The Size of History: Coincidence, Counterfactuality and Questions of Scale in History

Historians try to interpret the past by analysing patterns in human behaviour in earlier periods of time. In some ways, that excludes ‘coincidence’ as a mode of interpretation. Most historians view coincidences as closely related events that lack causal relationship. That type of coincidence does not fit into a historical narrative, because historians tend to focus on causality, action, and consequence. This is noticeably linked to questions of historical scale: the choice for the scale of a specific narrative decides whether certain events are coincidental to the history which is being described, or causal factors within that history. This relation between historical coincidence and the scale of writing history is at the centre of this contribution. It focuses on different trends in writing history, and analyses the possibilities to use ‘coincidence’ as an interpretative tool in each of them. In doing so, this article discusses counterfactual historical analysis (‘what if history’), determinist views of history and their relation to speculative philosophy of history, ‘cliodynamics’ and ‘big history’. It ultimately argues for historical accounts that pay attention to both the large processes that are likely to lead to certain trajectories, and the enormous number of micro-causes that triggered the events as they happened. Coincidence might fall outside of the analysis of (macro-) historians who are looking for a comprehensive view of historical processes, but could still play a proper role in thinking about historical trajectories.