Counterfactuals: the Bacteria of Social Sciences?

The next POLPAN Seminar will be held on Tuesday, April 21st, from 14:30 to 16:00, in room 242 (Staszic Palace, Nowy Swiat 72).

Dr Adam Kożuchowski (The Tadeusz Manteuffel Institute of History, Polish Academy of Sciences) will present a paper titled Counterfactuals: the Bacteria of Social Sciences?

Adam Kożuchowski
The Tadeusz Manteuffel Institute of History, Polish Academy of 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)?

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