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“Possibilism” — Maybe A New Word For “What If?” History

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Regular readers, and readers of my latest book, know that one of my favorite lessons is having students develop “What If?” history projects (see The Best Resources For Teaching “What If?” History Lessons).

Readers might also remember a post I wrote about economist/philosopher Albert Hirschman (see “Exit,” “Voice” & Schools).

Well, a review of a new book about Hirschman’s life that just appeared in The New York Review of Books (see An Original Thinker of Our Time) has, surprisingly — at least, to me — brought the two together. Here’s an excerpt:

Hirschman was suggesting that doubt could be a source not of paralysis and death but of creativity and self-renewal….He insisted that human history provides “stories, intricate and often nonrepeatable,” which “look more like tricks history has up its sleeve than like social-scientific regularities, not to speak of laws.” He was interested in “the many might-have-beens of history,” including “felicitous and surprising escapes from disaster.”…

Hirschman was delighted by paradoxes, unintended consequences (especially good ones), the telling detail, inventories of actual practices (rather than big theories), surprises, and improvisation. In his view, “history is nothing if not farfetched.” He invented the term “possibilism,” meant to draw attention to “the discovery of paths, however narrow, leading to an outcome that appears to be foreclosed on the basis of probabilistic reasoning alone.” In his lifetime, one of many such outcomes was the abrupt collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, which almost no one anticipated.

I’m going to look more into what he may have written about this topic, and see how I can incorporate it into my “What If?” history lessons. If anyone has more info, please let me know.

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

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