Historians’ Fallacies

historians fallacies hackett fischer harper perennial 1970Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought by David Hackett Fischer, 5/5

Fallacies everywhere!  Browsing through eleven categories of faulty reasoning, all illustrated by examples from published works of historical scholarship, made me feel like a kid in a candy shop.  My initial reservation–that it isn’t very respectable to do nothing but pick apart the works of one’s colleagues–was satisfactorily addressed in Fischer’s deliciously cogent introduction to the book.  Here, the author acknowledges the dual impossibility and necessity of defining a logical approach to the study of history and justifies his negative method with the respectable goal “to extract from these mistakes [in other historians’ reasoning] a few rough rules of procedure” (xviii).

Though some may find his approach off-puttingly critical, the author is no intellectual slouch–many of the fallacies he addresses are so subtle that I am impressed he could identify them at all, much less find relevant examples in the wild.  Though the topic is very specific, the application is broad–historians aren’t the only ones who are susceptible to fallacies of question-framing, factual verification, factual significance, generalization, narration, causation, motivation, composition, analogy, semantical distortion and substantive distraction.

Why I read it: The title caught my eye as I was browsing through Easton’s Books.  The owner was so surprised that someone was actually interested in the book (he’d almost thrown it out, thinking no one would ever buy it) that he gave me a discount and said I’d made his day.

A picture quote I made:

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