Virtual History

Categories: history

When Niall Ferguson's Virtual History came out, I remember a collective "ooooh" went up from young history wonks. For the more intellectually adventuresome, this was hot stuff. Ferguson's The Pity of War had just come out, and it was a fascinatingly contrarian economics-based must-read if you liked WWI history. Suddenly he was also presenting an edition of history essays, by leading Oxbridge dons, all about stuff that never happened.

You can imagine, then, how shocking it was to find out that so many non-wonky readers hated it.

The concept of "Virtual History" from which the book takes its name is really nothing new. History professors, students and amateur enthusiasts have been creating it for millennia. Virtual history — or counterfactual history, as it is also known — in its simplest understanding means, "What if?" So here was a book from some of the best names in their fields, from some of the finest institutions in the world, playing the what-if game. How cool is that?

What probably happened to cause such reader disappointment was that those in charge of marketing the book took a more sensational approach to the what-if scenarios contained within. Fans of counterfactual novelists like Harry Turtledove (if online buyer reviews are anything to go by) expected more romping alternate worlds, and this sentiment probably carried over to less serious history fans. That's a pity, because if this volume is approached with a better understanding of its contents, it can be an even more rewarding read.


Virtual History is less a presentation of virtual histories than a thorough argument for the practice of engaging virtual history: creating and then challenging counterfactuals. Each chapter should be taken as a sober exemplar of how to apply a new kind of historical discipline. If approached as merely an excuse to look at worlds that never were, yes, a lot of those reader reviews claiming that it's boring are right on the money. I would suggest, though, that they miss the point.

Ferguson begins the book with a 90-page introduction that has been criticized as ponderously dull. Quite the contrary, it's an engrossing and fairly committed defense of virtual history as a new branch of "Theory of History." To make this defense, Ferguson has to take the reader back through the history of theories of history. Given the breadth of philosophy devoted to examining how we understand and approach history, his summary is thorough, quick-paced and extremely informative. If you read the introduction a few times over, you could probably bluff your way through a semester class on the subject without picking up another book — which, as it happens, a lazy person I know successfully did.

Some of the ideas in Ferguson's defense of virtual history will be recognizable to readers. For instance, anyone who's spent time in a class on postmodernism or even discussed it in reference to literature or philosophy will know some of the arguments he makes about how it relates to our concept of a narrative structure of history. These ideas are folded into broader themes of determinism and teleology, which you might not immediately understand in an academic sense but have probably gone over many times more colloquially.

For example, any fans of James Burke's classic television miniseries Connections have already watched a 12-hour argument for why a teleological view of history is mistaken. In a nutshell, teleology argues that things are designed with a purpose, and that we can look at things as they are and reason them from their point of current existence — our now — back along a process of design to their point of origin. Burke torpedoes that line of thought, at least in terms of science and invention, by showing how 2,000 years of accidental processes connect the atomic bomb to ancient use of touchstones to determine the worth of metals — i.e. a progression no one would dream of being intentional.

These flaws in teleological approaches to history come under Ferguson's gun and, along with riffs on chaos theory and advances in physical sciences, underpin his advocacy for entertaining counterfactuals. The following chapters thus fulfill the theory by examining events most of us should be familiar with.

What if Charles I wasn't beheaded, and the English Revolution never happened? What if the American revolution never happened? What if Nazi Germany had successfully invaded England? (Full disclosure: one criticism of the book is that it's almost exclusively Anglocentric. This is probably a case of Ferguson working on the book with his peers, rather than any commentary on the worth of other cultures.) Counterfactuals answering all of these are entertained, often admittedly briefly. Again, the point isn't to delve wholly into these worlds that didn't exist but rather to summarize each situation, establish a reasonable point from which history might have branched off — then and only then look at that branch within the context of existing factors.

In practical terms, it can mean for the reader a rather thorough revisitation of familiar points in history (although the depth of the examinations is enough to keep all but hardcore wonks of each topic entertained). It may seem a little repetitive, recounting what we already know happened, but this thoroughness is intrinsic to the process of making the case for engaging in counterfactuals to begin with. What separates the amateur what-if from the scholarly is that anyone can ask, "What if the Nazis invaded England?" What makes it a scholarly effort is looking at the obstacles Admiral Raeder would have had to overcome, the problems of coordination between the Reich Navy and the Luftwaffe that needed to be resolved, etc — then seeing if it had any chance of success.

This should be a thoroughly fun book for any history fan. While that introduction might seem a bit of a slog, it's necessary to understand the worth of the exercise and, at the same time, gives the reader a good summary of historical theory. Each chapter presents an example of theory in practice while giving a brief but estimable grounding in significant points in English and (some) western history. Interestingly, just as the insights in each chapter demonstrate the validity of counterfactual examination, they reinforce just how important it is to know what did happen — even if it's for an intellectual parlor game.

by Blogger Albert_Rolls on ‎10-15-2009 07:28 PM

Another must read for me. The introduction sounds intriguing, despite anything said against it, but I have a thing for theory, so I guess I’m the type of reader for whom it is written.  

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