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Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Fischer's Historians' Fallacies as peace history...

Many of us are familiar with David Hackett Fischer's Historians' Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought. It has been a useful text in many graduate methodology seminars since its publication in 1970. I discovered it only recently when I "overheard" some of my online students "talking" about it in one of my classes.

In it, HAW's own venerable Staughton Lynd comes in for several pages of criticism in the chapter on Fallacies of Significance. Lynd, along with others, is accused of the "pragmatic fallacy," that is, selecting "useful facts in the service of a social cause." Examples are found in several of Lynd's early works. Lynd is quoted from his 1968 essay A Profession of History as writing, "As one considerably alienated from the American present, I wanted to know if there were men in the American past in whom I could believe." If that is a fallacy, it is one we face as an organization as well as one which some of us face in other contexts. Whether we consciously or unconsciously pick historical examples to suit our current views, whether that be as a true reflection of our views on history or as a conscious corrective to what we perceive as dishonest propaganda history from others, there is an inherent tension between history as a science and history as context for current policy. I have done this myself - whether it be drawing attention to particular facets of the historical record here at this blog to provide aid, comfort and context to a peace position or whether it be encouraging my students to investigate figures such as Bartolome de las Casas, Friedrich Spee or even someone like Robert G. Ingersoll as examples of voices of opposition to prevailing trends in the past.

Fischer lands another blow in the concluding chapter of Historians' Fallacies as well. After dismissing (rightly, I think) several of the commonly forwarded justifications for the study of history, he singles out the historians of the New Left and their search for a "usable past" as an example of history as propaganda. Although they are writing from the left, they are "methodologically reactionary." History used to legitimize some subversive policy or view is no more accurate than history used to legitimize power.

It is surprising then to read how the book ends several pages later. When he finally turns to what history can be good for, we find a peace agenda. Writing during the Vietnam War and against the background of the Cold War arms race, he closes the book with a warning about nuclear proliferation and makes good history writing a matter of human survival in the 21st century. The connection is found in several of the reasons he lists for the study of history.

History can, for example, "...clarify contexts in which contemporary problems exist." It can put historians' "temporal sophistication" to use in making suggestions about the future, something historians usually shy away from, or in mobilizing the algorythmic kind of thought in which economic historians engage, illuminating the conditions under which certain things are likely to happen. It can train people to think historically and help them avoid the political extremism that results from the abuse or misunderstanding of the past. An historian "against the war" can find no small degree of encouragement in these pages of Fischer's book.

Finally, with history, we can "learn about ourselves" and "about other selves." "And nothing is more necessary to the peace of the world." He is not, he argues, making a special plea for any "humbug" about the brotherhood of mankind. It is not, he writes, about "goodness," but about "survival." I understand this to mean that an historian is not trapped in a fallacy, is not abandoning history as a science, if he or she consciously sees his or her work as a contribution to the understanding of policy or current events (whether for or against a particular ideology or policy, left or right). If we remind people of the colonial history of Iraqi statehood, that is a contribution to understanding the "other self" that is the Iraqi citizen who knows that past. If we teach about traditional Afghani approaches to conflict resolution, we are not justifying sharia or siding with terrorists. We are showing that there are real differences between peoples that need to be taken into account and providing relevant information for formulating more nuanced views of the problem. If we talk about the anti-imperial tradition in the United States, we "clarify contexts in which contemporary problems exist" by showing that opposing empire is not new, not solely a product of recent invention.

I do not think that David H. Fischer has himself landed on the horns of a delimma or trapped himself in a fallacy or contradiction. There is simply no sharp dividing line between a truly scientific history useful for survival on the one hand and that written by those consciously concerned with that survival for the explicit purpose of contributing to that survival on the other. We must make every effort to be fair to our sources and to the context, we should not distort the record for the purpose of legitimizing a political state of affairs or policy position, but we cannot pretend to have a no perspective, to occupy some kind of "view from nowhere."



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