Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Historians' Fallacies

For the next few weeks, we will be working through Historians' Fallacies. Fischer talks about the use of good logic in historical reasoning. What are some of the examples he gives of fallacious historical reasoning? Can you make any connections between what Fischer argues and Carr's comments on the nature of history? Post your chapter summaries and responses to this week's discussion questions by clicking on the comment button. You will also be able to reply to the various postings by the teams here too.


At 1:13 PM, Blogger Donnie said...

Historian's Fallacies...Ch.3
The main job of an historian is to make historical selection, meaning it is the historian's task to decide what is significant. As a result historians create history. However, in doing so, historians have created many errors.
In brief, historians commit the holist fallacy by attempting to reconstruct the whole truth, which as Fisher states is impossible. Closely related to the holist fallacy, is the fallacy of essences, in which the historian attempts to discover the "inner core" or "inner essence" of something. It is the duty of the historian to find the path of events which are most relevent to his problem, rather than an attempt to find the pattern that is the essence the past and the present.
In attempting to choose significant historical events, historians make the mistake of choosing only miraculous and astonishing events, despite its lack of relevance to the present. Closely related to historians efforts to explain the incredible is their attempts to discover the secrets of history. It is false to believe that significant history took place behind closed doors. It is not the job of a historian to be a conspiracy theorists.
Fischer states that many of these errors occur because historians tend to select facts to support a social cause. Historians should not start a research with an answer before he has the cause. By doing so, the historian suggests that the facts he left out may undermine his theory.
Just as an historian may focus on the miraculous events because they are more appealing, he may also make the mistake of focusing a story because of its aesthetic value rather than its historical significance. History should not become a story of virtue, in which the hero is triumphant and the villian gets what he deserves.
Historians tend to make the mistake of thinking that just because something carries a greater quantitative value that it is more significant. On the other hand, it would also be incorrect to believe that something is more significant because it is of lesser quantitative value. Despite an events measurable value, it should be given attention.
Historians tend to choose significant facts at times to justify their hypothesis, rather than for the sake of the facts themselves. In doing so, historians may tamper with the relevance of an event, therefore demeaning history.
Carr and Fischer would both agree that it is impossible for a historian to remove himself from his biases when writing. Fischer states that the only way to demean ones biases is to make them apparent to the reader. One main difference between Carr and Fischer results on the issue of the "why" question. Carr believes that the question of "why" is the most important thing a historian can attempt to answer. Fischer believes that a historian should focus more on who, what, when, and how. In doing so, the "why" question would answer itself. Fischer leans slightly more towards the historian as the compiler of facts, where as Carr tends to lean a little more towards historians as compilers of answers.

At 1:35 PM, Blogger Donnie said...

I really enjoyed the previous class discussion over Carr's book. Very good arguments were raised by everyone in the class. I thought Colin, Donna, and Joey did a great job with their handouts over their assigned sections of the readings. I almost feel as if due to everyone's well placed arguments, I leave class everyday somewhat more confused about an historians purpose. I am however confident that my confusion will be followed by understanding.

At 4:47 PM, Blogger Ansley said...

