“Who has not played the great game of counter-factual autobiography?” (Simon Barnes, Ten Million Aliens, 2014)
What would my life have looked like if I hadn’t taken up a vacancy job at Roskilde University in 1973? And what if I had stayed in my first marriage? What would have become of me if I had remained in Sweden? A middle-level left-leaning bureaucrat in the environmental administration?
Should we take counter-factual autobiography seriously? Well, as methodological individualists suggest, history and society is made up by the actions of countless individuals. Thus counter-factual history — a respectable branch of history these days — could be said to have its foundations in counter-factual (auto)biography.
Anyone who disagrees?
Also published on Facebook, 10 October 2015, this post generated several interesting comments:
Thomas Söderqvist “I suppose all choices in life create their own imaginary unchosen counterparts, a kind of existential phantom pain”. That’s good, especially “existential phantom pain” – an excellent imagery!
Inge-Bert Täljedal Wille Fischer, my much respected teacher of History in school, taught us that counterfactual history may well be discussed, however only after midnight and a Scotch in hand. I tend to like this kind of compromise… smile emoticon
Thomas Söderqvist But that was more than half a century ago, Inge-Bert. Tines have changed. Acclaimed 20C historian Richard J. Evans has written a very interesting book on the topic, apparently without a glass of Scotch in his hand.https://www.timeshighereducation.com/…/2012202.article
Inge-Bert Täljedal Right you are. Counterfactuality has been in vogue for some time. However, although I have read and reflected upon Kripke’s famous Naming and Necessity (which makes ample use of counterfactuality, “other worlds”) I cannot help sometimes to vaguely doubt the soundness of the very concept. We do, of course,use it in science (conceivable alternative outcomes of experiments) and everyday life, but in those situations we carve out only a small piece of space-time reality and play the game that we can alter something in that piece and yet be able to put it back, as it were, in the totality of the world. I sometimes lean too much toward determinsim not to feel that that might not only be physically but, indeed, logically impossible. Maybe there is only one consistent description of the world in its totality?l
Thomas Söderqvist I think Richard Evans doesn’t fully understand the importance of taking alternative standpoints and explanations as a way of sharpening our awareness of the decisions and trajectory that we actually took. It’s a bit like psychotherapy: the reason you go into the negative feelings in a therapy session is not to stay forever in the darkness of the past, but the exorcise the daemons so that you can make your actual life better.