- Paperback: 432 pages
- Publisher: University of Michigan Press (October 23, 2006)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0472031430
- ISBN-13: 978-0472031436
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.1 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 6 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #968,715 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Unmaking the West: "What-If?" Scenarios That Rewrite World History Paperback – October 23, 2006
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The beginning and ending chapters demonstrate a rigour of thinking and a clarity of expression of the technique of counterfactual analysis that surely must set to rest the quibbles and the disparagement that are heaped on previous attempts. The body of the book takes particular case studies, for example the possibility that the Athenians would have lost at the Battle of Salamis and thereupon Greece would have fallen to the Persians, or the death of William of Orange had it occurred soon after his invasion of England in 1688, would have resulted in the loss of the scientific revolution. These analyses help us to understand not only the plausible alternate futures that might have evolved, but actually improve our understanding of the events that actually did evolve.
Often when reading a book like this the average reader, or the reader slightly educated in history, may be overwhelmed by the level and detail of scholarship of the authors and may be insufficiently equipped to challenge and critique those analyses. In this case, however, the scholarship is clearly cited and the analyses logical and entirely without fancy, and the reader is drawn into the argument and to the conclusions.
The criteria given to the chapter authors by the editors to examine counterfactual analyses are simple and explicit. First, how little needs to change for history to take an alternate road? Second, once a change has occurred,how strong a case can be made for a particular direction to be taken and how far down that path can it be taken? Third,how easy is it to undermine the argument made for this reinterpretation of historical events? So for example, there are no implausible conditions such as an aircraft carrier appearing through a time warp to change the course of events after Pearl Harbour, as explored in the film "Final Countdown"The Final Countdown (Widescreen Edition)At the same time the editors do not resile from the fact that the power of the imagery in the writing of alternate history, in works of fiction, and especially science fiction (the legendary "jonbar point")can bring especially to life the value of thinking about events and their consequences in history and in any life trajectory. Fiction such as Philip K. Dick's "The Man in the High Tower" or L. Sprague de Camp's "Lest Darkness Fall"can aid thinking and analysis.The Man in the High CastleLest Darkness Fall (Pyramid SF, F-817)
The case studies are all concerned with the question of how the predominance of Europe and later America occurred economically, scientifically and commercially and they demonstrate in many cases, in particular in Carla Pestana's analysis of possible consequences of the death of William of Orange, how the changes that seemed to pre-determine the ascendancy of Europe were in fact themselves very fragile and could have easily been undone by countervailing forces, resulting in the re-ascendance of what were the already dominant forces. By concentrating the arguments in a particular domain the authors and editors are able to make a stronger case than has often previously been the case in what are otherwise excellent alternative history compilations in the field, especially of military history. The chapters are uniformly good; readers will be drawn to examples which fit best their intellectual and disciplinary histories.
The book goes beyond historical analysis. It makes a strong intellectual case for the use of counterfactual analysis in any field of endeavour. The consideration of alternative courses of events makes the identification of causes and their probabilogical consequences stronger, by virtue of drawing out the assumptions that are so often implicit in the arguments of authors, be they historians, sociologists or psychologists. This volume may well be adopted as a key text in courses in historiography; it should also be adopted as a reference in courses on critical thinking and problem solving in many fields outside of history.It demonstrates the values of interdisciplinary study and debate, between historians, political scientists and psychologists.
This book has to be given an unequivocal and resounding "tick of approval" for providing such a satisfying and enjoyable exercise in intellectual history.
Strength: None of the alternative histories are pulled out of the author’s ass. Each author has good reasons, which are spelled out in greater or lesser detail, backed by voluminous notes. Often, the authors tell us how likely they think various alternative possibilities are.
Weakness: No chapter is a neat, straightforward story. The first and last chapters ask, why should historians do “what-if?” history?; how should historians do “what-if?” history? Most readers will wish these were shorter and tighter.
I liked the book. The alternative history chapters were full of interesting information and speculation.
The closest anyone came to making a generalization was Jack Goldstone’s assertion that the more out-of-the-ordinary something was, the less likely it was to have happened, and the more likely a small change could have kept it from happening. That sounds pretty obvious but it requires determining just how out-of-the-ordinary something was. For him, the unprecedented unceasing increase in knowledge and standard of living since the nineteenth century is way out-of-the-ordinary. His argument is fascinating (and is made in more detail in his excellent 2009 book “Why Europe?: The Rise of the West in World History, 1500-1850”).Why Europe? The Rise of the West in World History 1500-1850 (Explorations in World History)
Which brings me to a complaint I have when I read history. All history assumes that people are a certain way and act a certain way. It assumes a psychology, a sociology, an economics, a politics. But historians almost never make that explicit, perhaps because they don’t realize how much they are assuming themselves.