Donnie: I did not notice the difference in Carr's and Fischer's job description, if you will, of a historian. I think you hit the nail on the head, though, with your assessment that Carr is more the compiler of answers and Fischer is more the compiler of facts. Fischer almost seems hesitant with answers, as he clearly tends to find much error in many reputable histories.
I also can relate to the previous post about the discussion of Carr's book. Immediately following and while reading Carr's series of lectures, I found myself feeling more attuned to what my purpose is as a historian. Carr's book I'm glad I read because it was informative and thought-provoking. However, after leaving the class discussion and hearing the many, various interpretations resulting from a classroom of only nine brilliant individuals, I wondered if I had not stumbled into more confusion and darkness as to the art/science of history than I had known before reading Carr. Hopefully, new lessons will in time clarify themselves and each student in Historical Methods will have a new and better understanding of historiography. According to a Fischer philosophy, perhaps the whos, whats, whens, wheres, and hows will be answered for us; in time, the whys will be as well. Maybe a complete understanding of purpose is attainable whether a complete understanding of history is or not.
The following are my notes regarding Fischer's Chapter III: Fallacies of Factual Significance. Any information that is not in parentheses is from Fischer's text, so I'm not bothering with quotation marks.
The first fallacy is the holist fallacy, which is the mistaken idea that a historian should select significant details from a sense of the whole thing. This method would prevent a historian from knowing anything until he knows everything, which is of course impossible. An example to illustrate this from Bertrand Russell's The Philosophy of History: "Thus there can be only one true statement; there is no truth except the whole truth." Fischer adds that a historian who swears to tell nothing but the whole truth, would thereby take a vow of eternal silence. Fischer goes on to find another error in such a presumption that one can exhibit a "miniature" or replica of a particular age. Fischer denies the possibility of doing such because if the whole of an age, or any such part of history can never be known, it can likewise never be exhibited in miniature.
The second fallacy of history is the fallacy of essences, which entails an almost ancient idea that everything has something deep inside it called an essence, some profound inner core of reality--in which facts are significant in the degree to which they display the essence of the entity in question. To Fischer, this fallacy is related to the holist fallacy because to know of the essence of a thing implies knowledge of the whole thing--impossible! A second form of the essence fallacy is the antiquantitative fallacy, which Fischer elaborates on in more detail later.
The third fallacy is the prodigious fallacy, which mistakes sensation for significance. Fischer says that it's an erroneous idea that historians have to describe portents and prodigies, and marvelous, stupendous, fantastic, extraordinary, wonderful, superlative, astonishing, and monstrous (We get the point, Fischer!) events as more historic by way of how many of these adjectives can be used to describe it. The more astonishing, for example, the more historic. Fischer attributes a perpetual tension between that which was true and that which was wonderful as being the cause of this fallacy among historians.
The fourth fallacy is the furtive fallacy, which is the erroneous idea that facts of special significance are dark and dirty things and that history itself is a story of causes mostly insidious and results mostly invidious (1. tending to rouse ill will of envy, 2. containing or implying a slight) (To me, the third and fourth fallacies can be associated with a soap opera-like view of historical happenings. Someone addicted to soaps might be inclined to focus more on history that reminds them of soaps and might even invent much of history as well.) Fischer gives as an example the prominent historian Charles Beard, author of the most famous monograph in American history, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution.
Fischer's fifth fallacy is the moralistic fallacy, which selects edifying facts and makes the past into a field in which one exercises their moral and political opinions. This fallacy is inconsistent with a serious and disciplined empirical inquiry into what actually happened. Fischer goes on to give five separate examples of previously-decided-upon criteria for distinguishing acceptable moral judgements from unacceptable moralizing. Then, the ever-reflecting Fischer eliminates all criteria but one, which is: Acceptable moral judgements are functional, or neutral, to empirical inquiry; unacceptable moralizing is dysfunctional. (Now I'm 101% confused because this criteria seems as mind-boggling and circular as the other four.) Fischer then asserts that every historican possesses a complex structure of value assumptions, which he cannot adjust to his empirical projects and cannot keep out of his work. (TRUE!) But he can adjust his project to his values in such a fashion as to neutralize or to control his moral preferences. The first step in that process would be to make his values as fully explicit, to himself and others, as possible. The second step would be to design a research problem in which his values allow an open end. (In other words, if a historian is walking a dog in this field in which moral and political opinions lie, then a good historian--one who does not commit this fallacy--exercises their dog without a leash.)
The sixth fallacy is the pragmatic fallacy, which is when a historian selects useful facts--immediately and directly useful facts--in the service of a social cause. Fischer discusses Lynd as an example of this fallacy; F. also points out that to have a class revolution (as Lynd would suggest), one must have class conflict--a struggle which Fischer doesn't support.
7. The aesthetic fallacy selects beautiful facts, or facts that can be built into a beautiful story, rather than facts that are functional to the empirical problem at hand. Virginia Woolf eloquently elaborates on this principle: "truth of fact and truth of fiction are incompatible." Fischer's fallacy #7 is best summed up by considering the difference in telling what actually happened and telling a beautiful story.
8. The quantitative fallacy is the idea that the facts which count best count most--a criterion of significance which assumes that facts are important in proportion to their susceptibility to quantification. There are many significant things in the world today that nobody knows how to measure. Many ideational and emotional problems, which lie at the heart of historical problems, cannot be understood in quantitative terms. The purpose of historical inquiry is not to vindicate a method but to discover what actually happened. Every efficient means to this end is legitimate, but none alone can be erected into a standard of legitimacy. Fischer points out that Miller cannot meet a standard (of finding a so-called method of substantive significance) by entering a complaint against somebody else's method. (This statement of Fischer's leads me to my point that if Miller can't do so, neither can Fischer. Fischer seems never to include his own self as part of his study.)
If a historian believes that things which count best count most, their conclusions are both inaccurate and a little superficial. For example, property can be counted, but inherited status is more difficult to manage in quantitative terms.
The ninth fallacy (the antinomian fallacy) is a denouncement of #8, the quantitative fallacy. The antinomian fallacy is the erroneous idea that facts which count best, count least. Fischer gives two prominent historians, Carl Bridenbaugh and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. as axamples of this fallacy. However, he states that antinomian fallacy is most apparent among conservative and metaphysical historians because they generally are inclined to assume that regularities do not exist in history or that they do not exist significantly. If all historical events were unique, then they would be alike in their uniqueness, and therefore in that respect they would not be unique. Fischer later points out that the two ideas of similarity and difference must coexist, if they are to exist at all. Daniel Boorstin says: "Of course the unique cannot be seen as unique except by reference to a universal, yet there are important practical differences of emphasis. (This is the fallacy upon which I disagree most with Fischer. I see each historian as unique, whether the history is or not. No two histories will be alike, simply b/c no two historians (individuals) are. And regarding Fischer's basis for uniqueness, I disagree as well. Must uniqueness be compared to commonplace in order for it to be confirmed as being unique? Among historical happenings--perhaps. But among historical figures, I think not. What do the rest of you think on this issue?)
The tenth fallacy is the fortuitous fallacy, which is committed by any scholar who abdicates his arduous responsibility of rational selection and allows the task to be performed for him by time and accident. Such a method guarantees falsehood and gross distorition and prevents the author from knowing how false and distorted his interpretation actually is. Fischer accuses Lytton Strachey of this fallacy--of idly falling upon one fascinating fact after another without method or control.
After reading these ten common fallacies (of course there are many more, Fischer warns), Fischer offers some rules of thumb for determining criteria of factual significance. These criteria must be formed from the nature of the subject itself and from the purpose for which it is studied, rather than from procedures and techniques. Second, they must be empirical, unlike the pragmatic and moralistic and aesthetic fallacies. Third, they must be capable of fulfillment, unlike the holist and essential fallacies. Fourth, they must be made explicitly, for the only alternative to overt criteria of significance are covert commitments, which are not merely inappropriate but actually falsifying in their function. Finally, criteria of significance must not violate what philosophers call the principle of nonvacuous contrast; for example (and in English), "short" is meaningless unless some things are tall. It rules out such criteria as uniqueness and many others which historians have been industriously applying. A true standard of factual significance is one which is generated by a sound model of historical explanation.
As for more analysis and further questions regarding this chapter, I do have a few comments. When Fischer comes to campus on the 29th, I'd at this point be lost as to what to ask him or point out to him concerning his book. Maybe it's the initial chapters of it (only the first three) or maybe not, but his book is nowhere near as readable to me as Carr's. Sometimes, I felt that Fischer was getting in over even his own head--making pointles, fruitless statements about issues that seemed irrelevant for the most part--issues that seemed lesser compared to issues of greater significance. For example, Fischer is eliminating many approaches to historiography. Of course people aren't forced to heed his warnings, but Fischer offers them as if we are. My question would be: What about variety being the spice of life? My fear would be the thought that Fischer would critique me. He'd find many faults that others might not even mind or in fact might appreciate. Nonetheless, complaints about Fischer's philosophies aside, I can see his point--although my attempts to express it to someone might be vague and somewhat incoherent--though hopefully not as incoherent as his attempts were to me. Fischer also should point out that all fallacies in historical writing thus far are necessary, are they not? Just as one learns from mistakes and experiences, so does a historiographer. Fischer would have no book without others' mistakes. He's in truth indebted to the historians' fallacies he criticizes.

