Historians' Fallacies : Toward a Logic of Historical Thought 1st Edition

32 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0061315459
ISBN-10: 0060904984
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Editorial Reviews


"An important book...in terms of helping an entire generation of scholars who profess to have lost confidence in being historians." -- --New York Times Book Review

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Product Details

  • Perfect Paperback: 338 pages
  • Publisher: Harper & Row, Publishers; 1st edition (1970)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060904984
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061315459
  • ASIN: 0061315451
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #67,901 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

David Hackett Fischer is University Professor and Warren Professor of History at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. The recipient of many prizes and awards for his teaching and writing, he is the author of numerous books, including Washington's Crossing, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in history.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

110 of 113 people found the following review helpful By Magellan HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWER on September 29, 2002
Format: Perfect Paperback
Fischer presents a detailed and trenchant look at the problems of historical explanation in this fine book. It is certainly one of the best history books I've ever read, although it's not a history book per se, since it's really a critique of the different explanations historians use. Fischer discusses probably about a hundred or more of these, so you probably won't be able to remember them all, but if nothing else, you'll be more alert to the more common and egregious types of historical errors, and overall, the book is a useful analysis and reminder of the problems and difficulties of writing history. In that regard, it's still a very interesting and worthwhile book.
Some of the fallacies I already knew from philosophy, such as the pathetic fallacy, the fallacy of composition, the post hoc fallacy, and so on, which are already well known. But then there are plenty of others with more abstruse names, such as the "the fallacy of the hypostatized proof." My one complaint enters here, since Fischer would have benefited from a knowledge of logic and philosophy, since he sometimes gives names to fallacies that are well known in logic and philosophy by a different name.
But overall, this is one of the best books on the methods and philosophy of history I've read, and it should probably be required reading for every student of history and professional historian alike.
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51 of 53 people found the following review helpful By Peter D. Kinder on May 3, 2000
Format: Perfect Paperback
I've read this book cover to cover once and dipped into it on average once a month over the ten years since I first found it. It sits on my shelf with my other "correctives", such as Orwell's "Politics and the English Language". Fischer makes the same points about rhetoric as Orwell at greater length and with far more wit. But, Orwell is the better writer.
Yes, as one reviewer says, Fischer rants a bit, but amusingly and with dead-on quotations from his victims. One will think twice about the errors Fischer cites, if for no other reason than to avoid Fischer's next edition.
Fischer is quite even handed. The first felon he cites was a professor of mine -- and Fischer's -- as an undergraduate. A more generous critic and historian -- and human being -- one won't find. But there he is.
I cannot think of a better gift for anyone who takes persuasive prose seriously. No writer should be without it.
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54 of 57 people found the following review helpful By Brandon Colas on December 19, 2003
Format: Hardcover
David Hackett Fischer's thesis is that there is a tacit and analyzable logic of historical thought and that historians can improve their historical thinking by applying this logic to their work. Historians' Fallacies is a successful attempt to make history a discipline better governed by reason. Fischer notes that history is mainly a problem-solving discipline; the historian asks pertinent questions and then develops a logical paradigm to answer them. He acknowledges that history will never be an exact science but it is his goal, by a careful examination of common historical fallacies, to develop a type of logic. Method is necessary in history, and logic makes a method more rigorous and useful. The historian must follow rules to write good, "scientific," history.
Fischer reveals his ultimate goal in his conclusion. He discusses the goals of history and makes an eloquent apology for the historian. He astutely notes that social scientists have never found a justification for history, making illogical arguments to justify their interest in the past. Calling history "fun," saying that history should be studied because it "is there," and stating "everyone needs to know facts" are three poor reasons for a defense of history. Likewise, claiming history provides a creative outlet and that it could prove useful for the future are spurious speculations, at best.
Fischer's apology of history explains that as history becomes more logical, it becomes more useful to society. History can clarify the contexts of contemporary social problems and can help with forecasting, allowing us to discuss future issues before they arrive. History offers theoretical knowledge, helping social scientists understand past conditions that best brought, say, stability and peace.
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80 of 95 people found the following review helpful By Omer Belsky on July 21, 2004
Format: Perfect Paperback Verified Purchase
...and then some

The study of history carries with it a load of fascinating philosophical and epistemological questions. Beyond such generalities such as "what is the nature of truth?", historians have to decide which facts are relevant to the case they are studying, what are causes in history, and how to make a narrative, a book or a mathematical model, that will capture something significant of the world.

All of these are interesting questions, but except peripherally, David Hackett Fischer doesn't discuss them. Rather, Fischer tries to track down specific fallacies that historians commit, and spell them out, apparently in order to help other scholars avoid them.

"Historians' Fallacies" is basically a collection and a catalogue of errors, some well known ones, such as "the fallacy of post hoc, propter hoc" (following, therefore caused by, p. 166) or "the pathetic fallacy" (ascribing animate behavior to inanimate objects, pp. 190-193) and some as obscure as "the fallacy of indiscriminate pluralism" (enumerating multiple causes without discrimination, pp. 175-177).

There are at least three commendable aspects to Fischer's study. First, Fischer is a fine writer, with remarkable turns of phrases: "Sir Lewis [Namier] was no enemy of chosenness in either facts or people. He was, indeed, a committed Zionist in both respects." (p. 69).

Another is Fischer's willingness to name names. Too many critics prefer uses such as "many writers", etc, but although Fischer does occasionally shies away (such as in his discussion of ad hominem attacks pp.290-293), he's generally willing to openly criticize some leading historians and intellectuals. Nor does Fischer satisfy himself with attacking such usual suspects as Robert Fogel, Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
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