Monday, September 3, 2012

Book Review: Historians' Fallacies

Historians' Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical ThoughtHistorians' Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought by David Hackett Fischer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of the most interesting books I've read. A must read, even for non-historians. Each time I (a scientist, not a historian) read Historians' Fallacies I'm reminded of ways I can think more clearly and research more rigorously.

Plus, Fischer takes what might have been a painfully dry, aggravatingly boring subject and with great examples and ample wit makes it both instructive and entertaining.

Despite some of the remarks in comments on respecting Fischer's supposed brutality toward his fellow historians, I find his generosity and willingness to acknowledge their important contributions most refreshing. A couple of quotations representing Fischer's generosity should suffice:

". . . [M]any a bad argument has been used in a good cause. It would be a very profound and pedantical mistake to presume that any of the fallacies in this book, if they appear in a historical interpretation, are prima-facie evidence that the interpretation is false in all respects, and utterly useless." (pg. 283)

"All examples of fallacies in this book are drawn from the work of competent historians. Some are drawn from the work of great historians. None, to my knowledge, were deliberately concocted to deceive a reader." (pg. 306)

To which we might add his comment from pg. 63, "The factual errors which academic historians make today [c. 1970] are rarely deliberate. The real danger is not that a scholar will delude his readers, but that he will delude himself," causing his interpretations, and his work, to suffer.

In today's ever more polarized world, wouldn't it be nice if critics, historians, politicians, and so forth could discern between bathwater and baby, as Fischer has, and exercise the wisdom (and humility) to throw out the one while retaining the other.