At 4:52 PM, Blogger Ansley said...

P.S. Kathleen, I wish to say thank you again for the information on Bede. I very much appreciate it.

At 10:34 PM, Blogger Kathleen said...

You are very welcome Ansley.

At 10:54 PM, Blogger Kathleen said...

This is a reprint. I believe I posted my afterclass blog in the wrong place. I enjoyed our lively discussion on Carr. It is the most intelligent and well read class I have ever been in. I was not although impressed with Carr's total denial of feminine accomplishment. As I read his book I kept waiting for him to acknowledge that we even existed..but he never did...not once in the entire book. I do plan to use his book to improve my own methods of research and interpretation of historical texts.

At 11:11 PM, Blogger Dr. Deborah Vess said...

I am curious about what you thought of Fishcer's list of historians' fallacies. Did you find him convincing? Did you note any evidence of bias in his own reading of some of these examples? WHat of teh actual fallacies he lists? Do you think they are as common as he implies? If so, what might this suggest about history adn its approach to the past? If Fischer thinks these methods or reasoning patterns invalid, then what new methods is he presenting, substituting, or suggesting?

At 11:54 PM, Blogger Ansley said...

I noticed the same thing, Kathleen. Carr and Fischer are similar in that way. Makes one wonder if the word "she" is in their vocabs or not.
Dr. Vess, I think Fischer's fallacies turned out to be more detailed and numerous than I thought they'd be. Maybe I was expecting something a little more cut and dry. They also seem more difficult to recognize in another historian's (or my own, for that matter) writing. I cannot say I'm not convinced by Fischer, but there were times when I wondered what exactly he was after in his attempts to inform or persuade. I mean by that that he's hard to follow at times for me.
I noted no bias whatsoever. Fischer seems to find fault with any historian, no matter the type of history or standpoint of the historian. The fallacies he lists are understandably that--a fallacy. However, many of them are difficult to detect, it would seem, unless much time has passed after the historian initially wrote the words. (Fischer mentions this very thing somewhere in the 2nd chapter, I believe.) Also, some of the fallacies I thought were much more significant and important than some others. I think that Fischer is right that fallacies are more and more commonly committed. My thoughts of the reason for that are it's either due to an increasing number of historians, or if not, an increasing number of bad historians in our field regardless of the total number. Perhaps a vanguard of fallacious historians would only make the past seem more distant and unattainable in this particular stage of our progressing discipline. However, there are good histories to read and learn from just as there is timeless literature and music amid all the artless attempts out there. I think Fischer is suggesting an improvement in the study of history, and I think he wrote this book with that aim in mind. He suggests a more careful, guided approach that his book will most certainly assist in. However, he should be more open to some form of praise every once in a while (b/c he seemed to be criticizing some VERY good historians or at least those who are generally regarded as such); perhaps he should bring up the necessity of coherence as well. That's the biggest fault I found with his writing. Or maybe I should say that he should add more variety of language, syntax, or something; b/c at times the reading was dull and seemed repetitive in parts.

At 2:26 PM, Blogger Joey said...

Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought
David Hackett Fischer

In chapter one, Fischer discusses eleven fallacies used by historians over the recent past when framing questions for research. As we all know, the questioning of the past is one of the primary objectives of historians. We have already learned that we must approach the past with a question and then seek to answer that question through scholarly research. The task of the historian, I feel, is to first ask the right question. But what type of question can be considered the right question? We have all been taught in our lower education classes (middle school and up-whenever we started to write papers) the basic way to form a hypothesis. Many of us, however, have been taught different ways to frame those questions we are seeking to answer. For example, my first college advisor taught me that ‘why’ was the most important question that a historian should be concerned with. Nothing is as important to history as why something happened. Carr would agree with my advisor but Fischer would not. Fischer feels that why is a tricky question that, if not researched carefully, could lead the investigative historian into the realm of what he calls the metaphysical (the fictional or counterfactual history that we are suppose to ignore). I disagree with Fischer because I believe, in order to link the past with the present, it is important for historians to know why an event occurred. Also, Fischer did not provide me with enough information to show how another question may receive more attention than the why. But, as I mentioned, there is no standard for question framing. We all approach history with our own system.
Many of Fischer’s fallacies overlap and could be reduced in number. Even though he claims he could have listed more, I feel that he could have chosen some that were not so similar in nature. While I will not take you through the plethora of information given in the text, I will mention some of the fallacies used by historians. First, some historians feel that they must simply gather information rather than ask a question. Some historians ask questions that require other questions in order to reach a concise answer. Many historians deal with fictional questions that are part of the “might have” history.
In order to avoid these fallacies, Fischer states that the historian’s question should be operational, open-ended, flexible, analytical, explicit, precise, and tested. What is important to note is that no question should be randomly framed. The investigator must be careful to poise a question that can be answered with the source material available and in such a fashion that their answer remains in the realm of the past and not in the realm of fantasy.

At 1:10 PM, Blogger Joey said...

I'm not sure if this is the right place to be posting my response to last night (I'm sure we'll get the kinks out of blogging soon). Last night I began to see a real exchange of ideas between all of us. I wanted to mention this last night but I didn't want to break the flow of thought that I felt we were really pushing. I talked with Dr. Caldwell today and she mentioned a very vital point for us all to remember. We are in a transition period from one area of history into another. We have left our undergraduate courses, which were filled with concrete information, events, and forms. Now, in our first year as graduate students, we are moving into the more abstract of our discipline and questioning what is history. And, more importantly I feel, we are questioning what it means for us to be historians. I think this is where the confusion lies. Carr and Fischer are both historians. Granted they have some luxury of popularity (popular enough to challenge the discipline they practice), but they are at heart historians. The theses they present are not concrete styles for us to follow. Rather they illustrate the many different schools of thought concerning history. Each historian does an excellent job of covering the many schools. Each also tells us his own viewpoint of a professional historian. I think as we finish Fischer, we should strive to reflect what his ideas mean to us. What is the perfect question? What is the best way to frame that question? What is the best source? Right now I think we are struggling to answer those questions because we do not have enough experience as historians to gauge the best way to approach history (we have been led by past historians). I can only imagine that next weeks class will be more enlightening than last nights.

