Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld


Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Welcome to the Counterfactual History Review

In recent years, counterfactual reasoning has increasingly been applied to the study of history.   Whether in academic scholarship, mainstream journalism, or popular culture, “what if?” observations about the past have become commonplace in our present-day world.

This blog collects and comments on new speculative observations as they appear in books, journal articles, reviews, and online texts.  It also features reviews of counterfactual fiction (alternate history) and links to articles about the merits and drawbacks of speculative historical thinking. 

Why bother doing this?   

There are already many important websites dedicated to the subject of counterfactual history.  Most, however, focus narrowly on the realm of fiction. Some, such as Uchronia, are primarily bibliographical, being devoted to archiving literary works of alternate history.  Other sites, such as AlternateHistory, are open forums featuring user-generated discussion threads about alternate paths of historical development.  Still others, such as Alternate History Weekly Update, serve as venues for new works of counterfactual fiction.  All of these sites are valuable, but they marginalize counterfactual reasoning somewhat by relegating it to a literary subgenre. 

This blog seeks to bring counterfactual history more into the mainstream by collecting and commenting on examples of “what if?” thinking as they appear in contemporary cultural and intellectual life.

In doing so, I hope to shed light on two fundamental questions:  

1) Why do we ask “what if?”

2) Why are we increasingly asking “what if?” today?

There is little doubt that speculating about the past is rooted in basic human impulses.  Whether at the personal or societal level, we often wonder how the course of history might have been different if we had acted differently at pivotal moments in time. 

Yet, when we speculate about the past in this way, what are we really trying to achieve?   When we imagine historical events turning out better or worse -- when we contemplate fantasies or nightmares – what are we saying about the past?  More importantly, what are we saying about the present?

One way of answering these questions is by examining how counterfactuals are used in contemporary discourse.  In collecting and commenting on examples of speculative historical reasoning, the reasons why writers employ them – and the functions they serve – should hopefully become clear.  

So, too, should the value of studying historical counterfactuals.   This blog proposes that studying counterfactuals


1) allows us to better understand the forces of historical causality.   

2) helps us make moral judgments in interpreting historical events.  

3) sheds light on how history is remembered.   

4) reveals the rhetorical dimensions of historical argumentation


Finally, in collecting and interpreting diverse counterfactual observations, this blog seeks to understand why people in the contemporary world are increasingly prone to wonder "what if?" when thinking about the past. 

In the last generation, contemporary culture has been shaped by various forces – the end of the cold war, the geopolitical upheavals of the post-9/11 world, the emergence of postmodernism, the information revolution, the entertainment revolution, among others – that have encouraged a climate of uncertainty and contingency conducive for counterfactual thinking. 

I hope this blog helps us better understand why we are increasingly wondering “what if?”

Gavriel Rosenfeld

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