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A question is the core of any historical revelation. In science and history, questions are the basic finding tools. However, in history, applications of questions have been diffused to the extent that they have become apparent discovery machines. Questions are products of quests of knowledge, which are born out of exploration. In history and all other fields of study, questions agitate mind to unearth hidden facts.
As a result, Fischer1 reaffirms that a question is a mental precursor to thinking. There cannot be any achievement in the field of history without logical questioning. The apparent nature of questions both among readers and researchers has created a lot of complexity in developing logical questioning strategy. Normally, the results achieved are undesired outcomes or a general failure in a given historical finding.
Questions should be created under a hypothetical frame through construction of testable hypothetical model. There are various models of questions depending on intended goals of the historical study. Conversely, there are no specific results that should be expected. Historical fallacies are the main hindrance to developing questions and gaining desired results. There are several historical fallacies but Fischer focuses on the ten main obstacles.
This paper highlights Fischer study over historical fallacies. It identifies key fallacies in historical perspective, their influences and ways historians can overcome them. While several other fallacies can be identified, Fischer identified ten erroneous fallacies that have gravely affected historical studies. Fischer fallacies are mainly based on question-framing that affects the empirical outcomes. Fischer work is based on personal research.
After outlining the significance of questions, Fischer identifies ten fallacies that affect historical study. The first fallacy he identifies is the Baconian2 fallacy. The fallacy is based on the principle that historians can study free from assumptions, paradigms, questions, theories, postulates or any other kind of framework.
Historians are supposed to wonder aimlessly into the darkness of knowledge. The second is the fallacy of many questions. Fischer identifies this fallacy as erroneous mixing of questions linking two or more questions, developing a question structure that creates a false presumption or creating complexity in question structure3.
Metaphysical questions fallacy4 is derived from application of poor means of solving problems. Fisher identifies this fallacy as the use of empirical method to solve non empirical problem. Questions must be developed to allow entry for in-depth analysis before a historian applies questions in the core of the issue.
The fourth fallacy that Fischer identifies is the fallacy of fictional questions.5 The fallacy is routed in developing questions that explore what might have happened in historical times as if they actually happened. The fallacy loses practicality of historian study since no evidence can be collected based on assumptions.
Consequently, Fischer identifies fallacy of semantical questions6. This is a name confusion fallacy when verbal description does not demonstrate the actual thing. It complicates issues and makes them hard to understand. On the other hand, Fischer believes that all questions suffer from this fallacy but the degree and intelligibility vary. The sixth fallacy is the fallacy of declarative questions7. This is a violation of empirical question frame. The questions are rigid, they are fixed, the respondents can hardy express their opinions.
The seventh fallacy according to Fischer is the fallacy of counter questioning8. The fallacy is developed from revision of an earlier version. It consists in meddling up with original state under a lot of assumptions which yield nothing. This fallacy is followed by the fallacy of tautological questions9. These are questions which are self-assertive and leave no room for empirical contradictions. The questions ask nothing in particular but assert themselves at the same time.
The ninth fallacy is the fallacy of contradictory questions10. According to Fischer, they are naughtological questions. The questions are framed in such a way that they contradict one another. Such questions gather no information under historical studies. The final fallacy in Fischer’s list is the fallacy of potentially verifiable questions11.
This fallacy is created through dividing single process of historical work into two indigent parts. Historical studies cannot be subdivided like scientific studies with experimental and finding parts. The result will be false results based on bias and poor interpretations
A fallacy is a mistake. It can be in the form of a question, answer or reasoning. Logical fallacies are mistakes made in reasoning. Historical fallacies are those mistakes that were created while developing questions for historical studies. Once a mistake has been created from the onset of study criteria, the outcome likewise will fail to achieve the desired goals.
As a result, both scientists and historians’ works should be free from fallacies. Critical evaluation of the fallacies identified by Fischer, shows that historians cannot work effectively before ensuring that their question frames are free from fallacies.
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Many historians have fallen into Baconian question, which is not practical and requires a lot of resources to manage. Several materials can be gathered for generalization but each and every item shows a distinct characteristic. On the other hand, the rule does not change state of things. Despite the number of ‘wrongs’ that can be collected for generalization facts always remain, that is, wrong remains wrong despite the number, likewise right remains right in any case.
In developing questions, Baconian only generates difficulty in managing historical studies while they are not effective. Historians get misled by such fallacies often. According to Fischer, this fallacy misleads historians as ‘there are many objective truths to be told about the past-great and vital truths that are relevant and urgent to the needs of mankind. But there is no whole truth to be discovered by simple method of induction’12.
Most errors come from the fallacy of many questions. At times critical analysis of historical questions creates a lot of absurdity due to framing ambiguity. Every question is expected to have its answers and when a question requires two or more answers it loses its goal. Questions’ structures should be flexible and simple. Complex questions confuse as respondents develop higher mental presumptions.
A sample question by Fehrenbracher, ‘Was Reconstructionist shamefully harsh or surprisingly lenient13?’ or ‘What part did terrorism play in ultimate triumph of the Southern ‘redeemer?14’ The first question, for example, only identifies Reconstructionist as either harsh or lenient but gives no for further options.
A historian is limited to the answers despite the possibility that other possibilities might be available. The second question emphasizes the fact that Redeemers never ultimately triumph. Both questions can be considered counter questions and metaphysical questions that hinder historical findings.
When questions overlap, an answer might be demanded, which is neither exhaustive nor exclusive. Such fallacy results from error of developing poor dichotomous questions. Fischer uses an example of question form of “Basil of Byzantium: Rat or Fink”. The point is that Basil is associated with the modern ratfink or Byzantine who was neither fink nor a rat.
