Other Pasts, Different Presents, Alternative Futures

Other Pasts, Different Presents, Alternative Futures

Jeremy Black
Distribution: Global
Publication date: 08/03/2015
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-253-01704-8
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Bronze Medal, World History category, 2016 Independent Publisher Book Awards

What if there had been no World War I or no Russian Revolution? What if Napoleon had won at Waterloo in 1815, or if Martin Luther had not nailed his complaints to the church door at Wittenberg in 1517, or if the South had won the American Civil War? The questioning of apparent certainties or "known knowns" can be fascinating and, indeed, "What if?" books are very popular. However, this speculative approach, known as counterfactualism, has had limited impact in academic histories, historiography, and the teaching of historical methods. In this book, Jeremy Black offers a short guide to the subject, one that is designed to argue its value as a tool for public and academe alike. Black focuses on the role of counterfactualism in demonstrating the part of contingency, and thus human agency, in history, and the salutary critique the approach offers to determinist accounts of past, present, and future.

Author Bio

Jeremy Black is Professor of History at the University of Exeter. He is author of many books including War and Technology (IUP, 2013), Fighting for America: The Struggle for Mastery in North America, 1519–1871 (IUP, 2011), and War and the Cultural Turn. Black is a recipient of the Samuel Eliot Morison Prize of the Society for Military History.


“A "what if" analysis of history that shows how little it takes to change the world's course.”

“A wide-ranging and lively commentary on the utility (and limits) of examining what did not happen in the past as a way to make sense of what did... Black makes a powerful case for the analytical value of counterfactualism in the explanation of structural questions, in particular how the modern world system took the shape it did, does, and might in the future. Other Pasts represents the kind of wide and up-to-date synthesis that is a hallmark of Black's scholarship.”
 — John Brobst, author of The Future of the Great Game: Sir Olaf Caroe, India’s Independence, and the Defense of Asi

“A concise, comprehensive analysis of an approach to history that is far more complex than either its supporters or its critics understand. Black succeeds above all in establishing counterfactualism's importance in extending the grounded imagination. And that is increasingly important in an era when on the one hand scholars are increasingly obsessed with digging postholes and protecting turf, and on the other, pundits and politicians rejoice in detaching their speculations from any and all connection with the past. . . . The reference apparatus by itself is worth the price of the book [and] I appreciate as well the global approach. . . . The question 'why?', basic to history, cannot be adequately addressed without at least evaluating untaken roads.”
 — Dennis Showalter, author of Armor and Blood: The Battle of Kursk, the Turning Point of World War II

“A sparkling defense of the legitimacy and utility of counterfactual history—of what ifs—and the best single work on its subject available.”
 — Weekly Standard

“Professor Black shows, in this intriguing book, exactly why the examination of different potential outcomes can aid historical understanding. He pinpoints how the expectation of events, even when unrealised, can determine human actions and affect perceptions of both past and future. Black demonstrates that, in skilful hands, counterfactual history is more than just fun; as one ingredient among many, it can be an extremely fertile source of explanation.”
 — History Today

“With a unique methodology, Black performs a what-if analysis of history to show how little it takes to change the world’s fate. . .This book provokes thought and speculation while also entertaining.”
 — Foreword Reviews

“[Black's] illustrative examples of 'what if,' 'how,' and 'why' will make readers sit back and wonder.”
 — Kirkus Reviews

“This is the most robust defense of historical counterfactuals to date . . . For those interested in this fascinating subject, Black’s book is indispensable.”
 — Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)

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Table of Contents

1. Introduction
2. A Personal Note on Life and Times
3. Types of History
4. Power and the Struggle for Imperial Mastery
5. The West and the Rest
6. Britain and France, 1688-1815
7. Counterfactualism in Military History
8. Into the Future
9. Skepticism and the Historian
10. Conclusions
11. Postscript
Selected Further Reading

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