Mark Grimsley Goes To Charlottesville

Yesterday I had a chance to meet and listen to Mark Grimsley in a talk presented to the graduate students in the history department at the University of Virginia. Most of the students are presently working under the direction of Gary Gallagher. It was nice to finally have a chance to talk to Mark in person and connect a personality to a picture.

Mark focused on the importance of counterfactual analysis in historical studies and more specifically on how this type of analysis has shaped his own thinking in connection to his current project on 1864. It goes without saying that 1864 was an important year as the United States re-elected Lincoln and brought the war to a close. According to Grimsley, 1864 was a “moment of major racial re-formation” with Reconstruction policy already taking shape and African Americans serving in Union ranks. In thinking about this pivotal period Grimsley attempted to drive home the importance of counterfactual analysis. And if we are to engage in counterfactual analysis Grimsley hopes that we learn to do it “well” versus doing it “poorly” and not end up engaged in writing alternate history.

The first step in understanding the role or necessity of counterfactual analysis is appreciating the role of contingency in the past or the assumption that events could have taken a different turn. This stands in sharp contrast to thinking of the past as determined from the start. According to Grimsley, contingency is easy to lose sight of for historians as compared with other disciplines such as evolutionary biologists and economists who employ counterfactuals as a matter of course. Historians should keep in mind that the very idea of a causal model implies a counterfactual, so the act itself should not necessarily be seen as stepping beyond our conceptual understanding of causation. I agree with Grimsley, but it does not necessarily follow that historians should make explicit what is implicit. More on this later.

So, how should historians proceed according to Grimsley? He suggested that you start with the consequent, such as a Lincoln defeat in the presidential election of 1864 or a postemancipation world in which African Americans enjoyed greater civil rights. Once your consequent is sketched out the object is to provide a “minimal re-write” of the events preceeding the consequent that could concievably have brought it about. The general rule is the simpler the better. Mark provided a number of examples from both the Civil War and World History to drive the point home.

It was not an easy sell to the graduate students. Mark fielded some excellent questions and while he convinced some others remained skeptical. From my point of view some of the students were unclear as to the utility of the counterfactual exercise. After all, if the goal is to appreciate contingency it seems that one can do so without engaging in counterfactual analysis. I think the other problem with some of the students was understanding how a counterfactual study might fit into their own scholarship; many of the students are concentrating on questions of social and cultural history, so what seems fitting for a straight-forward military study is perceived as problematic when dealing with broader notions of change and evolution. One of the students noted the practical application of this type of analysis for military planners and as a tool to be used in the classroom. All in all Mark did a fantastic job really trying to force students to think critically about the practice of doing history and the role of counterfactuals in imagining how events could have turned out differently.

My Concerns:

As I stated earlier it does not follow that because a counterfactual is implicit in a causal explanation that historians should make them explicit in their scholarship. That said, I agree with Grimsley that the counterfactual makes for an interesting and potentially useful tool to think about what in fact took place. Philosophers of science in the past have criticized historians’ claims to utilizing causal explanations because they do not make explicit broader covering laws. Any individual causal explanation in classical physics fits into a broader covering law or generalization and this is typically made explicit. It does not follow, however, that historians should be engaged in this type of explanation simply because a covering law model or generalization is implicit in a specific causal statement. The problem is that historians cannot provide such broader explanation nor is it clear that they would want to even if were possible.

While I agree that counterfactual analysis can highlight the importance of contingency it seems possible to fully appreciate the uncertainty of events by simply submerging oneself in the lives of individuals at the time. In other words, it is possible to imagine the lives of people on the ground without the constant reminder of how the event – in this case an election or the war in general – turned out.

I asked Mark about the possibilities of a body of literature based on counterfactual analysis. My concern is that the content of the “minimal re-write” makes is difficult to engage in formal debate. I understand debates involving the merits of straight-forward histories such as questions surrounding the relative weight given to specific factors or the structure of the interpretation itself. Historical studies build on one another which is evidenced in any scholarly study’s footnotes. How would one reference counterfactual studies? Do they build on one another? How do you debate the relative weight assigned to an object in the “minimal re-write.” This is a difficult enough question in traditional studies, but seems lost in the world of counterfactuals. Is this in the end more a mental exercise as opposed to something that should take its place alongside published non-counterfactual studies?

All in all Mark did a super job engaging everyone in attendance. Though time was short the last question touched on the role of blogging in the academic world. Mark’s answer was very interesting and I would have loved to have heard more. I had a great time yesterday and I thank Mark for an enlightening discussion. It was great having a chance to talk to you in person.

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