Martin Bunzl has an article [membership and registration required] in the current American Historical Review (that's the official journal of the American Historical Association, for those of you not in the field) which directly addresses the problems I tackled recently regarding Fleming's Hamilton-Burr duel fiction. Apparently, I'm right.
After allowing for the implicit counterfactual in causal statements, he says"Part of what is often going on here is, if not a parlor game, an enterprise without serious historiographical aspirations." He then goes on to point at a number of ways in which counterfactual arguments can be used to make important historical points, mostly having to do with known physical and social laws and rational, but minimal, assumptions. Ultimately, though, since history has no formal definition of causality, reliability or rationality, it is a" community standard" of reasonableness which must define, fuzzily, the limits of the use and utility of counterfactual argument. Comparative history can, he argues,"yield a basis for causal claims" but again it is a complicated ("messy" is the way he puts it) process which is rarely cut-and-dried.
He concludes with a nod back in the direction of imagination and the random element ("luck" he calls it) in history, saying,"in fact, not all historically interesting counterfactuals need to be plausible. If our primary interest is in understanding what difference an event made, whether or not its occurrence is plausible doesn't really matter." He points at the question (often debated on HNN) of when/whether slavery would have ended absent the Civil War; in Japanese history, the question was always what form the Tokugawa collapse would have taken absent Perry's intrusion.
Apparently this article will be the basis for an on-line forum in early September, when most of us are far too busy to do anything about it.
Note: the notice at the bottom of the article is rather troubling:
Content in the History Cooperative database is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the History Cooperative database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.I'm assuming that this doesn't apply to normal scholarly discourse, like this blog. I mean, what's the point of writing it, if nobody can quote and comment on it? And, that being the case, what's the point of putting this notice (at least the second sentence) on the article?