On Tuesday April 21st during the POLPAN Seminar Dr. Adam Kożuchowski (The Tadeusz Manteuffel Institute of History, Polish Academy of Sciences) presented a paper titled ‘Counterfactuals: the Bacteria of Social Sciences?’


Counterfactual statements by definition cannot be true, and all attempts to solve this problem in the realm of logic have failed. And yet, counterfactuals, seen as considerations on any alternative developments potentially (or indeed unavoidably) resulting in alternative consequences, seem indispensable from our investigations on the causal relations. This refers to the past, but also to the future, when, technically speaking, alternatives cease to be counterfactuals in the strict sense of the term. The border between then, however, is blurred, except for the fact that we know (if we do know) what did happen, and we are much less sure about what will happen. Counterfactuals also seem to be an indispensable by-product of any social theory; or are they, perhaps a constitutive element of any such a theory? Finally, counterfactuals, openly formulated or silently assumed, accompany all moral judgements, because morality makes no sense without the idea of choice. And morality or, if you like, ideology, lies behind most fields of interest of the social sciences. So, apparently, we cannot live without counterfactuals, and yet we are hardly capable of justifying, or simply explaining their uses, and indeed the need to employ them.

The problems addressed in this presentation are: (1) What is actually the difference between openly formulated counterfactuals, and those that simply arise from our considerations on causality as their by-products (which we ‘keep in mind’)? Are all investigations on alternative developments eventually counterfactual? (2) Most theoreticians of counterfactuals attempted to establish a criterion for differentiating between the ‘appropriate’ and ‘purposeful’ counterfactuals, and those that are merely ‘parlor games’. Is this possible? (3) Is their alleged plausibility such a criterion? (4) What role do they play in the narrative strategies of historians and political scientists, or in what situations are they most frequently employed? (5) What is the difference – or connection – between counterfactuals and comparisons (particularly the spatial ones)?