More than true: the rhetorical function of counterfactuals in historiography

In this paper I discuss the practical uses of counterfactuals as elements of historical narratives. This problem, I argue, has been neglected by theoreticians, focusing on the question of the cognitive value of counterfactual arguments, and of distinguishing ‘insightful’ counterfactuals from ‘vacuous’ and ‘rhetorical’ ones. The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate that the basic function of counterfactuals, as they appear in historical narratives, is rhetorical, and that, contrary to the assumptions of most theoreticians, it is not unworthy of our attention. Counterfactuals, I claim, are a powerful rhetorical device, and they are frequently employed by historians to support the intepretations they propose and to defend them against competing interpretations. In order to demonstrate that I analyze a variety of their uses in contemporary American, British, German, and French historiography, focusing on the causes for choosing this method of argumentation by historians. Finally, I claim that employing counterfactuals has little to do with any particular theoretical approach to history, and that (again, contrary to the assumptions of a number of theoreticians) they are frequently used to support ‘determinist’ and ‘empiricist,’ as well as ‘indeterminist’ claims.