At 2:11 PM, Blogger Dr. Deborah Vess said...

Donnie, confusion is not necessarily a bad thing. In professional circles we call that cognitive dissonance. Confusion often prompts you to search further for a resolution to those things that appear contradictory. As Joey said, it is important to remember that your graduate courses are fundamentally different from undergrad courses. You are asked to do an entirely different kind of work and to be far more analytical. It is hard to move in that direction without some background in the various schools of thought on the nature of history. Carr presents one school;Fischer presents a number of points about the historical reasoning process, and as we move on, we'll be exposed to other historians and their particular beliefs about the nature of history. You may not agree wtih all, and cannot, as some are mutually incompatible. However, I do believe Fischer exposes a number of fallacious patterns of reasoning in which historians might engage, and these are things we all need to be careful of in our own work.

It is nice to see everyone attempting to process their thoughts on the blog. Keep it up. The more you write the deeper may be your understanding of a particular topic.

At 2:11 PM, Blogger Dr. Deborah Vess said...

Donnie, confusion is not necessarily a bad thing. In professional circles we call that cognitive dissonance. Confusion often prompts you to search further for a resolution to those things that appear contradictory. As Joey said, it is important to remember that your graduate courses are fundamentally different from undergrad courses. You are asked to do an entirely different kind of work and to be far more analytical. It is hard to move in that direction without some background in the various schools of thought on the nature of history. Carr presents one school;Fischer presents a number of points about the historical reasoning process, and as we move on, we'll be exposed to other historians and their particular beliefs about the nature of history. You may not agree wtih all, and cannot, as some are mutually incompatible. However, I do believe Fischer exposes a number of fallacious patterns of reasoning in which historians might engage, and these are things we all need to be careful of in our own work.

It is nice to see everyone attempting to process their thoughts on the blog. Keep it up. The more you write the deeper may be your understanding of a particular topic.

At 8:00 PM, Blogger colin said...

With these last two books, we have seen two different ideas about what is historical 'truth', and how the historian goes about finding it. I think that the debate can be seperated between two groups. One might call one side positivists and the opposite side phenomenalists. The positivst believes some things are knowable and we can verify them emperically. The phenomenalist argues that all we can know is what we gather through our own sense experience, and even then what we know is only meaningful to us. In order for the discipline of history to continue and thrive, we must fall somewhere in the middle. My favorite historian N.T. Wright describes this position as critical realism. The important concept here is that knowledge, though dealing with realities outside of the knower, is never independent of the knower. When investigating past events, people, etc. we must keep several things in mind. First, we all see things through our own point of view. And second, our point of view is influenced with culture, stories, etc.
In my opinion what we must do is approach history from the bottom up approach. Begin our research with what we can emperically verify and work from there. I think the Fischer book will be helpful in keeping us on track in that regard. Though his text was shocking to some, I felt that it simplified the discipline of history. That does not mean it was made irrelevent or trite. Completely the contrary. Now that the epistemology of history is somewhat clarified, we can begin to discuss history with a better understanding of the terms.

At 10:40 PM, Blogger Ansley said...

Dr. Vess,
I think we as readers of Carr’s and Fischer’s books can make numerous connections between the two books regarding the nature of history:
(First of all, I think Carr’s book should be a prerequisite for Fischer’s book and appreciate your assigning Carr’s first.) Concerning connections, Carr writes of the importance of the historian and his/her facts and the interpretations of those facts. Fischer takes that one step further by expounding on the importance of TRULY analytical interpretations. Both historians think that a semblance of actual truth is findable in historical research, but Fischer wavers more in this respect because he finds so much room for mistake. In truth Fischer might be the most cynical historian I’ve ever read. It’s a wonder he gets any sleep. Fischer must be given credit, however, because he offers step-by-step approaches that concern FALLACIES to avoid while carrying out historical research and historiography. In other words, Carr explains the process; Fischer explains the roadblocks to be sure and avoid during the process. Carr explains for us the importance of the connection between society and the individual. Fischer takes a different approach, as he seems to advocate a less obvious societal involvement in the historiography approach; Fischer seems to find it easier to remove oneself from one’s society. Carr completely ignores such a notion, as he promotes an advanced understanding of one’s past by the circumstances existing in one’s present—at least it seems this way to me. On this matter, I agree more so with Carr. Carr apparently believes that historical research can be both artistic and scientific in approach. Conversely, Fischer maintains a rigid bias for history being neither. He mentions the scientific approach more often, but I gather that he considers history independent of both those approaches. In other words, history has its own approach that must be adhered to in order to avoid fallacies. Concerning causation, Carr gives an excellent foundation for this ever-so-important aspect of history. Going past the rudimentary phase, Fischer lists many errors to avoid when historically considering cause. Joey, I agree with you that the most apparent difference in their books is Carr’s support of asking “Why?” and Fischer’s advice to ask all but “why?”

At 11:09 PM, Blogger Ansley said...

Colin, your post is so interesting. Would Carr then be more of a positivist than Fischer and Fischer more the phenomenalist? Or since they’re so successful, do they both practice critical realism? I also think that historians must work with and interact with the knowledge that they choose to investigate and analyze. And the more we stay with it, the more that knowledge begins to come alive to us—to become something more than another scholar’s interpretation, a set of statistics, or a government document that’s covered in dust. Fischer’s text is pragmatic and extremely detailed. I know it’s a most useful source to have for a good methodology to result. After reading Carr, I felt that I’d taken a giant leap forward in the study of and understanding of a historian’s craft. As Joey mentions being in the transition period, reading Carr seemed a substantial step in the process. Fischer recently won the Pulitzer Prize if I’m not mistaken. Therefore, there must be useful and essential methods to be learned from him. As mind-boggling as his approach to the logic of history is at times for me, I am glad he made the approach, as he must’ve bridged a gap in our field.

At 1:27 PM, Blogger Ansley said...

