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Journal Article

Challenging Certainty: The Utility and History of Counterfactualism

Simon T. Kaye
History and Theory
Vol. 49, No. 1 (Feb., 2010), pp. 38-57
Published by: Wiley for Wesleyan University
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25621451
Page Count: 20
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Challenging Certainty: The Utility and History of Counterfactualism
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Abstract

Counterfactualism is a useful process for historians as a thought-experiment because it offers grounds to challenge an unfortunate contemporary historical mindset of assumed, deterministic certainty. This article suggests that the methodological value of counterfactualism may be understood in terms of the three categories of common ahistorical errors that it may help to prevent: the assumptions of indispensability, causality, and inevitability. To support this claim, I survey a series of key counterfactual works and reflections on counterfactualism, arguing that the practice of counterfactualism evolved as both cause and product of an evolving popular assumption of the plasticity of history and the importance of human agency within it. For these reasons, counterfactualism is of particular importance both historically and politically. I conclude that it is time for a methodological re-assessment of the uses of such thought-experiments in history, particularly in light of counterfactualism's developmental relatedness to cultural, technological, and analytical modernity.

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