Should we Ask What If Questions About History?
History is the study of the past. Historians try to interpret beyond the obvious facts such as the causes of World War II. It is not disputed that it happened but the disputes lie in what caused it. Here, the past becomes much more difficult to discern so may must ask how do we make sense of the past.
There are two schools of thought related to history. The materialists attempt to devise universal laws from cause and effect relationships in history while the idealists structure history from imagination. Who is right?
Why History is an Open Book
Here’s a brilliant quote explaining history as a book for us to interpret:
“There is no privileged past… There is an infinitude of Pasts, all equally valid… At each and every instant of Time, however brief you Suppose it, the line of events forks like a stem of a tree putting forth twin branches.” — André Maurois
History is open for interpretation is similar to the growth of a tree. We can explain biologically how it grows but explaining why a branch forks towards one path, that is difficult. To overcome this impediment, we must ask different questions.
What If Questions in History
Idealists triumph in the what if questions of the study of history, it allows them to get a sense of how the tree of history forks. It uncovers some cause and effect relationships that must be read through the lines. This is the power of the asking the counterfactual question. Questions such as “what if Napoleon had won at Waterloo?” or “What if France in the 18th Century initiated financial reforms and police reforms, thus avoiding the French Revolution?”. These shed light on the cause effect relationships in history but also the role of luck.
Some What If questions can be illuminating. R.W. Fogel embarked on a counterfactual quantitative analysis of the US industrialization of the 19th Century without its networked railway system. Imagination is summoned to conjure up such a question, but chance is put to the side with the quantitative analysis in establishing true cause and effect relationships. If causation is not established, then correlation is to be determined.
Asking What if exercises our imagination to help develop the counterfactual questions in history, but the materialist raw mining and searching for cause and effect relationships (or correlations) is as we have seen, of more value to the historian to understand the forking of the tree of history for this latter, luck will always play a role.