I have a few questions about Fischer’s statements in Chapter V. He writes that “a story explains how and what—not why.” Well, if history isn’t to be regarded as a mere story, then WHY doesn’t history ask WHY? I know that Fischer proposes the WHY in history will answer itself, but if storytelling is relative to the aspect of time and storytelling is a common form of historical explanation, what if the WHY takes too long to answer itself, what if it doesn’t answer itself, and what if it incompletely answers itself? I’m still inclined to support Carr in that a historian should ask WHY more than or at least as much as he/she asks any other question. Nonetheless, it is in Chapter V where Fischer showcases his wit the most in my opinion. His comments on the “Dance of the Seven Veils” were entertaining. Donna, Kathleen, and Lindsay, he also used the word “lady,” although in parentheses, in Chapter V. Also, Fischer accuses Carr of ethical historicism and self-contradiction. My next post will be my notes on my assigned chapter VI-- causality.

At 1:28 PM, Blogger Ansley said...

Here is a summary of Chapter VI:
In Fischer’s chapter on causality, he aims to resolve the problems prevalent in narration and to “identify a few of the most common fallacies of causal analysis” along with his suggestions to correct these fallacies. Fischer mainly wants to advise his readers to be careful when determining and/or considering causal explanation. Causal explanation is “an attempt to explain the occurrence of an event by reference to some of those antecedents which rendered its occurrence probable.” Or in my words: Causal explanation is an attempt to explain an event using prior events—events that were necessary for the event in question to occur. I think the most noteworthy sentence on causal explanation is that “the connection between cause and effect is not necessary but probabilistic.” There doesn’t have to be a causal explanation for EVERY event in history. But, like Fischer says, it’s probable that many events had a cause or many causes. Additionally, Fischer lists about six different kinds of causal explanation at the end of Chapter VI, and he lists 8 possible answers that causal explanations yield. He points out that “the specific kind of causal explanation a historian employs must be selected according to the nature of the effect to be explained and the nature of the object of the explanation.”

At 1:40 PM, Blogger Ansley said...

Here are the 10 fallacies of causality:
1. The fallacy of post hoc, propter hoc is basically the incorrect assumption that an event happened simply because a preceding event happened.
2. The fallacy of cum hoc, propter hoc is related to statistics. This fallacy involves correlation, which “by itself can never establish a cause. It can disestablish one—for there can never be a regularistic causal relationship without correlation. But there can often be a regular correlation without cause.” This fallacy is difficult for me as of yet. My understanding of it is that it is comparable to connect-the-dots. Sometimes you can connect dots without needing to relate each dot to the first one, the second one, etc. Maybe all you have is a line drawn through dots, which may or may not be relative to one another. Whether they are or not, they don’t necessarily HAVE to have a specific CAUSE attributed to them. This fallacy also causes us to ask ourselves When is cause-naming necessary? Would everyone offer their thoughts on this fallacy? I’m confused about it, I think.
3. The fallacy of pro hoc, propter hoc consists of putting the effect before the cause.
4. The reductive fallacy is committed “when a causal model is reductive [enough] that the resultant distortion is dysfunctional to the resolution of the causal problem at hand.” In other words, it’s “the asking of one kind of causal question, and the answering of it with another and less comprehensive kind of casual explanation.” Historians make this mistake when “they study the possible effects of (…) measures reductively without considering their collective, interactive effect.”
5. The fallacy of indiscriminate pluralism in the opposite of the reductive fallacy. Fischer’s words: “One hardly sees a contemporary reference to the cause of an event, but often to a multiplicity of “causes,” “factors,” “elements,” “origins,” “influences,” “impulses,” “stimuli,” etc. As pluralism becomes more popular, indiscriminate pluralism becomes more prevalent.” In other words, those guilty of this fallacy don’t “carefully weigh one [aspect of history] against the other in an integrated and refined interpretation. The result is more useful in its various parts than in the whole, which is shapeless and diffuse.”

At 1:41 PM, Blogger Ansley said...

6. The fallacy of identity is the incorrect assumption that a big event must have big results. It’s “the assumption that a cause must somehow resemble its effect.” This one’s a bit confusing to me. Fischer sites J.H. Hexter’s idea of “Tunnel History” as an example. Actually, Fischer elaborates more in Chapter V in the section on the fallacy of tunnel history. It’s as if someone looks at a picture of tunnels—many tunnels—that are separate of course yet have the same holes in the ground as an entrance and exit. A singular rabbit is in each tunnel. Those guilty of the tunnel fallacy would look at each rabbit as if they’re completely unrelated, as if they don’t even use the same entrance and exit. (The rabbits are related in that way!) Therefore, I’ll assume that those guilty of the identity fallacy would be guilty of assuming that each tunnel is the same simply because each tunnel shares the same exit. Fischer says this error represents a “narrowness” of thinking. In chapter VI, Fischer says he’ll elaborate more on this fallacy in another chapter. As several of us have pointed out already in class, Fischer seems to overdo his subcategories.
7. The fallacy of absolute priority consists in believing that a causal SERIES has an absolute FIRST to it that’s unquestionably responsible for every, single cause in the entire series. When a series of causes is being investigated, historians must not make the fallacy of tracing the origin of them all to the FIRST cause.
8. The fallacy of the mechanistic cause consists of a “break down [of] the components of a causal complex” and an attempt to analyze each component separately. Also, the tendency to assess the causal influence independent of other interactive elements is fallacious as well. Fischer is meaning to say “a causal complex is something other than the sum of its parts.”
9. The fallacy of reason as cause mistakes a causal for a logical order, or vice versa. Fischer’s example of a causal statement: Cromwell died because he caught intermittent fever.
Fischer’s example of a logical statement: Cromwell died because all men die, and Cromwell was a man.
Fischer then goes on to point out the historical trends. He mentions relativism; he has mentioned revisionism before. My questions are: When will there be no trend in history? When will the discipline be beyond the label “trend”? Is there a label of the “trend” history now is in? If Fischer’s guide is to be observed, will history no longer be in this trendy mode? My answer is that it will never be perfected—even if Fischer’s fallacies were avoided. There will always be room for improvement simply b/c history is always happening—new history even. Is it correct to assume that history evolves quickly, thus causing the discipline to do the same? Am I committing a fallacy of causation in that very question?
10. The fallacy of responsibility as cause confuses a problem of ethics with a problem of agency in a way which falsifies both. Although Fischer seems to like contemporary history more than Carr does, he states that this fallacy is more common in contemporary history. This fallacy, he writes, presents “empirical limitation” and “moral blindness” and it is “logically indefensible.”

