Edward L Ayers is giving me more than I thought from his book In the presence of mine enemies. Yesterday whilst flying from Stansted to Schiphol and then on the train from Schiphol to Utrecht I read almost 70 pages (50 more to finish the book) and I learned about contingency in history.
This is what I think contingency is from what I read yesterday. History is often shaped after events pass through time. We reflect on those events and colour them with our own viewpoints. Then we try to reconstruct these events to make them fit whatever we know, or to challenge what we think we know.
The following link is to an article about contingency by Emiliano Trizio in Studies in History & Philosophy of Science.
In the case of Ayers’ book we are made to think if it could have been possible for the American civil war to end differently. Had the Confederates won then maybe there would now be two countries between Canada and Mexico. All the battles and circumstances that shaped the civil war could have ended differently. The author makes it easy enough for us to believe this.
As a history student I was sort of weaned off contingency by my professors. It was more often referred to as “What if history”. Thinking back now at least I think this is what happened. And it was made to sound like the easy option and as not very scientific. Maybe that is why I never read any books written using this method.
Too bad, because this is a good book and I don’t think the author has taken the easy option and I don’t think it’s really about what if, but more a way to make the reader realize that history is fluid and must at all times be interpreted in as many ways as possible.
Please say so if you disagree and why, because It’s been a while since I thought about historical and scientific theory.