Historian's Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought / Edition 1

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"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.

"...If one laughs when David Hacket Fischer sits down to play, one will stay to cheer."--New York Times Book Review

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Editorial Reviews

New York Times Book Review
An important book...in terms of helping an entire generation of scholars who profess to have lost confidence in being historians.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061315459
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 6/1/1970
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 629,330
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.82 (d)

Meet the Author

David Hackett Fischer
David Hackett Fischer
A professor at Brandeis University, David Hackett Fischer is the author of several noted works that illuminate pivotal moments in American history, including Paul Revere's Ride and the 2004 National Book Award finalist Washington's Crossing.


A professor at Brandeis University, David Hackett Fischer is the author of several noted books on history, including Bound Away: Virginia and the Westward Movement, The Great Wave: Price Movements in Modern History, Paul Revere's Ride, and Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America. He is co-editor, with James M. McPherson, of the Pivotal Moments in American History series published by Oxford University Press. A graduate of Princeton and Johns Hopkins Universities, he divides his time between homes in Massachusetts and Maine.

Author biography courtesy of Oxford University Press.

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    1. Hometown:
      Wayland, Massachusetts
    1. Date of Birth:
      December 2, 1935
    2. Place of Birth:
      Baltimore, Maryland
    1. Education:
      A.B., Princeton University, 1958; Ph.D., Johns Hopkins University, 1962

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Falicies of Qustion-Framing

Are 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 wanderaimlessly through dark corridors of learning. Without questions of the right sort, his empirical projects are consigned to failure before they are fairly begun.

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 analysis of 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 which are 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...

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 30, 2009

    You would think that this would be interesting, but its lousy!

    This book is absolutely horrible. Fischer is so random in his thoughts that it doesnt even appear that he knows what he is talking about. We use this book in my grad class, and in our weekly discussion reviews not one person can reach a conclusion on the authors contradicting points. This book is not very well liked by anyone in the History course.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 11, 2005

    Let's Hear it for Truth

    Of David¿s far-flung corpus, including his Pulitzer Prize- winning Washington¿s Crossing, Historians¿ Fallacies particularly interests me. I¿m surprised that he has not been hounded out of the profession, because in it he demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that so many of the most prominent historians have committed such gross fallacies of logic. But then again, in history as in law, rhetoric often prevails over reason. I wish only that David had included the Presumption of Heterosexuality among his fallacies. Even if a person is not married, biographers routinely presume exclusive heterosexuality, though aware of the famous examples of Oscar Wilde and Julius Caesar ¿ fathers both. It is as logically impossible to prove beyond reasonable doubt that George Washington ever had sex with a woman as it is to prove that Abraham Lincoln ever had sex with a man. Both of those presidents seem to have been ¿indictable¿ cases, i.e., meriting further investigation. In law, cases are closed. Not so in history. The jury is still out and a verdict not soon forthcoming.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 19, 2009

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    Posted April 15, 2012

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    Posted August 25, 2009

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