11.0211 counterfactuals

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Fri, 1 Aug 1997 21:22:05 +0100 (BST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 11, No. 211.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

Date: Fri, 01 Aug 1997 21:17:45 +0100
From: Willard McCarty <Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk>
Subject: counterfactuals

In his review of Niall Ferguson's collection of essays, <cite>Virtual
History: Alternatives and counterfactuals</cite>, J. M. Roberts notes that
"the fiction that things could have been otherwise often seems in some sense
to illuminate what actually happened" ("Putting the What if? in history",
TLS 4922 1 Aug 97 p. 6). The common-sense objection, that things turned out
as they did, and so it is useless to speculate on what might have happened
had conditions been different, obscures the contingencies in things. "Had
Louis XVI been able to show more political flair, we reflect, the French
Revolution might have taken a different course; no doubt he could not have
behaved differently given the persistence of other facts in the equation
(the identity of his family and advisers, for example), but that seems
somehow only to focus our attention on such matters as the contingency of
those facts and the particular degrees of personal responsibility, unless we
assume some genetic or psychological determinism in that well-meaning and
unhappy monarch." Roberts adds that "Much historical study" -- and, I would
add, much of what happens in all the other disciplines of the humanities --
"is conversation, implicit or explicit, and counterfactuals can feed it
usefully." They do so not only by recovering the living moment but also by
putting what is not against what is, imagination against fact, and so
allowing us better to understand the nature of each through its contrary.

Is this not what we do with computing? With it we put what can be
demonstrated against what we know but cannot say how. This seems to me like
the frontier of knowledge, like what scholarship is all about.


- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Dr. Willard McCarty, Senior Lecturer, King's College London
voice: +44 (0)171 873 2784 fax: +44 (0)171 873 5801
e-mail: Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk

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