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Telling It Like It Wasn'tThe Counterfactual Imagination in History and Fiction$
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Catherine Gallagher

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780226512389

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: September 2018

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226512556.001.0001

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The History of Counterfactual History from Leibniz to Clausewitz

The History of Counterfactual History from Leibniz to Clausewitz

Chapter:
(p.16) Chapter One The History of Counterfactual History from Leibniz to Clausewitz
Source:
Telling It Like It Wasn't
Author(s):

Catherine Gallagher

Publisher:
University of Chicago Press
DOI:10.7208/chicago/9780226512556.003.0002

This chapter focusses on the use of historical counterfactuals in eighteenth-century Europe, concentrating on their increasing employment in two areas of thought: religious controversy and military science. It examines the influence of philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, who claimed that God chooses among contingent historical possibilities in order to fashion the best among alternative possible worlds. Thus although our history was chosen by God, it nevertheless exists as only one among an infinity of other possibilities. Leibniz’s view that God controls the random play of historical contingencies was soon challenged by other enlightenment thinkers, who nevertheless used his method of imagining alternatives to demonstrate that ours is not the best of all possible worlds. Hence, historical counterfactualism was practiced on all sides of the debate over providence in history. In the late eighteenth century, writers who called themselves “critical” military historians were the first to apply counterfactual tests to determine the causes and degree of battlefield success, asking, “What else might have happened?” and “Was the strategy adequate not only to the conditions that prevailed but also to other conceivable conditions?” Clausewitz was the most famous of these writers, who established historical counterfactualism as an accepted mode of thought in military analysis.

Keywords:   Carl von Clausewitz, Gottfried Leibniz, military history, possible worlds, Theodicy

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