The Problem-Solving Approach
Fri Jun 13 23:53:20 2008
“Academic history today sometimes seems to be not a discipline at all, but a means of teaching and writing without one.”
David Hackett Fischer
The most important thing Fischer is trying to communicate in the Preface and Introduction to Historians Fallacies is that there is a logic of historical thought, that we can understand and describe it, and that we will be better historians if we know, understand and apply this logic.
To find this logic he evaluates four possible approaches to historical epistemology: the Analytic (Arthur Danto & Morton White), the Idealist (R. G. Collingwood), the Narrative (W. B. Gallie) and the Problem-Solving approach (Fischer himself). He finds the Analytic approach too abstract and removed from the day-to-day practice of history. The Idealist and Narrative approaches are too narrowly focused for an overall epistemology. Fischer believes that the Problem-Solving approach can cover the great variety of forms that historians use, yet still provide a rigorous, disciplined overall method.
The Problem-Solving Approach
Central to Fischer’s Problem-Solving approach is his notion of Adductive Reasoning derived in part from C.S. Pierce’s Pragmatic Theory of Inquiry. Pierce describes three kinds of reasoning: Abduction or forming a hypothesis (what may be), Induction or experimental testing (what is operative) and Deduction or syllogistic reasoning (what must be). Fischer was also influenced by the methodology of Karl Popper’s philosophy of science as expressed in his Conjecture’s and Refutations (1962).
The first phase of the Problem-Solving approach is called Inquiry (Fischer), Abduction (Pierce) or Conjecture (Popper). The historian formulates open-ended questions. It is creative. There are no rules, no formula for success. Fischer also seems to include in this phase the assessment of data for veracity and significance.
The second phase is Explanation (Fischer) or Induction (Pierce). In this phase the historian formulates an answer by arranging his data into an explanatory paradigm. Fischer lists six explanatory paradigms, although there could be others. They are Analogy, Narrative, Causal Model, Motivational Model, Collectivized Group-Composition Model and Statistical Generalization. [NOTE: Fischer has used most of these paradigms in his own writing to create a very diverse oeuvre. Washington’s Crossing and Paul Revere’s Ride are classic examples of the Narrative paradigm. Albion’s Seed is organized around Collectivized Group Composition, Liberty and Freedom might be viewed as an example of the Motivational model and The Great Wave makes excellent use of Statistical Generalization.]
The third phase is Argument (Fischer) or Deduction (Pierce) and may have some similarities with Refutation (Popper). This is where we apply critical tests to assess our methods and interpretations. Fischer breaks these down into three categories: structural (is the argument valid?), semantic (is it clear and precise?) and substantive (is it meaningful?).
These three phases are Fischer’s attempt to create a formal method for historical research. He will elaborate and provide details on this method in the three parts of Historian’s Fallacies. He hopes that this method will not stifle creativity while at the same time limiting errors that frequently mar historical research—hopefully making us all better historians and critics of history. While there are other “logics of historical thought” I believe Fischer’s method can be very helpful in adding rigor and discipline to historical research.