Panel 5 – Examining the Place of Alternate History

- Daniel Dohrn, Humboldt University of Berlin (Germany) “Counterfactuals in Historiography – A Philosophical Assessment”

- Matt Mitrovich, (USA), “Warping History: An Overview of Fans and Creators of Alternate History in the Internet Age”

- Ursula Troche, (UK), “Alternate History as re-imagining/re-writing: with particular reference to Lennon's ‘Imagine’ and Evaristo's ‘Blonde Routes’”

Counterfactuals in Historiography – A Philosophical Assessment

Since Pascal’s famous discussion of the difference Cleopatra’s nose made to Roman history, the question whether counterfactuals can and should play a role in historiography has been the subject of controversy. Although historians like E.H. Carr have dismissed counterfactual reasoning as a ‘parlour game’, alternate historiography thrives. While counterfactuals have been intensely debated in philosophy since 1947, focusing on many historical examples, the role of counterfactuals in historiography has not been as thoroughly addressed in the philosophy of the humanities and social sciences. I shall discuss a recent attempt of Daniel Nolan (2013) to distinguish several possible functions of counterfactuals in historiography:

- they allow to clarify theoretical commitments incurred by historians.

- they provide a heuristics to play through new ideas

- they allow to correct a retrospective hindsight bias towards deeming the course of things inevitable.

- they allow to explain motives and actions of historical figures.

- they are used for attributing responsibility and moral evaluations.

- they are used more generally for causal explanations.

- knowledge how things could have been if… is interesting in its own right.

Among the issues I shall address in my critical assessment are the following: is Nolan’s account complete, or are there further functions to be distinguished? In how far does the utility he attributes to counterfactual thinking already depend on the premiss that the latter should play a role in historiography? What interest in their own right can counterfactuals have beyond a mere parlour game? What about the potential disadvantages of using counterfactuals? How do we distinguish correct/useful counterfactuals from incorrect/dysfunctional ones? What evidence, empirical or not, can we give for counterfactual claims about historical events?

Nolan, D. (2013 )Why Historians (And Everyone Else) Should Care About Counterfactuals. Philosophical Studies 163 (2):317-335

Bionote: A trained historian of philosophy (PhD: 2001), I have been working since 2012 as a research fellow in an interdisciplinary research group What If? based in Constance and Berlin (historiography, linguistics, literary studies, philosophy), focusing on a counterfactual account of thought experiments and knowledge of necessity and possibility. I am also interested in counterfactual explanation in literature and the social sciences.

Warping History: An Overview of Fans and Creators of Alternate History in the Internet Age

Outside the attention of the mainstream media, there exists an online community of self-published authors and collaborators who consistently produce free alternate history content for fans and other creators like themselves, who all need to be recognized for their contributions to the genre. This paper examines the Internet’s role in creating this alternate history fan community and how that community affects the genre as a whole. Although works of alternate history date back to the classical era, coverage on the creators and fans in the modern era is lacking. My paper addresses this issue by showing how the Internet facilitated communication between a small and dispersed community of well-read, amateur historians with interests in speculative fiction, which allowed them to establish an identity, adopt terminology and form countless factions unique from other speculative fiction fandoms. Specifically, in my paper, I will look at self-published web originals, collaborative timelines, discussion forum histories, wiki archives and interviews with authors, editors, bloggers, website administrators, podcasters and Sidewise Awards for Alternate History judges to prove that the popularity of alternate history from the 1980s to the present would not be possible without this dedicated community of creators and fans. I argue that the proliferation of the Internet and the communication opportunities it provided was paramount for this community’s creation and without it the community may never have arisen in the first place, which would have prevented alternate history from being anything more than an obscure branch of science fiction. In conclusion, this paper sheds new light on this little recognized online community and how they continue as a whole to direct the constant evolution of the alternate history genre.


Matt Mitrovich is the editor and founder of Alternate History Weekly Update blog and a contributing blogger at the e-magazine Amazing Stories. He has published several speculative fiction short stories for various small press anthologies. He works as a conflicts attorney at Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP in Chicago.

Alternate History as re-imagining/re-writing: with particular reference to Lennon's "Imagine" and Evaristo's "Blonde Routes"

Across the social sciences have advanced concepts such as re-writing and re-defining versions of history and narrative that have previously been taken for granted. (i.e. "Re-writing History" by McLeod 1995). As Rorty had introduced "The Linguistic Turn" (1967) and Barthes effected the "narrative turn" current preoccupations with rewriting, redefining, reframing and the like, might be called the "re-turn". It is at this juncture where alternate history becomes interesting for this endevour because it is about (establishing or imagining) alternate realities.

So there is an intersection here which has often been overlooked, perhaps due to alternate history's closeness with (science) fiction rather than social science. Thiess (2015) deals with the comparison of science fiction and historiography.

Examining this intersection becomes particularly interesting with critical arts and social science, whose aim often is to question social structures and transform hierarchies (of power). In doing this, I am continuing on a thread spun by Foucault and others, in particular critical and postcolonial studies. Of particular interest to alternative history is social science's interrogation of the concept of truth (ie Gadamer 1976). Starting perhaps with Nietzsche, truth has often ceased to regarded as fact, thus its subjective and relative nature has been exposed and lines have been blurred, opening up fields of alternate history, psychology and cognitivist insight (i.e. Bruner 1991).

Often it is the call for social change that has effected such inquiries, such as postcolonial scholars who interrogate the legacies of colonialism on our social set-up, including witihin literary fiction. In this vein, Evaristo wrote Blonde Roots (2009) which is a narration of a historical negative of the slave trade, in this case. The book aims to raise awareness of current social relations by turning them on their head.

John Lennon had previously made a suggestion of altering social structures through imagining an alternative to wars and divisions - and here too is a slight paralllel with alternate history's classic "If It had happened otherwise".

We are back to the cognitive here as well and, as in communication studies, the generation of entropy rather than redundancy. This is what i seek to explain in this paper, in which i will also refer to my own art work / practice.

Ursula Troche: Writer, performance poet and life model/live artist: My university studies have included politics, African Studies and Intercultural Therapy. Has developed performance poetry from these strands of inquiry and in order to advance the possibility of dreaming, i.e. alternatives, alternate imaginaries in order to challenge assumptions and repetitions in social mechanisms.

Various poetry publications in newsletters and in the intercultural magazine Fountainhead. Poetry compilations: "Embraceable - Notes from Different Places called Home" and "Origins and Other Issues".