Robert Gellately’s review of Richard Evans’ Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History (Books, March) suggests that the author’s critique of the “what if” genre throws the baby out with the bathwater. I agree, but for more substantive reasons than that advanced.
Even though it is true that much counterfactual history has methodological limitations – because it has depended on “facts which never existed” and implausible questions and answers, has ripped human actors from their broader social context, and/or involved the advance of politically influenced preferred alternative options – this does not necessarily invalidate a methodological form of inquiry that recognises the value of conceiving of ways in which the actual course of past events might have unfolded rather differently if actors had acted and organised themselves differently, armed with a different set of capacities and ideas, even if their exact effect cannot be predicted.
Arguably the posing of what could be more appropriately termed alterfactual courses of action in historical analysis is perfectly legitimate so long as the following methodological preconditions are applied:
(a) only those alternative courses of action are considered that were theoretically or practically considered at the time by actors and for which there is some historical empirical evidence are valid
(b) there is appropriate recognition of the complex dynamic interplay between (subjective) individual choices and (objective) historical material conditions
(c) any historical inquiry into what might have happened can be shown to be directly related to providing a more comprehensive understanding and explanation of what actually happened.
On this alterfactual basis it becomes possible for historians to not merely examine choices and events that happened and ask “why?”, but also to look at alternative choices and events that did not happen and ask “why not?”
Professor of employment relations
University of Salford