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Alternative History and the Phenomena of Possibility: Collingwood and Wittgensteins Concepts of Time. A Comparative Study

53 (2021) Editor: Iva Manova
Morteza Nouraei and Mahsa Nouraei
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Alternative History and the Phenomena of Possibility: Collingwood and Wittgenstein’s Concepts of “Time”. A Comparative Study

Morteza Nouraei

University of Isfahan

Mahsa Nouraei

Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”



Abstract: Alternative history, also known as alternate history, has a bi-dimensional shape: on the one hand, it fits into the literary-fiction genre, and on the other hand, it has entered the field of historical narrative in the form of various scenarios or literary-historical aspirations and fantasies, which enable the turn of a formal historical narration into a counterfactual narrative of the past. The story of historical trauma during/at the historical turning points has opened the way to the creation of “possible worlds”, so that, in this way, in spite of imaginary situations of the past story, it corresponds to the discursive mental demands at different times and different places. The idea that there exists a factitious time in the historical narrative emerged thanks to reflections, including the multiplicity of the concepts of time in the context of history. In the realm of historiography, G. Collingwood has presented the instability of the historian’s mind between the concept of the present and the past amidst the variability of historical texts, which in turn has produced an unstable narrative of historical evidence in the form of “constructing history” and “total explanation”. In the style of L. Wittgenstein’s narration, in the plan of not producing a “final explanation”, his most important presentation in this field has been the “possibility of phenomena”: where philosophizing is not possible as such, there is no need to pay for theory: a path that can only be viewed as a “landscape”. This article endeavors to make a comparative analysis of Collingwood’s and Wittgenstein’s points of view on evaluating the role of multiplicity and temporal diversity in the text-narrative of historical fiction.

Keywords: Collingwood, Wittgenstein, possible world, alternative history, time.



The issue of time and its dimensions has a long history among thinkers. During the twentieth century, this issue has entered the technical and specialized fields in the postmodern discourse and has confronted various perspectives. Philosophy, sociology, history, and literature have taken an active stance in dealing with it, exploring the concepts of time and tense, objective and subjective, external and internal time as well as the multiplicity of time in text and narrative. In this article, it has been attempted to review Collingwood and Wittgenstein’s perceptions of time through studying their narratives so as to pave the way for the understanding of diverse temporal schemes, whilst observing parallel and alternative time within historiography in alternative history’s fictionalized time.

Collingwood and Wittgenstein’s concepts of Time

Wittgenstein’s time skepticism is a conceptual skepticism, because, in this author, this concept is both qualitative and quantitative. Thus, involvement with such abstract concepts becomes all the more ambiguous resulting in vague understandings when one wants to explain and re-explain a narrative in chronological order. Such a situation allows us to draw the conclusion that the world is possible in the realm of possible understanding, when the narrator and the reader of the text do not find a common understanding. Hence in the narrative there is an open field for maneuvering events that do not necessarily convey a specific chronological order. Although two terms are created for objective and subjective time, in both cases, there is no specific demarcation in the narrative. It is possible to describe time in drawing a narrative from Wittgenstein's perception, with which he seems to have produced his narrative. He has created a text full of possibilities within the temporal time distribution with which he has created his possible world, which is in fact an answer to the expectant reader’s mental understanding and expectations. It is, as such, contemporary / postmodern. Of course, it should be noted here that this view is actually an attitude towards narrative, which can also be emphasized via Stanford’s study: narrative has two sides of which one is story and the other is history. What brings these two sides together is the timeless doubt present within contemporary thinking. Stanford considers narrative to be different in terms of the role of time: time without beginning and end, time length, time sequence, and angle of view (Stanford 1984, 88-92).

In fact, such flexibility of time in the text and narrative is the temporal association of the author with the reader: the author writes his/her own novel and the reader, for his/her part, reads his/her own novel. Here the flexibility of the text’s time leads to the prevailing sense of discourse of each period.

Is this wrong? According to Wittgenstein, this kind of mistake is repeated over and over in philosophy. For example, when we are confused about the nature of time, time seems to us to be a strange thing. This is not a new fact about time that we want to know, but all the facts that concern us are already obvious, but this use of “time” is the basis that make readers unique in their individual perceptions. If we observe the word itself, we will feel that it is not surprising that man should think of the necessity of a “god of time” and thus treating it as a concept worthy of praise within religions and myths. The idea of the divinity can be both in negation and in separation (Wittgenstein 2007: 6). Thinkers, such as St. Augustine have also questioned this concept, recurrently over history (Wittgenstein 2007: 26).

For Wittgenstein, the concept of time is a kind of doubt between the interpretation of time and the verb tense; it seems to be an endless hesitation through and through. That is why any statement about the past and its periods is a statement of probability and the world of possibility.

The intersection of different tenses in the possible world, which according to historians is called alternative history [1], leads to the extraction of a multifaceted narrative of the verb tense in both genres. Although such times are observed in the writings of academic history, the predominance of contemporary time in historical writings prevails over this point.

