World Politics

Review Article

What's So Different about a Counterfactual?

Richard Ned Lebowa1*

a1 The Ohio State University

Niall Ferguson, ed. Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals. New York: Basic Books, 1999, 500 pp.

Niall Ferguson. The Pity of War: Explaining World War I. New York: Basic Books, 1999, 563 pp.


The author contends that the difference between so-called factual and counterfactual arguments is greatly exaggerated; it is one of degree, not of kind. Both arguments ultimately rest on the quality of their assumptions, the chain of logic linking causes to outcomes, and their consistency with available evidence. He critiques two recent historical works that make extensive use of counterfactuals and finds them seriously deficient in method and argument. He then reviews the criteria for counterfactual experimentation proposed by social scientists who have addressed this problem and finds many of their criteria unrealistic and overly restrictive. The methods of counterfactual experimentation need to be commensurate with the purposes for which it is used. The author discusses three uses for counterfactual arguments and thought experiments and proposes eight criteria appropriate to plausible-world counterfactuals.

Richard Ned Lebow is Director of the Mershon Center and Professor of Political Science, History and Psychology at The Ohio State University. His recent books include We All Lost the Cold War (1994), coauthored with Janice Gross Stein, and The Art of Bargaining (1996). He has a forthcoming study, Ethics, War and Society, a novel, Play it Again Ilsa, and three coedited works: Unmaking the West: Counterfactual and Contingency, Learning from the Cold War, and Theory and Evidence in Comparative Politics and International Relations.

* I would like to thank Richard Hamilton, Richard Herrmann, Edward Ingram, Friedrich V. Kratochwill, Eli Bohmer Lebow, Geoffrey Parker, Janice Gross Stein, and Philip E. Tetlock for their helpful comments.