At 4:35 PM, Blogger Donnie said...

I thought out last class discussion was very informative. It definately raised questions for me. Primarily about an historian's duty. Going into the historical profession, I found it interesting, because although it doesn't provide definitive answers, it gives a better understanding of metaphysical questions. Class discussions also raised questions about the ever shrinking field of the historian. As the historical focus of individual historians is shrinking, perhaps thier grasp of the broader picture is also. I'm beginning to see that if an historian desires to make it in the profession on a scholarly level, then he/she must avoid the metaphysical questions. However, if he desires to improve his understanding of the world, then he must continually ask himself the metaphysical questions in private. Herein lies the catch 22. Hopefully by doing so he/she will be rewarded on a personnal level by getting closer and closer to the unanswerable questions. I myself am of the opinion that if your not attempting to improve your understanding of the present through the past, why be an historian. I understand that I don't share that opinion with everyone, but the only way I find the profession appealing is if I can use it to better understand the broad picture.

At 4:42 PM, Blogger donna said...

Class last week was particularly enjoyable! Watching the "AHA" moments we all had was interesting. We moved from Carr's thoughts on the work of historians and the inherent challenges into Fischer's very specific ideas about how we should approach our work in history. As we processed the content, there seemed to be a movement into deeper levels of understanding...a movement toward becoming historians, I think. I really appreciate the ways in which others assist when I don't quite understand something we have read.

At 9:22 PM, Blogger donna said...

Good evening...
This week, I am responsible for leading the discussion on Chapter Four. Below, you will find the summary. I look forward to talking with about all that we learned while reading the chapter.

Historians’ Fallacies
David Hackett Fischer

Fallacies of Generalization
Chapter IV

Fischer opens chapter four by pointing out that, while scholars may not always agree about whether or not historians should generalize, the fact remains that use of generalization is one of the “more common” ways in which historians frame their research findings. He is quick to point out that generalization is one of the “more commonly abused” “modes of explanation,” also.

Concepts of “generalization” vary and Fischer presents nine “distinguishable conceptions” of the term. Among the more familiar are: labeling or classifying, stating universal laws, identifying trends or tendencies, presenting statistical regularities, and making evaluative assessments.

Fischer builds his chapter about generalization around what he terms “statistical regularity.” He describes it as “a category which cuts across all others on the list [of conceptions of generalization].” Fischer defines “statistical generalization” in the following words:
“A statistical generalization is a descriptive statement which is inferred from particular facts by a special process of reasoning. It is often built into a complex
explanation model with other components and is sometimes employed as an explanation in its own right.”

The utility of statistical generalization is that it answers the historians’ questions about “what, how, when, where, and who.”

According to Fischer, historians are only beginning to incorporate statistical reasoning into their research; however, statistical generalizations are often implicit in the impressionistic way historians write. This creates what he refers to as a “confusion of quantitative and impressionistic procedures” causing “false inferences” to be “derived from true particulars.”

The fallacies associated with statistical generalization include:
1) Fallacies of statistical sampling which “occur in generalizations which rest upon an insufficient body of data”
2) Fallacy of the lonely fact which occurs when the “statistical generalization” is based on “a single case”
3) Fallacy of statistical special pleading “occurs whenever an investigator applies a double standard of inference or interpretation to his evidence…”
4) Fallacy of statistical impressionism “occurs whenever a historian casts an imprecise, impressionistic interpretation into exact numbers”
5) Fallacy of statistical nonsense is the “catchall category” used by Fischer to hold what he calls “statistical mumbo jumbo” that has no meaning as it is used in the historian’s argument.
6) Fallacies of statistical probability are varied and numerous—such as that which occurs when the researcher assumes “that the most probable distribution” will always happen.
7) Fallacy of false extrapolation “is, according to Fischer, “a statistical series stretched beyond the breaking point” and “it occurs in a variety of forms.”
8) Fallacy of false interpolation “is a form of overgeneralization, in which a line is inaccurately run between two known points in order to estimate the location of an unknown point in between.”
9) Fallacy of the insidious generalization occurs when an historian inadvertently uses generalization even without meaning to do so—or without realizing that he/she is doing so.
10) Fallacy of the double-reversing generalization occurs when the historian generalizes but includes so many qualifiers in the mix so as to render the generalization useless.
11) Fallacy of the overwhelming exception occurs when the historian excludes evidence that is vital to constructing the whole picture.

Fischer concludes the chapter with a discussion about the “errors of a reigning school of epistemologists who hold that every explanation in history…must consist in referring the thing to be explained to a “general law” or “universal hypothesis” or “hypothesis of the universal form.” He states that the criteria for satisfying the “laws” “cannot be met in historical writing” because there is always some exception when dealing with historical events.

At 11:13 PM, Blogger Kathleen said...

Donnie, I also found Fischer's discussion on the role of an historian quite helpful and illuminating. I agree with Fischer about the metaphysical questions as being beyound the bounds of logical interpretation. Also his section on how moralizing negates the validity of one's research. I am beginning to understand what Fisher means by the empirical method of inquiry and see it as something to strive toward. I also agree with Fischer that bias and subjectivity are a problem in historical research but we all bring our own bias and subjectivity to our research. The only thing we can do is try to contain them and to be as objective as possible. The most confusing for me was the fallacy of tautological questions: "asks nothing but asserts the same thing twice." I think I need that one explained again.

At 1:29 PM, Blogger Lindsay said...

In Chapter 4 according to Fischer statistical generalizations are taken from certain historical facts by method of reasoning. These generalizations help historians interpret facts in a clear concise manner by explaining who, what, when, how, and where. The “why” question is not answered by the statistical generalizations and Fischer points out that “often we don’t need or wish to know why.” (104) In Chapter 5 Fischer goes on to say that good HIstorians tell true stories but these stories should explain the how and what questions....not the why question. It still boggles me that Fischer thinks we dont need to know why. I think that the why is important because to me it keeps history interesting. Although I believe you may truly never know "why" something happened, you can come to pretty close conclusions by drawing information from the who, what, when, where, and how questions.

