's omnipotence, omniscience, and unfailing beneficence, as well as with the freedom of both divine and human will. So it addressed multiple theological problems, but its importance for the concept of history was that it helped change the status of historical accidents: mere contingencies could now find existence inside God's consciousness as part of the very process of divine planning. The idea that God's view of history included countless unrealized contingencies also encouraged speculation about His reasons (insofar as they could be fathomed by humans) for choosing our actuality from among those infinite options. It went without saying that only God can truly know the other possible worlds, existing as they do in his thought; but the rest of us can — indeed should — speculate about their natures. We know only that they must be inferior to our, best, world, but actively imagining their deficits can give us a clearer view of the hand of providence operating in the field of randomness: "Let us ... by our reflexion supply what is lacking in our perception, in order to make the good ... more discernible" (133). Hence, unlike many theologians (Calvin, Luther, or Wellesley), who stressed God's role in shaping history by asserting that there are no accidents, Leibniz recommended reaching the providential insight precisely by dwelling on the importance of contingency and envisioning the inferior alternatives.
Leibniz exercised his own historical counterfactual imagination only once in the Theodicy, but the single example he gives is highly elaborated and prominently placed at the end of his formal argument. The historical incident is the rape of the Roman matron Lucretia by Sextus Tarquinius, son of Rome's last king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus. Because the crime and Lucretia's subsequent suicide led to the king's overthrow and the eventual institution of the Roman Republic, it had long been considered an important turning point in world history. Leibniz treats this story as the kernel of a parable in which the young Sextus Tarquinius behaves as he did in our history, and then, in response to the question of how else he might have behaved, we are given a vision, supposedly provided by Pallas Athena, in which Sextus is shown in myriad possible worlds where he acted differently. In one such world, for example, he reins in his lust, "And lo! he goes to a city lying between two seas, resembling Corinth. He buys there a small garden; cultivating it, he finds a treasure; he becomes a rich man, enjoying affection and esteem; he dies at a great age, beloved of the whole city." In another world, he goes to Thrace, "marries the daughter of the king, who had no other children; he succeeds him, and he is adored by his subjects" (377). All of these vignettes play out simultaneously in parallel worlds, and in many of them Sextus is virtuous. Nevertheless, the worlds as a whole are consequently worse than ours, representing what theorists now call "downward" counterfactuals. Indeed, Leibniz seems to have inaugurated the vertical ranking scheme of incompatible possibilities at the end of his parable, when we get a view of the totality of possible worlds arranged "in a pyramid, becoming ever more beautiful as one mounted towards the apex." At the top of the pyramid, of course, is our own world "the most beautiful of all," a world that would not have been actualized without the rape of Lucretia: "The crime of Sextus serves for great things: it renders Rome free; thence will arise a great empire, which will show noble examples to mankind." Conversely, if God "had placed here a Sextus happy at Corinth or King in Thrace, it would be no longer this world ... which forms the apex of the pyramid" (377).
Leibniz's vision of the pyramid of possible worlds emphasizes several things: first, belief in a God who determines history is consistent with imagining other histories; and second, justifying God's choices might even entail such imaginative activity. Third, the vision stresses that the alternatives are only imagined in order to be qualitatively judged against actuality. The Theodicy thus inspired later writers to combine counterfactual history with religious apologetics, explicating historical events, especially the most apparently incomprehensible and horrific, as preferable to other possibilities; and it also gave the enterprise its comparative emphasis, its stress on judging the relative merits of alternative outcomes. For centuries after the publication of Theodicy, writers incorporated these characteristic Leibnizian traits into their historical speculations, and counterfactualism grew as a form of pious reflection, which was capacious enough to accommodate different sectarian and political tendencies.
Looking at a couple of examples from eighteenth-century Britain can give us a more detailed view of how the Leibnizian legacy developed and help us identify features that persist in counterfactual-historical speculations right up to the present, becoming especially important in the extended narrative varieties. My first example comes from an anonymous British eighteenth-century historian, who imagines a counterfactual victory of Charles II at the Battle of Worcester (the last battle of the English Civil War, actually won by Cromwell's forces). Even though the writer clearly sympathizes with the Royalist cause, he hypothesizes that a royal victory in 1651 would ultimately have been bad for the crown and thus for Britain as a whole. A victory at Worcester, he assures the reader, would have been followed by factionalism among royalists, struggles over the succession, and finally "a civil war would have contained within itself another civil war." The loss at Worcester thus eventually turned into a "blessing" (in Royalist hindsight) because Charles II's defeat "left the commonwealth's men masters of the three kingdoms and afforded them full leisure to complete and perfect their own structure of government. The experiment was fairly tried; there was nothing from without to disturb the process." The loss for Charles II thus allowed the United Kingdom to "experiment" with a Commonwealth form of government long enough to prove its weakness.
