Historical Counterfactuals Unconditionalized

It has been argued many times in the literature concerning historical counterfactuals that

“When implementing a counterfactual antecedent, the historian thus asks what conditions would have to be present in order for the antecedent to follow from these conditions, and whether these conditions were likely.” (Reiss 2009, 719).

I have discussed this issue in detail in my paper What Should We Require from an Account of Explanation in Historiography? and in previous blog posts (here and here). However, now I want to point out a simple tension within this principle:

If the assessment of “had X been the case, Y would have been the case” requires that we specify that, in the scenario under consideration, X happened due to C [i.e. if we conditionalize all out counterfactual knowledge on detailed and plausible scenarios that tell how the antecedent came about], we either (i) need to contradict the rule, or (ii) we run into a regress.

(i) If the historians can specify what condition C led to X in their scenario, they know at least one counterfactual, the one asserting that “had C been the case, X would have been the case”.

For example, “Lebow and Stein argue that it does not make sense to ask what would have happened had Kennedy shown greater resolve because there was no reason for him to do so: neither did he have intelligence to the effect that the Soviets were about to deploy missiles, nor was he under internal pressure, for example, due to pending elections [Lebow and Stein 1996, 129]. Were we to evaluate the counterfactual, we would have to change these conditions.”

All of a sudden, unconditionalized knowledge about counterfactual dependencies (for example, between pending elections and greater resolve) appear in an argument that attempts to establish that no such unconditionalized knowledge is possible!

(ii) If we deny that “had C been the case, X would have been the case” can be know in an unconditionalized way, we need to specify how C came about. We need to assess “had C* been the case, C would have been the case” in order to assess “had C been the case, X would have been the case. And in order to assess “had C* been the case, C would have been the case” we need to assess “had C** been the case, C would have been the case”; ad infinitum.

If all historical counterfactuals are conditionalized counterfactuals, we end up in a regress that makes historical counterfactual thinking impossible.


Reiss, Julian (2009). “Counterfactuals, Thought Experiments, and Singular Causal Analysis in History” Philosophy of Science 76 (5):712-723.

Lebow, Richard Ned & Stein, Janice Gross (1996), “Back to the Past: Counterfactuals and the Cuban Missile Crisis”. In Philip Tetlock and Aaron Belkin Counterfactual Thought Experiments in World Politics: Logical, Methodological and Psychological Perspectives, 119–148.

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