Making Sense of the World

  • Richard Ned LebowEmail author
Part of the Pioneers in Arts, Humanities, Science, Engineering, Practice book series (PAHSEP, volume 4)


Forbidden Fruit is an avowedly provocative but also inviting title. The two, as Eve knew, are often reinforcing. Her offer of the apple to Adam is an invitation to eat from the Tree of Knowledge and possibly transcend their human condition. It is a provocation because it involved violating the one proscription laid down by their creator. Eating from the Tree of Knowledge, the couple soon discover, entails expulsion from the Garden of Eden, hard work to survive, pain in childbirth, and mortality. Counterfactuals can be considered an analog to the apple, and the invitation to engage with them a provocation to those who believe that social science or history can only be corrupted by their use. I sense that the number of scholars who feel this way, while substantial, is on the decline. They believe we live in a metaphorical Garden of Eden, where the social and physical worlds are ordered, predictable, and related in a holistic way. For those of us who recognize that humankind left Eden long ago—if it ever existed—counterfactuals must be considered one more tool to help us make sense of our chaotic and unordered world, where knowledge sometimes has the effect of accelerating disorder.

I use counterfactuals to probe nonlinear causation and the understandings policymakers, historians, and international relations scholars have of historical causation. Toward this end and the broader goal of exploring the relationship between fact and fiction, and factual and counterfactual, I employ historical case studies, surveys, experiments, a short story, and an essay of literary criticism. An avowedly interdisciplinary book aspires to a multidisciplinary readership, and I believe my study has something of interest to say to social scientists, historians, and humanists. Casting my net this wide nevertheless invites problems of presentation and language that could limit my audience. Disciplines and fields or approaches within them often have distinct languages and concepts. To use any one of them is to identify with a particular discipline or methodological approach, but to use multiple languages and concepts is to risk incoherence. There is no way to finesse this problem, but I try to minimize its effects by keeping my language as consistent as possible, explaining concepts that may be unfamiliar to readers from other disciplines and, above all, by trying to speak to problems of common interest to these several disciplines and even to diverse approaches within them.

Different methods (e.g., case studies, experiments, literary criticism) employ different languages to conduct research and convey findings to the communities who routinely use these methods. I accordingly adopt, with some minor but important modifications, the language appropriate to each method I use and ask readers from other disciplines for their forbearance. At times, this practice may appear to involve me in contradictions. Social psychologists use the language of positivism, as they conceive of their discipline as a science. Historians and social scientists of the constructivist persuasion conduct case studies in the verstehen tradition, eschewing the language and goals of science. Constructivists and others who reject the quest for covering laws envisage social theory as a loose ensemble of concepts whose utility varies as a function of the kinds of questions one asks. Many of these researchers are nevertheless committed to formulating and evaluating propositions in accord with carefully established if ever evolving procedures. I conduct my case studies from this perspective, using the concepts and language of history and constructivism.


International Relation Theory Building World Politics Hindsight Bias Mortality Salience 
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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of War StudiesKing’s College LondonLondonUK

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