Counterfactuals, Thought Experiments and Singular Causal Analysis in History

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Reiss, Julian
conference paper description
Thought experiments are ubiquitous in science but especially prominent in domains in which experimental and observational data are scarce. Thus, for instance, when the causal analysis of singular events such as the causes of a particular war, of the rise of a culture or of the economic performance of a country in a specific historical period is at stake. A longstanding tradition in history that goes back to Max Weber answers questions about the causes of singular historical events by means of ‘What-if?’ counterfactuals. The aim of this paper is twofold. First, I want to give a descriptive account of this widely used method in history. Second, I argue that historians who follow this method examine difference makers rather than causes in the philosophers’ sense, despite their surface rhetoric. I conclude that although difference making is neither necessary nor sufficient for causation in the philosophers’ sense, looking for difference makers is more consistent with the historians’ more ultimate purposes.