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Counterfactuals, Thought Experiments, and Singular Causal Analysis in History

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2022

Abstract

Thought experiments are ubiquitous in science and especially prominent in domains in which experimental and observational evidence is scarce. One such domain is the causal analysis of singular events in history. A long-standing tradition that goes back to Max Weber addresses the issue by means of ‘what-if’ counterfactuals. In this paper I give a descriptive account of this widely used method and argue that historians following it examine difference makers rather than causes in the philosopher's sense. While difference making is neither necessary nor sufficient for causation, to establish difference makers is more consistent with the historians’ more ultimate purposes.

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Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © The Philosophy of Science Association

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References

Hanson, Victor Davis (2006), “A Stillborn West? Themistocles at Salamis, 480 BC”, in Tetlock, Philip, Lebow, Richard Ned, and Parker, Geoffrey (eds.), Unmaking the West: “What-If?” Scenarios That Rewrite World History. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 4789.Google Scholar
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