Virtual History

Bild Ferguson Virtual History2011, Penguin published a book with the promising title: „Virtual History“. There, Niall Ferguson presented 9 articles “towards a ‘chaotic’ theory of the past”. Exciting, the digital historian thinks, and begins to attack the introduction of almost 100 pages. Soon, he finds out that the book deals with questions as the following: What if Britain had stayed out of the First World War? What if Hitler had defeated the Soviet Union? So the point of the book is counterfactual history and not, as expected, virtual digital history. A close look on the circumstances of the publication makes it clear: Penguin has reprinted the book that has first been published 1997 – probably because the editor has become famous.

Did one read the introduction in vain? No, not completely. There is an interesting aspect for the virtual digital historiography, too – apart from questions about a deterministic course of things, about linear chains of causation: The aspect of quantitative argumentation as it takes effect in the New Economic History, for instance. Historical hypotheses can be tested empirically.

The plot of history is a selection of significant incidents. But: what makes an event significant? The answer to that question is to be found by “assembling a passage of the past constituted of related events which have not survived inferred from a past of utterances which have survived”. The historian’s task is to “explain why one course was eventually chosen rather than another” (E.H. Carr). The historical logic is a “dialogue between concept and evidence” (E.P. Thomson).

Ferguson is rather skeptical about that. He thinks that history “unfolds in a fundamentally chaotic way”, that “disorder will tend to increase”. For him, this is of “profound historical importance”. This is also true, because “any observation of historical evidence inevitably distorts its significance” by its selection. Historians therefore must take into account their own “uncertainty principle”. And as they can’t verify their findings by repetition (as in a laboratory), they have to work out plausible narratives.

The chaos theory “reconciles the notions of causation and contingency”. And plausible counterfactuals can test our causal hypotheses. So, we will deal with what did happen, what could have happened and what could not have happened (Isaiah Berlin). As Trevor-Roper has said: “At any given moment in history there are real alternatives. It is only if we place ourselves before the alternatives of the past, only if we live for a moment in its still fluid context”, that we get historical knowledge.

Ferguson makes virtual history out of this: “By narrowing down the historical alternatives we consider to those which are plausible”: Counterfactual scenarios are “simulations based on calculations about the relative probability of plausible outcomes in a chaotic world”. If there are places for an empirical turn in history one of it would probably be here. The digital world not only allows us access to huge corpuses of information and to establish probable links between them, but also to calculate probabilities of chains of events. In the digital era, we deal with a flood of information about past events, with Big Data. We have to think about principles for a selection of relevant information in order to reconstruct the past. It could be worth to think further about Ferguson’s view of virtual history to establish a relevant virtual digital history.

Ferguson, Niall (1999) [1997]. Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals. New York: Basic Books


Guido Koller

Senior Historian, Swiss Federal Archives, CH-3003 Berne, Switzerland

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