The question hence becomes totally ambiguous under critical evaluation. Answers will be drawn that links Basil or Byzantium with a fink which is false. The end result in such dichotomy is an obsolete finding. Historians should be able to identify such fallacies to enable them to unearth actual answers.
To draw further understanding, Fischer uses other examples from historian scholars such as “The Dred Scott Decision: Law or Politics?” and “Jacksonian Democracy: Myth or Reality?”15 The questions are shallow, very anachronistic and can only be answered under simple analysis.
Some questions need answers which required deep insights from a top view. To resolve such questions, there is need for proper research to come up with valid findings, however, metaphysical questions prompt answers without due research. Questions must be developed to allow entry for in-depth analysis before a historian applies questions.
The fourth fallacy that Fischer identifies is the fallacy of fictional questions. Fischer uses example question from civil war historian, “Was the war inevitable?”16 A historian will answer the question based on the archival materials in regards to the war and develop persuasive argument. However, there is no chance of conducting modern empirical research over the question.
Historical metaphysic only narrows its inquiries. As a result, such questions have created errors in historical findings. Historians should develop awareness over metaphysics’ fallacies, which equally mislead in finding problems.
The most common fallacy in historical questions is based on fictions. Fischer identifies some fictions such as what would have happen if: “Lee had worn at Gettysburg, or Napoleon has escaped to America”. Most historical novels suffer from this fallacy. While some fictional questions have been useful to historians they lack evidence for arguments.
As a result, they cannot be approved empirically. Many historians are victims of fictional questions; consequently, there is a lot of development of counterfactual fictional arguments. Fischer elucidates some of these fictions in Fogel’s Railroad and Economic Growth: Essays in Econometric History (Baltimore, 1964)17.
Fogel developed fictional questions to prove that railroads were not indispensable in American economic growth. While the book successfully achieves its intended goal, critical analysis shows that it is marred by fallacious flaws. Most of Fogel’s ideas lack solid argumentative base.
Misuse of terms is another common fallacy. Sematical fallacies are commonly embedded in cultural backgrounds rather than a learned behavior. Fischer draws several examples including Alice and the White Knight in Through the Looking Glass18. On the other hand, Fischer believes that all questions suffer from this fallacy but the degree and intelligibility varies.
Consequently, colonial historians have brought debatable question, “Was the political structure of seventeenth Century American ‘democratic’ or ‘aristocratic’?” The validity of any finding based on the question is guided by the application and understanding of the key terms by the historians. Depending on how the terms are applied, significant changes in findings normally occur.
Some historians have been misled by developing affirmative research questions. Rigid questions declaration question fallacy. Empirical studies require questions to be open ended. Flexible questions allow room for gathering evidence from all aspects of a problem.
Fischer gives an example of affirmative statement that “X is the case,”19 then a historian is supposed to prove it through gathering evidences. If the question asks whether “X or Y is the case”20, there are empirical room for making judgment. When the question is open to other possibilities the level of empirical accuracy is enhanced.
Sometimes historians fall victims of trying to revise an existing question to match a desired goal. It can be achieved by simple imitation of the past or refutation. Counter question fallacy acts as a bondage to historians, which does not allow their mind to think freely. Most of their questions are developed from existing ones. In original case the original question was faulty; the subsequent questions are also faulty.
The result only is meddling up with original state under a lot of assumptions, which yield nothing. This fallacy is followed by the fallacy of tautological questions. Fischer highlights this fallacy through the case between Charles Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (New York, 1913) and Forrest McDonald’s anti-Bearded, We the People: The Economic Origins of the Constitution and E Pluribus Unum: The Formation of American Republic, 1776-1790 (Boston, 1965)21.
Historians have also fallen victims of self-contradictory. The fallacy of tautological questions evokes self-contradictory in framing questions. It also asks and asserts at the same time. Instead of saying that there is no employment Calvin Coolidge uses proposes that ‘people are out work’22. This is a P is P tautological.
Tautological fallacy can be where all P and Qs are P. Using Benjamin Spocks statement that all red wagons are red to warn warns mothers that all babies are young23. Barrington Moore uses the same statement to warn Americans that all radical revolutionary are violent24. There was a fallacy in Barrington statement since some revolutionaries were nonviolent. The third tautology asserts that a question is either P or not P. Examples of these are taken from Machiavelli writings25.
Some questions pose false definitions and contradict themselves creating fallacy of contradictory questions. Fischer uses an example question that asks “What really happened in summer of 1422, when, every school boy knows, that an irresistible force met an immovable object?”26 The question contradicts itself as there cannot be irresistible force and immovable object at the same time. Such contradiction hinders historical studies as well as development of concepts.
In physics and chemistry division of labor successfully achieves desired results. Science follows distinct steps such as data collection, experiments, discussions and making conclusion. Some historians have also taken such approach in historical findings. This fallacy is created through dividing single process of historical work into two indigent parts.
Historical studies cannot be subdivided like scientific studies with experimental and finding parts. The result will be false results based on bias and poor interpretations. Fallacies impair historians work. They need to pay a lot of attention to betterment of their studies. Historians need to be keen while developing questions framework to avoid confusion about fallacies.
Fischer David. Historians’ Fallacies. London: Routledge, 1971.
1 David, Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies, (London; Routledge, 1971), 2.
2 David, Fischer, 4.
3 Ibid., 8.
4 Ibid., 12.
5 Ibid., 15.
6 Ibid., 21.
7 Ibid., 24.
8 Ibid., 28.
10 Ibid., 34.
11 Ibid., 36.
12 Ibid., 5.
14 Ibid., 9.
15 Ibid., 11.
16 Ibid., 12.
17 Ibid., 16.
18 Ibid., 22.
19 Ibid., 24.
20 Ibid., 24.
21 Ibid., 30.