Ferguson 1999

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Ferguson, Niall, ed. Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

Introduction: Virtual History: Towards a 'chaotic' theory of the past, by Niall Ferguson, 1-90

counterfactual imagining often disparaged by historians; fiction writers pursue such alternative histories but are "irredeemably fictional" which "tends to diminish the plausibility of the historical setting" (7)

two kinds of counterfactuals used by historians: "those which are essentially the products of imagination but (generally) lack an empirical basis; and thsoe desigend to test hypotheses by (supposedly) empirical means, which eschew imagination in favor of computation" (18)

recounting of earlier forms of deterministic philosophies of history and objections to them

recent turn to narrative history; Geertz, etc -- unsatisfying

  • :"To write history according to the conventions of anovel or play is therefore to impose a new kind of determinism on the past: the teleology of the traditional narrative form." (67)

Borges, Musil; garden of forking paths

entropy, disorder

"The philosophical significance of chaos theory is that it reconciles the notions of causation and contingency. It rescues us not only from the nonsensical world of the idealists like Oakeshott, where there is no such thing as a cause or an effect and the equally nonsensical world of the determinists, in which there is only a chain of preordained causation based on laws. Chaos -- stochastic behaviour in deterministic systems -- means unpredictable outcomes even when successive events are causally linked." (79)

counterfactual approach

"we are concrened with possibilities which seemed probable in the past" (84)
"In short, by narrowing down the historical alternatives we consider to those which are plausible -- and hence by replacing the enigma of 'chance' with the calculation of probabilities -- we solve the dilemma of choosing between a single deterministic past and an unmanageably infinite number of possible pasts. The counterfactual scenarios we therefore need to construct are not meere fantasy: they are simulations based on calculations about the relative prrobability of plausible outcomes in a chaotic world (hence 'virtual history')." (85)
"WE should consider as plausible or probable only those alternatives which we can show on the basis of contemporary evidence that contemporaries actually considered." (86)
"There is, then, a double rationale for counterfactual analysis. Firstly, it is a logical necessity when asking questions about casuation to post 'but for' questions, and to try to imagine what would have happened if our supposed cause had been absent. For this reason, we are obliged to construct plausible alternative pasts on the basis of judgements about probability; and these can be made only on the basis of historical evidence. Secondly, to do this is a historical necessity when attempting to understand how the past 'actually was' -- precisely in the Rankean sense, as we must attach equal importance to all the possibilities which contemporaries contemplated before the fact, and greater importance to these than to an outcome which they did not anticipate." (87)
"Virtual history is a necessary antidote to determinism." (89)

"chaostory -- a chaotic approach to history" (89)