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Plausible Worlds: Possibility and Understanding in History and the Social Sciences.

In this work Geoffrey Hawthorn initially reflects on explanations for the late-medieval plague, demography in early modern Europe, U.S. policies toward Korea, and painting by Duccio in the early Renaissance. Employing diverse primary and secondary accounts, he then advocates what most historians have usually tried to avoid - counterfactual thinking. Although historians generally leave counterfactuals to "playful times," Hawthorn wades into the murky waters of "plausible worlds" with great confidence: since historians imply counterfactuals whenever they generalize, they might just as well do so properly and therefore avoid dangerous pitfalls.

Hawthorn urges historians and social scientists to dodge bad counterfactuals by avoiding over-speculation: "they [historical possibilities] should not require us to unwind the past" (150). Neither should historians escape into fantasy. Instead, he suggests methods for avoiding the evils of over-speculation and fantasy throughout his final chapter and claims that he is actually urging scholars to follow Rankean directives. Though that claim is doubtful, at least Hawthorn reveals his approach more clearly in this chapter. He describes basic disagreements in historical explanation, about holistic determinism, and about historical knowledge. Although he brings up determinism throughout early parts of the book, he does not discuss epistomological issues effectively. Using an aberration of Hawthorn's "possibility thinking," a reader may well conclude that the author sees himself as progressing beyond the need for traditional historical research as well as the use of social scientists' ubiquitous models. Perhaps the latter is best discarded by historians, although models are useful for social scientists who are not primarily concerned about exactly what happened anyway.

For historians, Hawthorn employs philosophical pragmatism to replace metaphysical approaches with pragmatic coping. Consequently, he consigns most metaphysical approaches to the intellectual dustbin. In their place comes the "pragmatic attitude," plus the insistence "that we take our common sensical experience of the human world seriously" (185). In this way, Hawthorn seems to hope for an alternative to the worst forms of deconstruction, though only with minor success. He makes claims for a new way of understanding the past, but he never fully describes just what he wants.

Plausible Worlds is an intriguing and difficult book, intriguing because the theoretical sections are suggestive and incisive, difficult because the historical sections are unevenly done. Hawthorn's learning is impressive and his objectives are worthy; but he never pulls off the argument. Perhaps the multiplicity of "plausible worlds" impedes the directness that historians value. Although Hawthorn denies he is engaging in postmodern "play," he engages in more of it than even the most lightheaded deconstructionists would approve. Hawthorn makes valuable suggestions for avoiding determinism and for escaping from epistomological nonsense, but too often "plausible worlds" are diversions from the real one - past or present.

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Author:VanderMolen, Ronald J.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1992
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