BOOK Review by Emmett R Smith
Historians‘ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought
by David Hackett Fischer
IN My monthly regional-history broadcast, ‘Mankato History This Month’, I have often commented on this no-doubt-lamentable fact:
There is no history-maker in the business, amateur or professional, who is anything other than tendentious, prejudiced–and, as stuffed full of a priori conclusions as Grandma full of gossip and hot-foot on her way to the Dorcas Circle meeting in old Eagle Lake, Minnesota. Nor can it be otherwise. Subjectivity (especially when the subject is the idiocies of ‘the others’) after all is merely a materiel fact of the embodied individual condition. But, it is also a physical fact that we can as a creature conceive in our brains, albeit dimly as yet, of something called ‘objectivity’. And, the struggle of all science in the most profound sense (lat, scientire–‘to know’) therefore must continue to be the goal of attaining one day in the future to something like that state of complete (NB) perception. To that end, a close reading (and, frequent re-reading!) of Historians’ Fallacies, by David Fischer Hackett, can only help the serious history-maker.
This is because to-day–and, I expect that this will be the case for many hundreds of years yet to come–the primary scientific ouevre, in history as in biology and physics, remains first and foremost the humble janitorial round. This consists not in the loud proclamation of novel ‘insights’ and systems. Rather, all historianship worthy of respect begins (and, mostly, ends!) in love, lovingly sweeping away out of our common path a diurnal litter–of falsehoods.
So–and all the more so in the light of Fischer’s work–it should come as no surprise that Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 End of History and the Last Man be allowed, at last, to take its due place among all of the other failed works of history-making, before and since, insofar as it bears its melancholy share of the universal contamination.
What is more pleasing to report is that we are invited to make this ‘final’ dispositon by Francis Fukuyama, himself! In short, Mr Fukuyama in a new book, America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power and the Neoconservative Legacy (Yale University Press, March, 2006), tacitly at least has acknowledged having perpetuated a miserable and, alas, more than self-deceptive swindle. Surely it is not ungenerous to speculate that Mr Fukuyama possibly has stumbled upon Historians’ Fallacies! In any case, the remarkable achievement of Mr Fukuyama, as history–maker, lies now in this, namely that in his ongoing work he has, so to speak, ‘fessed up. The only pity is that such an embarrassing mea culpa would not at all have been necessary, had Mr Fukuyama read Fischer before 1992.
HOW May the rest of us not go off the deep-end in our historianship. How, indeed, may we hope to do even as well as Mr Fukuyama–or, ‘insAllah, better?
WELL, A very useful book for all serious workers is this Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought, by David Hackett Fischer (Harper & Row, 1970).
Needless to say, the possibilities for error in historianship are legion!
Mr Fukuyama is only the latest worker to make this clear. And, Fischer makes a very good run at delineating not a few categories and kinds of folly. I may confess that, as often as I re-read his pages, I blush anew at some preposterous and too-categorical utterance or other of mine in whatever may have been just the most recent broadcast of my programme. Indeed, Fischer’s book IS strong medicine because, in fact, there are so FEW ways of being, if you will, ‘right’ in the work of history-making. He explores exhaustively in his 338 pages twelve categories of at least 111 (!) historical fallacies. And, in his conclusion, he brings us around to the question of what is good history? This is a thorny problem, but it is only by confronting it as hard as we can that we may, then, see where Mr Fujuyama went off the rails–and, how our own work is in peril of Hell, everyday.
Generally, says Fischer, the late twentieth century was marked by a wide anti-historical mood in society, a circumstance which transformed the question, above, into:
What is history good for?
THIS All came about in a large part because historians had developed a relativism that brought directly into question the idea of history-as-reality. Yet the question persisted (and persists!) as to the utility of history, all the more so as history, as a component of education, is a public and hence political matter. In response to these pressures, historians developed five kinds of rationales, says Fischer. First of all was the passionate argument that history-making is fun (the main reason that I do it!)–an assertion that Fischer calls flatly ‘obscene’, at least as a motive for publicly supporting the enterprise. Then was the argument that ‘it is there’, the past is there, to be explored, which Fischer dismisses as the ‘Everest’ argument. Thirdly, it was (and, still is, at least by the culturally conservative) asserted that there are some things of the past that everyone ‘should’ know, a claim that leads in the worst case to mere taxonomy, replies Fischer. As to the raison that history is ‘an outlet for creativity’, Fischer rejoins:
‘So is telling tall stories!’
Finally, there was asserted a claim on behalf of the possible future utility, of present research, a claim which Fischer states only has validity as long as the present research is responsibly and coherently conceived and framed. In short, none of the prevailing rationalisations for history-making had any really sound concept of social value–which, for Fischer, is about understanding who and what we are–and, still less, did any of these lines lead to any meaningful further refinement of historianship itself.
And, so, the essentially political demand to know ‘what is history good for?’ became of itself a demand on historians to produce–propaganda.
CERTAINLY, As the above points are taken into account, it should be more clear as to how Mr Fukuyama failed.
I will only add that his work tragically was more than self-deceptive, and thus contributed to the disaster of the Old Atlantic West in al-‘Iraq, because of an unexamined fallacy of neo-conservativism, itself. Paradoxically, the New Liberalism has been brought low by an unexamined and originally marxist, beardian, materielism. This is the fallacy of argument ad crumenam, which makes money into the final measure of truth and right. (And, argues that wars will pay for themselves in the liquid assets of the ‘liberated’ and forcibly democratised.)
FINALLY, On the point of ‘telling tall stories’, please allow me to make a confession:
In a recent article in Bodwyn Wook, entitled ‘When the Circus Came to Le Center–and Elysian!’ I retailed a delightful story as told to me by Le Sueur county, Minnesota, Sheriff Pat Smith in the summer of 1964, when indeed I was detained for an episode of teen-aged beer-stealing.
Now the fact is that I did take part in the theft of the beer–but, as to the story of the elephant depositing ‘Mother Schmeckelphartz’s’ potatoes up its back-side, this was lifted by me from pp 391-2, of Grandpa’s Rib-Ticklers and Knee-Slappers, a compendium of american folk-lore and jokes, by James F. Myers (Lincoln-Herndon Press, Springfield [IL], 1984).
My intention in doing this was illustrative; and, I quite considered that, when the time should prove to be right, I would acknowledge the swindle–as an example of how, alas, all too often history is ‘made’. Nor are Mr Fukuyama and I alone in any of these sins….
IN Closing, readers who may wish to hear ‘Mankato History this Month’ are invited to tune to KMSU 89.7 FM at 10 AM (CST) on the first Monday of each month. Away listeners will find the broadcast live-streamed at kmsu.org. ‘Mankato History This Month’ is a broadcast of KMSU-FM, at Minnesota State University, at Mankato, MN. ‘MSU–The College That Calls Itself A University!’
(Historians’ Fallacies, and Grandpa’s Rib-Ticklers, both are available on-line, at ‘Amazon’ and ‘Alibris’, and copies are available from various dealers for under ten dollars, plus shipping and handling.)
[Emmett R Smith all rights reserved 25 March 2006]