Isis asks, “What if…?”

The September 2008 issue of the leading history of science journal, Isis, includes a set of articles on counterfactual history — exercises where historians ask what might have been if past events had played out differently than they actually did. For decades most serious historians have dismissed such speculation as pointless (e.g., reported at AHP here), but there has been a percolating resurgence of interest in the question in recent years.

The section, organized by Gregory Radick of the University of Leeds in the UK, begins with the question “Why What If”:

Like the people they study, historians of science make conjectures about what might have been. Unlike scientists, however, historians of science have no tradition of self-consciousness about counterfactual methods. The essays in this Focus section are conversation starters toward that missing tradition. Examining diverse sciences and periods, they dwell in particular on how historians of science can know about what might have been (counterfactualist epistemology) and on what hangs in the balance when endorsing this or that claim about what might have been (counterfactualist politics).

Radick’s introduction to the topic is followed by articles written by John Henry of U. Edinburgh, Peter J. Bowler of Queen’s U. Belfast, Steven French of U. Leeds, and Steven Fuller of U. Warwick. The topics covered include the sense of inevitability that is attached (or not) to the Scientific Revolution and to the progress of science itself (Henry, Fuller), the kind of biology that was developing when Darwin arrived on the scene and what might have happened had he not (Bowler), and the problem of identifying genuine alternative possibilities in the scientific past (French).

About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.