At 3:17 PM, Blogger Lindsay said...

Chapter 5
Fallacies of Narration

Fischer begins by stating that “good historians tell true stories.” (131) These stories should consist of the how and what questions but should not concern the why question. According to Fischer storytelling can be very simple and direct or “exceedingly complex.” (132) Chapter 5 deals with time in relation to the “stories” of historians.

The fallacy of anachronism- consists in the “description, analysis, or judgment” of a historical event that leads to the event being represented in the wrong period

The fallacy of presentism- idea that the “proper way to do history is to prune away the dead branches of the past and to preserve the green buds” in the contemporary world.

Antiquarian fallacy- becoming so involved in “dead facts” as to alienate your-self from the present, the past becomes a “sanctuary”

The fallacy of tunnel history- Fischer states that this fallacy involves “splitting the past into tunnels”. The tunnels are not connected and usually are referenced as diplomatic history, political history, military history, etc.

At 3:58 PM, Blogger Lindsay said...

The interminable fallacy- This fallacy involves lengthening a short story or extending the length of a long story

The fallacy of archetypes – method in which historical events has meaning because of some type of re-enactment

The chronic fallacy- historian “forces his story into an overrigid chronological sequence and tells everything in the precise order”

The static fallacy- the conceptualization of a dynamic problem in static terms

The fallacy of presumptive continuity and the fallacy of presumptive change- continuity requires no explanation, change does

The genetic fallacy- “mistakes the beginning of a thing for the thing which it has become.” (155)

The didactic fallacy- attempting to grasp certain lessons from history and to apply them literally to problems of today without leaving room for changes

At 4:02 PM, Blogger Lindsay said...

Kathleen Fox
Lindsay Sumner
Historical Methods

Chapter 5
Fallacies of Narration

Fischer begins by stating that “good historians tell true stories.” (131) These stories should consist of how and what questions but should not concern the why question. According to Fischer storytelling can be very simple and direct or “exceedingly complex.” (132) Chapter 5 deals with time in relation to the “stories” of historians.

The fallacy of anachronism-consists in the “description, analysis or judgment” of an historical event that leads to the event being represented in the wrong period.

The fallacy of presentism- idea that the “proper way to do history is to prune away the dead branches of the past and to preserve the green buds” in the contemporary world.

Antiquarian fallacy-becoming so involved in “dead facts” as to alienate yourself from the present, the past becomes a “sanctuary.”

The fallacy of tunnel history-Fischer states that this fallacy involves “splitting the past into tunnels.” The tunnels are not connected and usually are referenced as diplomatic history, political history, military history, ect.

The telescope fallacy- reducing an “extended trend to a momentary transformation.”

The interminable fallacy- This fallacy involves lengthening a short story or extending the length of a long story.

The fallacy of archetypes- promotes the theory that history is cyclical in nature: all civilization, all people are a reiteration of the past. If not a repetition then the subject is meaningless. (Mircea Eliade model if a man is to “real” he can’t be an individual.

The chronic fallacy- The mistake of being too chronologically rigid without taking into account whether or not it aids or hinders your inquiry. Historians need to be conscious of chronology but not slaves to it.

The static fallacy- “change is perceived merely as the emergence of a non-changing entity.” (155) Trying to fit an evolutionary concept into a finite thesis. (See p161 Kuhn)

Fallacy of presumptive continuity and presumptive change-“consensus leads to continuity or the opposite conflict leads change.” Fischer believes these to be fallacies and that historians should find a median point between these two biases.

The genetic fallacy- (155-6)“an actual history cannot take the place of an analysis of its structure.” Fischer gives the example of history into morality-but isn’t the morality of a society history?

The didactic fallacy-(157-63) the practice of extracting lessons from history ie, reviving past political successes. We see politicians every election pulling out their Lincoln, FDR, Wilson and Kennedy quotes. Fischer further laments about the practice of reviving past codes for the purification of the present.” (dueling codes?)

Open ended questions:
1. Is politically biased work history?
2. Is it history if we demonize or sanctify our subject? (Many historians do)
3. Are there times when we may play with semantics in order to impress a certain point to our audience? (Anglo moll or A Puritan in Babylon)

At 1:19 PM, Blogger Donnie said...

I found the most interesting fallacy discussed tuesday in class to be the fallacies associated with generalization. Generalizing is perhaps the most difficult fallacy not to commit. It is human nature to classify and group things and events in order to better understand them. Terms like "total war" of "revolution" are difficult terms to avoid in history. By using generalizations an historian is able to describe an event relative to other events which attained the same generalizations. A generalization which hits close to home today is the labeling of terrorists and insurgents. I thought the fallacy of the double-reversing generalization was interesting. It occurs when an historian generalizes an event, then provides sufficient evidence to prove his generalization incorrect. In conclusion, one must be very cautious when generalizing due to the baggage that such terms may carry. However, despite the negative aspects of generalizing, it is a efficient way of giving the reader similiar events to relate the topic to.

At 8:17 PM, Blogger Ansley said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 11:30 PM, Blogger colin said...

I think that lindsay brings up some interesting questions. I feel that demonizing and sanctifying people and historical events are unavoidable. Whether we admit it or not, most people will always look back at the holocaust and place a moral judgement on the nazis. The point that must be emphasized is that this should not be done by the historian. I go back to a previous point in the book when I believe Fischer said that there are so many other facts to consider, we dont need to waste our time making moral judgements and delving into metaphysical questions. It is important to note that this is not saying to report history without any subjectivity. This after all is impossible. Fischer is merely trying to hammer home the point that a 'good' historian leaves his subjectivity at the door, at least as much as he/she can.

At 1:35 PM, Blogger Lindsay said...

I agree that demonizing and and sanctifying people and historical events is sometimes unavoidable. It is sometimes so diffult to remove ourselves from the context of our own time. It is our own context that influences that moral judgements we as historians sometimes place on historical figures and events. I think it is okay as a person to pass some type of moral judgement on past persons or events but as a historian I agree with the comment that the good historian should leave his subjectivity at the door.

At 2:53 PM, Blogger Ansley said...

