HM - Mar. 2016 - Logevall

Classroom Applications


An Antidote to Retrospective Determinism

By Fredrik Logevall
Harvard University

I have been thinking a lot lately about something that all of us who are history educators confront in our work: the role of human agency in history, as compared to the part played by deeper impersonal forces. Since the days of Thucydides and Herodotus historians have pondered the matter, and the nub of it is captured concisely in Karl Marx’s famous formulation at the start of his essay “The Eighteenth Brumaire”: “Men make their own History, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”
It’s a remarkable sentence, capturing at once the agency of individual actors while underscoring that they are constrained at all times by time, by geography, by history. To put it differently, human agency is qualified by the conditions in which individuals—including the most powerful leaders—find themselves when making decisions.
Too often, however, structural explanations (not least Marxian ones), soaring high above the everyday rough-and-tumble of human interaction, tend toward a deterministic view of history which implies that what happened had to happen. The fluidity of past situations is concealed, the effects of contingencies are blotted out, and individual human beings are absolved of personal responsibility—they are, after all, mere captives of forces they cannot control. “The illusions of retrospective determinism,” the philosopher Henri Bergson called this way of thinking.

Henri Bergson

The social psychologist Philip Tetlock and the historian Geoffrey Parker have written insightfully about this retrospective determinism and the problem that results from it.  “Few predicted World War I, the rise of the East Asian tigers, or the collapse of the Soviet Union,” they point out, “but virtually everyone today who claims professional competence in such matters stands ready to trot out half a dozen ‘fundamental’ or ‘structural’ causes why these outcomes had to happen roughly at the time and in the manner they did. Indeed, given the overwhelming array of causal forces often invoked, it is difficult for some contemporary observers to resist the inference that the original historical players were a tad dense not to appreciate where events were heading. Creeping determinism emerges as a key obstacle to the time-honored objective of historians to see the world as it appeared to the decision-makers of the day, not as it appears now with the benefits and curses of hindsight.”

This hindsight bias can be observed in all areas of human existence. As psychologists have long since established, people have a well-documented tendency to exaggerate in hindsight the likelihood of an observed outcome. They see the future as indeterminate and the past as inevitable. “I knew it all along,” is the refrain after the election, after the invasion of a foreign land, even when the outcome looked unlikely or was wholly unanticipated beforehand. The authors of The 9/11 Commission Report encountered this problem in compiling their study and summed up the issue clearly and powerfully:
In composing this narrative, we have tried to remember that we write with the benefit and the handicap of hindsight.  Hindsight can sometimes see the past clearly—with 20/20 vision. But the path of what happened is so brightly lit that it places everything else more deeply into shadow. . . . As time passes, more documents become available, and the bare facts of what happened become still clearer. Yet the picture of how those things happened becomes harder to reimagine, as that past world, with its preoccupations and uncertainty, recedes and the remaining memories of it become colored by what happened and what was written about it later.

How to overcome such deterministic tendencies? One antidote is counterfactual analysis, which, by bringing to the fore plausible but unrealized alternatives to what happened, can illustrate the differing dimensions of past situations and the presence of contingency. Many professional historians castigate such “What-If?” analysis, dismissing it as contrary to real scholarship and the equivalent of parlor games, or as being ideologically motivated by authors who seek to rewrite the past to match their political preconceptions. Determining what actually occurred is challenging enough, these skeptics say; why spend precious time on “imaginary universes”? According to the eminent scholar Richard Evans of the University of Cambridge, the whole exercise is pointless: “In the effort to understand,” he writes, “counterfactuals aren’t any real use at all.”

This seems to me wholly wrong. Thinking about alternatives is an indispensable part of the historian’s craft—we can judge the forces that won out only by comparing them with those that were defeated. The investigation of unrealized alternatives, in other words, provides crucial insight into why things turned out as they did; it helps us better understand what actually occurred. The historian, according to Johan Huizinga, must “constantly put himself at a point in the past at which the known factors will seem to permit different outcomes. If he speaks of Salamis, then it must be as if the Persians might still win; if he speaks of the coup d’état of Brumaire, then it must remain to be seen if Bonaparte will be ignominiously repulsed.”

Francois Bouchot, Oil on Canvas.
Napoleon Bonaparte in the coup d'état of 18 Brumaire in Saint-Cloud.
1840, Palace of Versailles

Furthermore, all historians, whenever they make causal judgments, are speculating, are contemplating alternative outcomes, even when these alternatives are not stated outright. To vow to say nothing counterfactual can therefore mean vowing to say nothing at all. In response, some historians might say that that they are in the business of  “explaining” rather than studying causality. But beware: often, this is just semantic obfuscation. As H. Stuart Hughes put it in the American Historical Review more than half a century ago, “The very employment of the word because immediately gives warning that causal explanation is at hand.”

As we think about the structural forces that shape history, and the external constraints under which human beings at all times must operate, let us also be open to the contingent, to the unexpected, to the paths not chosen. True historical understanding, we should remind ourselves and our students, comes from understanding not merely how things happened in the past, but how they did not.


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The National Council for History Education promotes historical literacy by creating opportunities for teachers and students to benefit from more history, better taught.