Simple Regrets: Counterfactuals and the Dialogic Mind

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Counterfactuals, or unrealized scenarios, have been a focus of research in an array of disciplines, though their rhetorical implications have gone largely unexplored. This interdisciplinary study uses a cognitive methodology in taking a fresh look at counterfactual scenarios in discourse. The study argues that when counterfactual scenarios are introduced into discourse and paired with an evaluative stance, the result is a creative and persuasive scenario that allows a speaker to communicate a perspective that a listener may reinforce, revise, or reject. Counterfactuals thus have the ability to convey an evaluation, to convey emotion, to provide a window for disagreement, or to foster solidarity. In literature, counterfactual scenarios additionally serve as an embedded element of discourse that may convey the perspective of characters and/or the implied author. The reader juggles the counterfactual scenarios, and the perspectives they convey, with other textual elements to grasp the meaning of the story.

This study furthers previous research on counterfactuality by considering the phenomenon from a cognitive rhetorical perspective. Rather than focusing on counterfactual thinking, as psychologists have done, or on linguistic forms, as linguists have done, this study considers both the cognitive and discursive dimensions of counterfactuals in a fully integrated analysis. Furthermore, this study places counterfactuals within a communicative paradigm that considers the role of both speaker and listener, or author and reader, in developing and interpreting counterfactual scenarios. This study thus demonstrates the largely unrecognized rhetorical dimensions of counterfactual scenarios in both ordinary and literary discourse.