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Historically Speaking · November/December 2005 "Counterfactual" Is Wrong John Lukacs 44 Counterfactual" is a very bad word. Both its components: "counter" and "factual" are wrong. "Counterfactual" = Against Facts. But history—more precisely: the historical description of anything—consists not of facts but of words. Words are not merely the clothing offacts. In our minds the meaning ofevery fact depends on its statement: on the words in which it is written, expressed, spoken, heard. This is true especially of history which does not have a vocabulary of its own: we write, teach, relate, speak, think about it in our common languages. "Fact" implies something fixed and definitive; but historical writing (and teaching) are necessarily descriptive rather than definitive. Moreover, historical evidence leading to judgment, unlike legal evidence leading to judgment, allows for eventual and successive revisions, for multiple jeopardy. The recognition ofthis belongs to the history ofhistory itself. Those who (still) believe that history consists of facts nailed down once and for all are those who (still) believe that history is (or must be) scientific, objective, definite. It is now more than one hundred years ago that historians such as Acton believed that the science of history had reached a stage where a story or account or reconstruction of, say, the Battle of Waterloo could be written that would not only be perfectly acceptable to French and British or Dutch or Prussian historians but that would be thereafter unchanging forever. During the 20th century, the crisis that affected just about every art or science eventually reached the historical profession, too: and the present ruminations about "counterfactualism" are but one consequence of that. In Historically Speaking at least four articles in the July/August 2005 issue deal directly or indirectly with "counterfactualism ." I now come to what is wrong with "counter ": The Opposite of Facts. That is not what "counterfactual" exercises, whether written by professional historians or amateurs, consist of. They are descriptions, often entertaining, of imagined consequences: not of a denial of what happened but of an important variant thereof: of something that did not happen but could have indeed happened. History (including biography) and fiction are ofcourse different . In one important sense the historian's task is more difficult than that of a novelist, because he cannot invent people and places and events that did not exist. Yet both have a limitation in common. The people, places, events, and stories invented by the novelist must be possible, imaginable, historically plausible. That is an unavoidable circumscription of the imagination of a historian, too— and not only when he amuses us by writing "what if?" history. When describing what happened he must keep in his mind, too, what could have happened: because there is a potentiality inherent in the meaning of every actuality . This corresponds, at least in some ways, to the 20th-century discoveries of quantum physics about the essence of some subatomic particles: their actuality, and the very measurement of their actuality, is inseparable from their potentiality. (Allow me to remark that I wrote about this concordance of history and physics more than forty years ago, in my Historical Consciousness, well before the eruption of so-called postmodern historical theorizings.) Johan Huizinga, perhaps the finest historian in the 20th century, understood this very well. I regret that Barry Strauss, extolling the rediscovered merits of narrative history with the example of the Battle of Salamis, did not cite what Huizinga wrote about Salamis: The sociologist, etc. deals with his material as if the outcome were given in the known facts: he simply searches for the way in which the result was already determined in the facts. The historian, on the other hand, must always maintain toward his subject an indeterminist point of view. He must constantly put himself at a point in the past at which the known factors still seem to permit different outcomes. If he speaks ofSalamis, then it must be as ifthe Persians might still win .... I chose this passage for the motto of The Duel (1990), a book I wrote about the "duel" between Winston Churchill and AdolfHitler in November/December 2005 Historically Speaking May, June, and July 1940. The Duel was not a "what if?" book...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-6438
Print ISSN
1941-4188
Pages
pp. 2-3
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Ceased Publication
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