Taxonomy or Methodology
Sun Sep 7 12:57:29 2008
Fischer’s Historians’ Fallacies can be viewed as taxonomy of historical fallacy. There is a wealth of amusing, entertaining and corrective examples of how not to do history. Yet, behind the exhaustive compendium of failure is a very useful general methodology that is easy to miss in all the details.
For Fischer the task of history begins with asking questions. This is not obvious—many histories start with admiration, justification or ideology. Fischer is very specific about what kinds of questions we should ask, and this is not just about the questions but also about the historian’s relation to the questions. They need to be open questions, not leading questions. They need to be in some sense important and relevant questions, although what is important and relevant can change with time and individuals. Most important they will need to suggest possible strategies for understanding and verification as well as countering a tendency for rationalization.
The bulk of the book is spent on these strategies. He is working from an analytic/empirical model. These are the strategies for connecting events and information into a causal and/or narrative sequence. This is the content of historical writing. There is no need to go into them in depth as we have spent a good deal of time talking about them already.
Finally there is the interpretation and communication of that content. Hopefully starting with a well framed question will keep us from the worst abuses of interpretation. If we remain focused on that question and avoid excessive rhetorical elaboration we should be able to clarify our own understanding and communicate that understanding clearly and effectively to our readers. Fischer is not arguing for colorless prose but rather clear communication.
In many ways this is not an argument about history, but rather a way of living and interacting with each other in the world.