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On Counterfactuals

Richard White ends his new book, Railroaded with an intriguing methodological claim:

Unlike economic historians, most historians have, until relatively recently, been reluctant to engage in counterfactuals on the seemingly incontrovertible grounds that what did not happen is not history. But I have come to think that the opposite is, in fact, true: we need to think about what did not happen in order to think historically. Considering only what happened is ahistorical, because the past once contained larger possibilities, and part of the historian’s job is to make those possibilities visible; otherwise all that is left for historians to do is to explain the inevitability of the present. The inevitability of the present violates the contingency of the past, which involves alternative choices and outcomes that could have produced alternative presents. To deny the contingency of the past deprives us of alternative futures, said for the present is the future’s past. Contingency, in turn, demands hypotheticals about what might have happened. They are fictions, but necessary fictions. So it is only by conceiving of alternative worlds that people in the past themselves imagined that we can begin to think historically, to escape the inevitability of the present, and get another perspective on issues that concern us still.

Ironically, Railroaded (though a very fine book in other respects) does not do a particularly good job fleshing out its counterfactuals, particularly the bit about “alternative worlds that people in the past themselves imagined.” Did Gilded Age Americans seriously consider trying to settle the West without any transcontinental railroads? Or with just one? Or with several under public ownership? Or without any public capital? White hints at all of these possibilities, but he does not explain whether there was a significant consituency behind any, or what the country would have looked like had they been pursued.

I do agree with White that we need to explore counterfactuals to understand what was at stake in any given debate. D. W. Meinig’s maps of a Greater and Lesser United States, for example, help me appreciate the gravity of the debates of the mid-19th century.