A dense study of counterfactualism and its use in the practice of history.
The method of examining past events with the knowledge of the circumstances that affected decisions is a powerful tool to understanding what happened. Seeing the uncertainty, the “unknown knowns,” and outside forces that affected historical incidents help us divine why things happened as they did—as well as what might have been. Black (History/Univ. of Exeter; The Power of Knowledge: How Information and Technology Made the Modern World, 2014, etc.) asserts that counterfactualism is more pronounced in Anglophone nations than in those cultures without the freedom to question definitive histories. Even so, he explores and explains its use and the approach to history in cultures as varied as the Mongols, Chinese, Muslims, Ottoman Turks, Finns, and Danes. Readers will need a background in world history, as the author cites battles and wars over the last two millennia. There is a long and interesting chapter on the rise of the West and how Europe took precedence in world affairs. Black explains that assertive, definitive history quells debate, and its need to explain all serves only to mislead. It is better to know the role of the individuals involved, the timing of significant events, and the short- and long-term effects of a counterfactual. Certain disciplines do not respond well to counterfactuals—e.g., social history since it affects too broad a cast. It is more appropriate and useful for military and political history and a boon for teaching. The author’s illustrative examples of “what if,” “how,” and “why” will make readers sit back and wonder—the whole point of counterfactuals.
Black’s academic style can drag readers down in certain dry and wordy sections. However, his scholarly outlook on history today, its ambiguity and uncertainty, the need of analyzing, interpreting, and reinterpreting events, makes it well worth fighting through slow patches to appreciate his extensive store of knowledge.