Leibniz's possible-worlds model is deeply embedded in this writer's scheme, where it is also partially secularized. Instead of residing merely in the mind of God, the competing possibilities of royal and republican government reside as well in the divided mind of Britain, and a premature royalist victory would only have enlarged the supposed attractions of the republican possibility in the imaginations of the people. In our actual history, the possible world of republican Britain was temporarily actualized during the Interregnum, manifesting its inferiority and creating a national consensus for the Restoration; its actualization thus destroyed it as viable possibility. In the counterfactual scenario, though, the Commonwealth would not have been allowed to display its intrinsic defects and would thus have persisted as a tantalizing and dangerous idea. Indeed it would have spawned its own counterfactuals, as the historian explains: the Commonwealth men would later have claimed that "had their republic not been overthrown their free and liberal government might have diffused its universal happiness through the three kingdoms." In short, if they had lost the battle, the alternate counterfactual vision would have persisted as a challenge to royal legitimacy. In this convoluted turn of the argument, counterfactuals are shown to be not only tools for reflecting on history but also weapons in the political-ideological battles that could determine its outcome. Thus, although the Leibnizian conclusion returns all to God's judgment, demonstrating "how much better events are disposed of by Providence, than they would be if the direction were left to the choice even of the best and the wisest man," the analysis also implies that possible-world visions might additionally be used to shape history. This notion — that counterfactualizing about history can activate dormant or suppressed possibilities — later becomes characteristic of the mode.
One late eighteenth-century thinker, Joseph Priestley, makes the connection between theodicies and Enlightenment thought especially clear. Priestley was a prolific political writer, Unitarian minister, and scientist (who is often credited with the discovery of oxygen). His Lectures on History (1788) uniquely blend Leibnizian providentialism with materialistic determinism, arguing that scientific and technological progress, which proceed with God's oversight, will eventually produce a Christian millennium of equality and peace. Lectures on History is a full-throated theodicy, which proclaims on its first pages that imagining what might have happened but did not is the key to recognizing the beneficence of God's decisions. Counterfactual speculations, he assures us, "will throw an agreeable light upon the most gloomy and disgusting parts of [history]" by revealing how "all evils lead to, and terminate in, a greater good." But Priestley was not content to heap up particular instances of ironic reversal, although he mentions several — if Henry VIII had not been a lustful adulterer, England would still be in thrall to Rome; if Philip II of Spain had not been such a relentless oppressor of Holland, the states of that region would not have revolted and gained their liberty — in order to illustrate the principle that great progressive events are "brought about contrary to the intention of the persons who were the chief instruments of them, and by the very means which were intended to produce a contrary effect" (79).
Priestley's greater ambition was to find in history's very confusion and disorder the principle of its order. Contrasting the study of natural history with that of human history, he remarks that nature's regularity is both an obvious fact of our daily existence and one that can be further understood through controlled experimentation, whereas history records irreproducible and abnormal human behavior: "Times of peace and tranquility are passed over in silence by all historians," who concentrate instead on events of chaotic upheaval (560). So Priestley hypothesized that those very disruptions of peaceful order were the motive force of long-range progress and that warfare especially, normally cited as evidence that history is a record of meaningless suffering, was the most effective general mechanism for worldwide historical transformation. Typically, he casts his argument as a counterfactual hypothesis: if we imagine the world without war, we can see that it has been the main engine driving scientific knowledge: "In early ages, before mankind had acquired a taste for intellectual pleasures, when they studied nothing but the gratification of their lower appetites, they would have sunk into a state of such gross bestiality ... as would have been almost inconsistent with the continuance of the species, had it not been for the salutary alarms of war, which roused the activity, and excited the ingenuity, of men" (462). And warfare's "salutary" effect carries on long after the dawn of civilization: at every stage the urgencies of war spur scientific discovery and material progress, which are then put to peaceful uses. Eventually, Priestley believed, the resulting scientific enlightenment, technological prowess, and universal "taste for intellectual pleasures" would reach such high levels that warfare would no longer be needed for advancement. However, the progress leading up to that utopia was the periodic disruption of civilization and not its uninterrupted, harmonious development. Priestley, in short, took the common Leibnizian trope of ironic reversal, in which historical evils are transformed into greater goods, and fashioned it into a proto-dialectical principle of world-historical development.
Excerpted from "Telling It Like It Wasn't"
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Table of Contents
Introduction Chapter One. The History of Counterfactual History from Leibniz to Clausewitz Chapter Two. Nineteenth-Century Alternate-History Narratives Chapter Three. How the USA Lost the Civil War Chapter Four. Historical Activism and the Alternate-America Novels Chapter Five. Nazi Britain: The Invasion and Occupation That Weren’t Chapter Six. The Fictions of Nazi Britain Acknowledgments Notes Index