In these circumstances, one of the most influential historians of the twentieth century, Robin G. Collingwood (1889-1943) believes that neither rationality's history in the Age of Enlightenment was entirely dominant, nor that a universal scientific rule such as positivism could govern it, which puts historians at great risk. This was: How did people understand their life in the past? His answer to this question indicates that the actions of the predecessors were all in line with the more or less specific goals and desires. He, thus, established his two great ideas: first, the conscious historian, with a questioning mind, must find the experience of thinking, understanding, or empathizing with the past in the moment of the narration.

Second, and following from the first, the historian must reach the necessary circle of historical imagination (Collingwood 1994: 231-249). Collingwood acknowledges that historians must have sufficient self-reflexive power to be able to place within the text the historical agents' desires, aspirations, goals, and symbols, or historical semiotics (Munslow 2006: 47-48).

Collingwood’s explanation of modern hermeneutics implies that the meaning of the text is determined in connection with the mental action desired by the author. Therefore, the mission of understanding and comprehending any text, including historical documents, by the reader, can be the same as finding or reviving and resurrecting the original author or creator of the text. From this point of view, the interpretation of a text essentially requires a kind of “self-relocation” and projection of the interpreter: the interpreter himself takes the place of the author in terms of subject, temporal and spatial. Thus, in line with Collingwood’s view, it is not possible to fully represent and reconstruct the past in the first place. What happens is that the historian, as good a researcher he/she might be, goes to the truth and finds a trace of the past. In this field, there can be no boundary in historical generalization and imagination (Lemisko 2004). Here, of course, it is not possible for the historian to enter the real past tense. It can be close, however; in fact, it’s a kind of an entry into a possible world based on documents that are likely to be understood again.

To sum up, it should be stated that the distinguishing point of the possible worlds of Collingwood and Wittgenstein is that Collingwood, as a historian, considers two points in the production of the narration of the original history, one is a historical event and the other is historical time with all its doubts. Wittgenstein, on the other hand, does not restrict the narrative time and suggests outside and inside time in the sense of freedom of time to maneuver during the process of story narration.


According to the discussions raised by theorists about time, especially the two mentioned cases, it is possible to discuss the understanding of the dimensions of time in the text, especially the historical-literary genre. Therefore, understanding time in three situations of verb tense, recording and reading, is necessary for the entry of past phenomena into the field of text and history. Reflections on the state of time in the historical text, is one of the most confusing issues in the field of re-thinking history. In this perspective, any text, especially in the structure of historical narrative can contain several times.

Here are some examples of different time forms:

1. The present is in the past: It refers to the time or discourse of the author (producer), which is taken to the past time (time of narration, event or flow) and the color of the past is covered on it.

2. The past tense in the past: In fact, the author has consciously opted for the past tense (narration time, event or flow) and has succeeded in matching the time. At the same time, the historian may be confused at this time. Because it is necessary to leave one’s time and enter the past time to understand the historical context, in which case the historical mind of the historian in the form of imagination and generalization may be able to contextualize the time and represent it. Traveling from the past (subject matter) to the open adjacent past requires the same path, yet as far as the possibility of traveling from the non-adjacent past (with the historian / producer), to the past is required; this in itself is undoubtedly one of the main issues that creates the essential doubt, which is necessary in de-construction.

3. The past tense in the future: In fact, the historian has a glimpse into the past, where he finds appropriate patterns and puts their data in the form of predictions / predictions for the society in the form of his narration.

4. The future in the past: It is the time when the author samples his predictions of the future in the past and announces the impending pattern and repetition of the past in the future in the reconstruction of his subject.

5. The past in the present: The author does not distinguish between the past and the present, and in the view of “this identity”, the past is embodied in the present without limit. This situation in the recent past may not be controversial, but with the ending of a discourse, how can the present be constantly seen in the immediate connection of the separate pasts? This persistence in the past can be justified in the form of a conservative perspective.

It is remarkable that from this textual point of view, there can be an intersection of one or more among the mentioned times. But there is no doubt that the products of such narratives have both a history of consumption and are produced in the form of predetermined goals. In this regard, it can be said that moral time, political time, ideological time and narrative time interfere in historical texts more than historical time and set a predetermined path for historians for their own use.

Therefore, what is written as history is not formed absolutely on the basis of the past, but inevitably arises in the present. The historian is influenced by different circumstances and there is always the possibility of the emergence of different facts and fantasies in the text.

The result of any history can be contemporary history. For the same reason that the whole of reality may not be accessible and only a glimpse of truth can be reached, the past can be multiplied from the present to the past. This multiple view of a single past (subject) or of a diverse past is influenced by the conditions of time and, at best, recovers or reconstructs the necessity of today in the past.

 The last point here is that in the past, there were different aspects of the truth, and this does not negate reaching a part of the truth. There are as many authors as there are readers of each text; from the very beginning, a dialogue begins between the reader, the text, the past / sources, and the producer (author). In the spread of pluralism, many readers inevitably become the authors of the text. When looking at historical books that are written very clearly, it is possible to deduce different things from what the author wanted to say. Therefore, it can be said that these types of historical-literary texts are reader-centered in understanding the text.