Bede's name has appeared as Baeda on manuscripts and in the Middle Ages he was Beda, but English-speaking people know him as Bede. The Ecclesiastical History of the English People wasn't Bede's only history. He also wrote History of the Abbots; it is possible that he was the author of Life of Ceolfrith. After learning about Bede, what do you think his greatest legacy is? How do you think his work has affected our modern-day method of historiography? Do you think our approach would be very similar to the way it is now without Bede; do you think Bede made a largely significant difference for us or would our approach be very much the same since Bede DID ponder the miraculous--ALWAYS the ecclesiastical? What aspect of Bede's character impresses you most and why?

At 2:58 PM, Blogger Ansley said...

Do you think that Bede deserves his rank among English authors?

At 3:25 PM, Blogger Ansley said...

The fallacy of the one-dimensional man measures all humanity using a very one-sided point of view, or yardstick if you will. It's insulting to all people when a historian measures all men according to what ONE man has done--whether this one man's action is common or not. Not EVERYONE has or WOULD act in the same way.
The fallacy of the universal man is also a fallacy of motivation. It falsely assumes that people are intellectually and psychologically the same in all times, places, and circumstances. However, people throughout hisory think entirely differently if for no other reason than their different surroundings and circumstances(socially).
Luckily, these two fallacies seem easy enough to avoid by the careful historian.
The fallacy of difference is a fallacy of explanation. It consists of identifying (for example) a group by its stereotypical (for instance) qualities and completely forgetting to consider other IMPORTANT aspects of this "group." The converse fallacy of difference is the opposite. It's committed when an historian puts a label on a specific group (for example)--a label that isn't particularly special to the group. This fallacy might result in an eventual stereotype of the group in question. Therefore it must avoided. (It seems to me that this fallacy should precede the fallacy of difference. It seems likely that these two are similar even though they are opposites; therefore, one should first avoid this one so that the other fallacy doesn't result.)

At 3:29 PM, Blogger Ansley said...

For those interested: Here is one of Wordsworth's "The Ecclesiastical Sonnets." It's clear that Wordsworth admired his fellow Englishman.

But what if One, through grove or flowery mead
Indulging thus at will the creeping feet
Of a voluptuous indolence, should meet
Thy hovering shade, O venerable Bede!
The saint, the scholar, from a circle freed
Of toil stupendous, in a hallowed seat,
Of learning, where thou heard'st the billows beat
On a wild coast, rough monitors to feed
Perpetual industry. Sublime Recluse!
The recreant soul, that dares to shun the debt
Imposed on human kind, must first forget
Thy diligence, thy unrelaxing use
Of a long life; and, in the hour of death,
The last dear service of the passing breath!

At 4:00 PM, Blogger Donnie said...

The Fallacy of Composition-- occurs when an historian assumes that just because one member of a group fits one characteristic that the group itself does also. It also occurs when an historian assumes that just because one member of a group fits one characteristic that every other individual in the group fits the same characteristic. Committing this fallacy is the same as committing narrow-mindedness. Assuming that all members of a group are the same is a very inaccurate and lazy way to write history. It is the job of an historian delve into the group and delineate the differences between the members of the group.

The Fallacy of the Perfect Analogy-- occurs when an historian takes two entities that are similar in some aspects and falsely infers that they are exactly similar. This is similiar to the fallacies of generalization, in which the historian is comparing two things that are truly different in nature.

At 2:04 PM, Blogger Ansley said...

Donnie, I also found the fallacy of the perfect analogy to be very noteworthy because it seems like a fallacy that's often committed. Since Donnie explained what it is, the following is an example of this fallacy when it's committed:
A historian tries to explain to readers a particular person's behavior, for example. This historian compares their subject to a more familiar example in order to explain their subject in question's behavior. Fischer's example is someone comparing Charlemagne to an enlightened American millionaire. This is extremely fallacious because Charlemagne 1.) is not an American millionaire, and 2.) is Charlemagne--of whom there's of course only one. The best correction to this fallacy would be to simply explain Charlemagne without resorting to an analogy...or as Fischer offers in another of his fallacies--research! Even though analogies are seemingly a timeless method of explanation, they are to be used properly. That's Fischer's intended message of this chapter.

Another fallacy of false analogy is the fallacy of proof by analogy, which seems somewhat similar to the aforementioned fallacy. The fallacy of proof by analogy is committed when an historian uses a common (or maybe not-so-common) analogy to represent the actual truth of a matter, or to explain an event(s), or to provide a stated cause for something that resulted. An analogy CANNOT be reputable enough to explain ANY historical inquiry because an analogy isn't factual enough to have such powerful influence. Fischer says that an analogy is "insufficient to sustain [a hypothesis.]"

Another is the fallacy of the holistic analogy, which deals with metaphysical questions and answers them by resorting to analogies; the analogies usually try to explain the whole of history by making an analogical inference to only some part of history. That would be easy to get bogged down in. Fischer says that such historians as Spengler and Toynbee are guilty of this rather confusing fallacy.

At 3:32 PM, Blogger Ansley said...

Fischer begins his third section of his book, Argument, with a chapter on fallacies of semantical distortion. First of all, i think it's a very important sentence of his that "[a]ll historical interpretations are arguments, and they must conform to a logic of argumentation if they are to cohere as truth." An interesting quote to add is P.W. Bridgman's: "The true meaning of a term is to be found by observing what a man does with it, not what he says about it."
One fallacy in this chapter is the fallacy of ambiguity, which "consists in the use of a word or an expression which has two or more possible meanings, without sufficient specification of which meaning is intended."
Fischer believes that an explicit definition is always better than an ambiguity, whether explicitness is less sophisticated or stylistic or not; this doesn't matter in good historical writing. Another kind of ambiguity consists in using an old term in a new and different way without any warning to readers. Yet another form is the etceteration of evidence, categories, types, reasons, etc. Fishcer believes this form of the fallacy implies that the author doesn't continue for reasons that aren't praise-worthy.
The black-or-white fallacy is when an historian describes two varying shades of gray (per se) as if they're black and white or totally different (when they really aren't COMPLETE opposites, as such terms as hot and cold are.) Another example of this fallacy would be describing people in such terms, such as Jefferson and Hamilton.


Post a Comment

<< Home