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  • A Small Big Atlas of What If and Its Vicinities
  • Teemu Ikonen
Counterfactuals: Paths of the Might Have Been by Christopher Prendergast. Bloomsbury, 2019. $26.95. ISBN 9 7813 5009 0095

This is a work of analytical rigour, profound erudition, and brilliance in style. The interplay of these features is admirably balanced, and this makes Counterfactuals a study with many implications for thinking of our pasts, presents, and futures, and a delightful read at the same time. In what follows, I first present the grounds for my judgement and then reflect briefly on a few of the implications of the study, both for the paths the author did take and for those he did not.

Instead of building a theory, Christopher Prendergast aims at an 'anthropology' of the counterfactual as 'tuning into how the counterfactual resonates in some of the numerous places where the counterfactual is thought and felt by human beings struggling to understand the world they inhabit' (p. 4). To achieve this aim, he proceeds from the logical to the psychological aspects of 'what might have been'. After opening with a careful analysis of the structure of a counterfactual proposition–'back to a point in time where a hypothetical "if"-governed change is introduced to the fabric of reality, and then forward to the putative consequences of the switched or modified antecedent' (p. 12)–chapter 1 offers different scalings for managing the potential limitlessness of counterfactual phenomena and for a critical assessment of the unruliness, if not anarchy, in the uses of the counterfactual form. As for the latter, President Trump's recent 'if we hadn't tested so much, we would have fewer cases' would belong on the silly or bizarre end of the scale of seriousness of the counterfactual, as it uses the structure of counterfactual thinking precisely to divert attention from grim facts.

There are certainly many paths from Chateau If, and they are easily confused with each other. In the programme called Entä jos? (What if?) on Finnish television, four experts from different fields speculate on historical counterfactuals, such as 'What if Finland had formed a union with Sweden [End Page 96] in 1940, as was planned?' 'Then we would have won 14 world championships in ice hockey, 7 Eurovision song contests and 23 Oscars', says one of the experts, turning the discussion into wishful, 'if only…' thinking, here based on the pleasurable feeling of inferiority, and thus far removed from the point of origin, the historical fabric of reality.

Prendergast's careful way of delimiting his subject offers effective remedies for those easily lost along this and other paths. In addition to 'if only', there is 'as if', also proposed as the core of fiction. The author distances his analysis sharply from the tendency to position the question of what might have been first and foremost at the boundary of fact and fiction: 'Historical counterfactuals are not aids to understanding the boundaries that separate the domains of the factual and the fictional', he writes; 'what they assist is our understanding of the boundaries between the factual and the counterfactual' (p. 9). Although he does not dwell on the issue for long, his move could be backed up by describing the fictional 'as if' as a relation of analogy between what is presented as real in a fictional world and what is true of our world; instead of facts, this relation would concern, for example, truth as 'a matter of imagination', as Ursula K. Le Guin put it in 1976. Counterfactuals ask, instead, 'what if' something else had happened in reality as we know it.

'Our world' and 'as we know it' are among the controls called into question in chapter 2, as Prendergast focuses on what he calls counterfactuals' antonymic and adversarial stances towards fact. The counterfactual is not to be understood as a euphemism for untruth, deception, or distraction, as in the discourse of 'alternative facts'. Instead, counterfactual propositions present hypothetical facts announced or assumed to be accepted as such, and create 'potential for awakening us from the deep slumbers induced by [fact-] complacency' (p. 56). This amounts to a 'counter-naturalist' position against taking the world as we know it for...


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pp. 96-100
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