Alternate history and time

Alternative history seems a bit ambiguous and frightening to historians at first glance. Especially for more conservative historians like Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886), the creator of Modern History in the nineteenth century, who firmly believe that the usual traditions of history should remain intact and their preservation is mandatory. Perhaps the existence of various titles used for referring to this specific type of history (Alternative History) is itself a proof of this claim. The appearance of the definition is very simple. Schmunk, director of and one of the most active writers in the field, defines alternative history as follows: any story in which one or more past events occur in different ways and orders differing from the actual chronological order, which may be called alternative history (Schmunk 1991-2021). He emphasizes that the event in general must have happened in the past. Rosenfield, on the other hand, considers the field of alternative history to be broader and places the stories of the future and the history of mysteries within the scope of alternative history. (Šimon 2016: 10) What is clear is that the creator of the work of alternative history, consciously considers a certain point in time in the past and then changes its occurrence to a historical event and then separates the flow of events from the chronological time of the original event, and enters it into fictionalized or imaginary times. However, entering the field is challenging.

Schenkel considers alternative history as one of the genres of literature in which fictional and imaginative considerations are used to present a historical process that has deviated from the known mainstream and found a different direction. (Schenkel 2012: ii)

In fact, this style of interweaving, the fictionalized narratives with actuality in the midst of an inter-textualized text forming a possible world is acceptable and probable, according to the practice of alternative historians. This makes it possible for them to analyze the multitude possible outcomes that were factualized in actuality. Possible outcomes of events that are no longer probable within our current reality, could allegedly answer the various What if?’s in a number of historical events that have been actually narrated differently with a set outcome. Thus, opening up many other doors to a plentitude of new interpretations, alternative history can be more therapeutic than re-narrating actual historical events, in healing generational, historical trauma. It also has other functions such as enhancing social imagination: in this case, the reader is required to be a constant traveler between the alternative fictional and actual narratives… within the possible world.

In general, it can be said that an alternative history work consists of three main factors:

1. Important and well-known events in history, the effects of which are evident on various aspects of society.

2. Production of hypothetical and imaginative narrative of conscious changes in the mentioned event.

3. Analyzing and generalizing possible changes and following the events after the new event in hypothetical times and then to the present and to imaginary futures.

Other historians (traditionalists, Modernists and representatives of the Annales school), compared to the postmodern historians, do not believe in a major turning point in alternative history. In this way, the field of alternative history will be much wider in their view. In fact, in this perspective, parallel histories, mystery histories, personal or micro histories, fictional stories of parallel worlds or time travel, and even historical novels are generally placed in the realm of alternative history. Because, for example, in a historical novel, some things may be raised and as a result a scene from history may be constructed that does not exist in real history at all. In this way, not only the recorded parts of history have the opportunity to be presented in the form of alternative history, but also some unborn parts of the past, with this strategy, will have the chance to appear in the hypothetical history.


Here one of the basic characteristics in the production of this historical genre which is closer to fictionality is the multiplicity of time, timelessness or hypothetical time. In this case, this type of time discourses at the same time as the original, it leaves the shell of historical facts and enters the imagination and out-of-time generalization. At the same time, it takes the reader to times freed from the meaning of tense. Indeed, the discourse influence of Collingwood, Wittgenstein and other theorists in the realm of time, especially in the field of deconstructionism, led to the emergence of literary-historical texts in which the writer's imagination side by side with the reader’s mind in combination both travel time beyond the real world, and find the opportunity for dialogue in Wittgenstein’s text. The text acts as a base for the two mentalities and perceptions to interact.

Also, hypothetical, parallel, inverse, contradictory and imaginary time are the times in which historical story have been able to create narratives in the form of imagination, thus challenging the gaps of real narratives. Last, such an endless view of the historical-fictional narration entering the social historical trauma and the subsequent influence of historical novels and narrations in any form, has taken a step in the direction of historiography.


1. Alternative history is also known by other terms such as: alternate history, almost history, What if, counterfactual history, unconventional history and uchronia.


Collingwood, R. G. 1994. The Idea of History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lemisko, L. S. 2004. The Historical Imagination: Collingwood in the Classroom. // Canadian Social Studies, 38/2.

Munslow, A. 2006. The Routledge Companion to Historical Studies. London: Routledge. 

Schenkel, G. 2012. Alternate History - Alternate Memory: Counterfactual Literature in the Context of German Normalization. Ph.D. Dissertation. Faculty of Graduate Studies. The University of British Colombia, Vancouver.

Schmunk, R. B. 1991-2021. What is Alternate History? Introduction. Visited 30 November 2021. Available at:

Šimon, D. 2016. Alternate History Novels: Comparison of Harris’s Fatherland and Dick’s The Man in a High Castle. A Bachelor Thesis of Faculty of Education Charles University, Prague.

Stanford, M. 1994. A Companion to the Study of History. Oxford: Blackwell.

Wittgenstein, L. 2007. The Blue and Brown Book: Preliminary Studies for the “Philosophical Investigations”. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell (first published in 1958).

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