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Historian's Fallacieby David Hackett Fischer
Synopses & Reviews
Chapter OneFalicies of Qustion-FramingAre we to be disgusted with science because it has not fulfilled our hopes or redeemed its promises? And are we, for this reason, to announce the "bankruptcy" of science, as is so often and so flippantly done? But this is rash and foolish; for we can hardly blame science just because we have not asked the right questions.-- Ernst Cassirer
Scissors-and-paste historians study periods; they collect all the extant testimony about a certain limited group of events, and hope in vain that something will come of it. Scientific historians study problems: they ask questions, and if they are good historians they ask questions which they see their way to answering.-- R. G. Collingwood
A moment's reflection should suffice to establish the simple proposition that every historian, willy-nilly, must begin his research with a question. Questions are the engines of intellect, the cerebral machines which convert energy to motion, and curiosity to controlled inquiry. There can be no thinking without questioning-no purposeful study of the past, nor any serious planning for the future. Moreover, there can be no questioning in a sophisticated sense without hypothesizing, and no systematic testing of hypotheses without the construction of hypothetical models which can be put to the test.
Often, this intricate process is partly hidden from a historian, as well as from his readers. Occasionally it is entirely invisible. But always it exists. Without questions of some sort, a historian is condemned to wander aimlessly through dark corridors of learning. Without questions of the right sort, his empirical projects are consigned to failure before they are fairlybegun.
Specific forms of question-framing depend in a considerable degree upon the kinds of answers which are sought. There are, of course, wide variations in common practice. But there are also a few common denominators of question-framing. These elemental aspects of questioning are common to all historical inquiry, and indeed to empirical investigation in every field. They are the business of this chapter.'
It should be self-evident that some questions will yield empirical answers and others will not. How does one distinguish the latter from the former? This chapter will proceed first to an examination of ten fallacies of empirical question-framing which have actually-and oftenoccurred in historical scholarship. Ten more could easily be added. But the following fallacies account for most of the erroneous questions I have found. After a survey of these various forms of error, the chapter will end with an attempt to articulate a few affirmative axioms.
" The Baconian fallacy" consists in the idea that a historian can operate without the aid of preconceived questions, hypotheses, ideas, assumptions, theories, paradigms, postulates, prejudices, presumptions, or general presuppositions of any kind. He is supposed to go a-wandering in the dark forest of the past, gathering facts like nuts and berries, until he has enough to make a general truth. Then he is to store up his general truths until he has the whole truth. This idea is doubly deficient, for it commits a historian to the pursuit of an impossible object by an impracticable method.
1. Nothing in this chapter is unique to historical inquiry. The reader will find close parallels between practices discussed here and an analysisof question-framing in survey research. Compare Stanley L. Payne, "The Art of Asking Questions" (Princeton, 1951). 2. This form of error takes its name from Francis Bacon's articulation of a method which "derives its axioms from the senses and particulates, rising by a gradual and unbroken ascent, so that it arrives at the most general axioms last of all" (Novum Organon, bk. 1, xix). It should be noted that this is unfair to Bacon, and inaccurate as an understanding of his thought. Bacon's larger work, of which the Novum Organon is but a part, did not defend an induction as simple-minded as this, but rather a more complex method of interdependent inquiry and research. Bacon was no more a Baconian than Marx was a Marxian, or Plato a Platonist. See Benjamin Farrington, "Francis Bacon: Philosopher of Industrial Science ("New York, 1949), chap. 6; and F. H. Anderson, "The Philosophy of Francis Bacon" (Chicago, 1948), p. 292, passim; and F. Smith Fussner, The Historical Revolution (New York, 1962), chap. 10.Though the name is objectionable in this respect, I have adopted it because it is standard, on H. W. B. Joseph's assumption that "If it is useful to have a nomenclature of fallacies, it is useful to have a standard nomenclature." (An Introduction to Logic London, 1906 , p. 533.)
The impracticable method is a simple induction from the particular to the general. It cannot work, because there is an infinity of particulars in the past. Their truth value is an objective entity that exists independently of an inquirer. But their particularity is separately defined by each inquiry. If a fact is a true statement about past events, then there is no practicable limit to the number of facts whichare relevant to even the smallest historical problem. "Truths are as plentiful as falsehoods," writes a distinguished logician, "since each falsehood admits of a negation which is true. Scientific activity is not the indiscriminate amassing of truths; science is selective and seeks the truths that count most."'
The impossible object is a quest for the whole truth — a quest which characteristically takes one of three forms, Occasionally, it consists in an attempt to know everything about everything. Sometimes it seeks to learn something about everything. Most often it is a search for everything about something. None of these purposes is remotely realizable. A historian can only hope to know something about something.
The most common everything-about-something school imagines that historical science might be constructed on the same architectural principles as the Pyramid of Khufu, with monographs stacked upon thick square monographs in one vast granite pile, the whole massy structure to be crowned some day with the gilded figure of a historiographical Newton...
"If one laughs when David Hackett Fischer sits down to play, one will stay to cheer. His book must be read three times: the first in anger, the srcond in laughter, the third in respect....The wisdom is expressed with a certin ruthlessness. Scarcly a major historian escapes unscathed. Ten thousand members of the AmericanHistorical Association will rush to the index and breathe a little easier to find their names absent.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
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