II. Elster on Counterfactuals

Steven Lukes

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    It is argued that, despite its considerable virtues, Jon Elster’s approach to counterfactual reasoning in history misfires in a number of ways. First, his classification of the various approaches to the problem among logicians and philosophers is inadequate and confusing: he claims to follow the meta-linguistic approach, uses the idiom of the possible worlds approach but would be better advised, given his own intuitions and purposes, to adopt the condensed argument approach. This would not only make his argument clearer and less confusing: it would also improve it. It is argued, secondly, that Elster makes exaggerated claims for his own ‘branching worlds’ theory, which he does not show to be the ‘correct’ account of counterfactuals; this only serves to relocate the central problem, since everything hinges on the identification of branching points. Thirdly, it is argued that Elster is therefore led into a mistaken account of when counterfactuals are illegitimate: he does not prove that historical counterfactuals must be about real possibilities in the past, and that we are not permitted to suppose, in contravention of our actual beliefs, that the laws we accept are suspended in some specified sphere but otherwise applicable.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)145-155
    Number of pages11
    JournalInquiry (United Kingdom)
    Issue number2
    StatePublished - Jun 1980

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Philosophy
    • Health Policy


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