05 January 2012

What I'm Reading--Historians and Fallacies

The Christmas Break for this graduate student is about to come to an end.  Over the break, I had the chance to indulge in some relaxation, albeit away from home.  While I enjoy my grad studies, it's good to take a break and smell the roses every once in a while.  My cross-country drives give the opportunity for relaxation, unless it involves the whiteout that I drove through around Cleveland on I-80 on Tuesday.  While there were no crashes, traffic sped along at a whopping 15 miles per hour for a bit.  I'm glad to be back in Grand Forks and in my own bed for a change.

One of the indulgences that I take while on break is reading.  I know what you're probably thinking, "Doesn't a grad student's life involve lots of reading?"  It does, but it's generally on topics that relate to work, not enjoyment.  For Christmas, I got a copy of Carl Trueman's Histories and Fallacies.  I read through it very quickly, as it is an enjoyable read.  I generally don't enjoy books on historiography, but this one was quite readable and practical (probably because it's not written more for laymen).  I would not have asked for the book if it had not been recommended by one of Trueman's former students, himself not a historian, at Westminster Theological Seminary.  After reading this book, I'm glad I got the recommendation and chose to ignore my general avoidance of all things related to historiography (at least in the theoretical sense).  Trueman, like me, has little love for those who only write about the writing of history, rather than actually writing history themselves. 

One of the things that Trueman clearly points out is the fact that historical writing is based upon interpretation.  He discusses the difference between objectivity and neutrality, arguing that the first is possible, while the second is not.  There are facts.  For example, WWII happened.  This is not disputed.  The impact of various actions during World War II are debated, and differing interpretations can shed light on the subject.  While Trueman has no patience for relativism, he understands that there is no one absolute right interpretation of most historical events.  For an example, he uses the Holocaust.  There are two schools of thought on the Holocaust, the functionalists and the intentionalists--who basically argue whether the Holocaust was planned from the beginning or thought up along the way.  Both are able to find evidence that backs up their claims and both are able to shed light on the German activity in this horrific event.  Neither is necessarily absolutely correct. 

The group that troubles Trueman are the Holocaust Deniers who say that either the event never happened  or that the death tolls were nowhere in the millions.  These are folks who misuse historical evidence and make their websites look slick to spread their propaganda.  Trueman walks his readers through the bad historical method of the deniers.  Both functionalists and intentionalists use the accepted methods of historical inquiry.  For the most part the deniers do not.  The moral quandry of the Holocaust allows Trueman to criticize an extreme relativism that embraces the validity of all texts.  To radical postmodernists, Holocaust deniers should not be a problem.  While multiple perspectives can be accurate, there are perspectives that are completely inaccurate or immoral.  I think that Trueman handled this concept quite well.

Much of the rest of the book goes into discussing certain fallacies that historians are prone to fall into.  Entire chapters are devoted to the idea of metanarratives that explain everything and anachronism, while the final chapter discusses a few.  While Histories and Fallacies includes some of the same ideas as David Hackett Fischer's scathing review (Historians' Fallacies) of the logical fallacies that even the most accomplished historians commit, it did not go into nearly the depth of Fischer's book, nor did it give specific examples with names included.

I rather enjoyed the chapter on overarching interpretations of history.  Trueman chose Marxism, and one of its ablest historians, to take apart.  While I would definitely not describe myself as a Marxist historian, I do recognize (as does Trueman) that this school of historians brought the importance of economic considerations in history to the forefront.  Trueman uses the example of a letter from Pliny the Younger to the Roman emperor Trajan that talks about the Christians and their persecution.  Pliny talks about the return of many to the old gods and the joy of some merchants.  Most readers would ignore the last part, which is almost tacked onto the end of the letter, but it actually indicates that merchants who dealt in idols complained about the Christians cutting their business.  Trueman also uses Christopher Hill's discussion of Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress as an example.  All of the merchants and gentlemen in Vanity Fair are described negatively in Bunyan.  Hill ascribes it to economics.  Trueman agrees that this could have been an underlying, and perhaps even unconscious, theme in Bunyan's thought.  Trueman is generally quite complimentary of Hill's work.  I've read some of it, and it is very readable and much of it is convincing.  However, I agree with Trueman that economic factors are not the only factors in history.  Ideas are important, and they are not always related to class as the Marxists would generally argue.  In an interesting note, Trueman pointed out that Marxist historians can sometimes deny problems based upon ideology (I've seen right-leaning people do this as well, so the left does not have a monopoly).  He pointed out an interview in which Hill said that there were no famines under Stalin, in spite of the overwhelming evidence that there were.  Frameworks are good, but they cannot be used as absolutes that cannot be falsified.  Marxist history often falls into this trap.

Trueman's book succeeds in bringing the practice of history to a level that laymen can enjoy and understand.  I've studied history for many years, and I must confess that there are books PhD's struggle with.  This is not one of them, and I can wholeheartedly recommend it. 

No comments:

Post a Comment