Histories and Fallacies

February 17, 2011 — 1 Comment


As mentioned yesterday, I thought Carl Trueman’s Histories and Fallacies: Problems Faced in the Writing of History deserves a bit of a fuller review. It’s a pretty easy read, and I had been waiting for some time for it to be available in the library. Anyone interested in history ought to read it, mainly because if you find yourself interested in history you probably read a lot anyway and this is a short book that will help you do all that other reading much better.

The book has 4 chapters, a postscript, and an appendix. Trueman writes in hopes that, “by the end of the book, readers will have more awareness of the role they themselves play in the writing of history and of the strengths and the limits of the historical task in which they are engaged” (pg. 23). For Trueman, the basic historical question could be summarized as “why is this person doing this thing in this way in this place at this particular point in time?” (pg. 24) As such, he hopes the brief overview of the pitfalls in history writing will help the reader to on the whole avoid them and more effectively answer the historical questions they face.

In this way, the book is somewhat aimed at those doing historical writing, not just historical reading. In the postscript (cleverly miming Kierkegaard), Trueman basically gives advice on how to start into training to be a historian. I found this to be helpful, for although I do not plan to necessarily be a historian, but by training to be a theologian I engage in historical writing from time to time and need to make sure I am not doing so fallaciously. Overall, I think the insights in this book are a good primer, and I will probably do more reading along these lines when time permits in the future.

To give a quick rundown of the chapters, chapter 1 deals interestingly with Holocaust Denial “as a way of seeing how and why evidence means something rather than nothing in particular” (pg. 169). This is where Trueman deals with the issue of objectivity in historical writing, noting that there is a difference between “objective” and “unbiased.” Some authors, like Peter Enns (on pg. 45 of this book) can tend to conflate the two, but Trueman makes the case that history can be done objectively in a manner that is open to public verification, but that doesn’t mean that the historian proceeds in an unbiased fashion. Bias is inevitable, but that doesn’t mean everything is tainted, it just means no one can do history from a neutral perspective, free from any prior presuppositions. Neutrality and objectivity are not the same thing, and shouldn’t be treated as such.

Also helpful in the first chapter is Trueman’s discussion of what he calls the aesthetic fallacy. The first chapter uses Holocaust Denial as a window into observing some of these fallacies, and in the earlier part of the chapter Trueman discussed how those who deny the Holocaust do not deny that Jews were killed or that the Nazi’s took over most of Europe. What they do attempt to deny though is the extent of the deaths (arguing for a much lower body count, lack of systematic planning on the Nazi’s part, etc), and attempt to discredit the scope of the events. It is not so much a denial that anything happened as it is an attempt to cast doubt on eyewitnesses testimony (which is not all that difficult) and to present counter evidence that has the veneer of scientific credibility. This is what Trueman is referring to by the aesthetic fallacy. When something appears to be the product of scientific or scholarly work it is automatically given more credibility than it may actually deserve. Many of the attempt at Holocaust Denial appear on the surface to be persuasive, but when examined rigorously, turn out to be rather misleading at best, or downright fraudulent at worst.

Chapter 2 looks at Marxism as an example of the “fine line between an approach that facilitates explanation and one that prescribes meaning” (pg. 169). In many ways, reading history through a Marxist lens can be beneficial, however as a system of interpretation it always runs the risk of not just explaining, but doing away with any possible counter evidence to some of its basic claims. The most basic of course is that everything comes down to class struggle. A corollary to this is that sometimes people do not act in the interest of their class, but struggle with what is called “false consciousness.” In other words, from a Marxist perspective when someone doesn’t act with what should be have been considered the class’ interest as a whole, they are said to be acting in false consciousness (or unaware of their own class’ needs). In this way, everything either is clearly the result of class struggle, or appears on the surface to be attributable to other factors, were it not for the assumption of false consciousness. Counter evidence to any claims against class struggle as a explanation are thus done away with and Marxism moves from being explanatory to actually revising history to fits its preconceived mold.

Chapter 3 covers the phenomenon of anachronism “in order to understand one of the perennial problems of engaging the past from the perspective of the present” (pg. 169). The examples Trueman uses here are attempts to make comparisons between Calvin’s Institutes and Turretin’s Institutes, two works bearing similar names and having similar functions. In reality though they are writing in totally separate environments and bear different concerns, Calvin’s being more pastoral and meant to be an exegetical handbook for his commentaries and Turretin’s meant to be a typical scholastic treatment of theological minutiae and issues of the day. They bear a surface similarity (like all systematic theologies can) but are not really all that similar and shouldn’t be expected to be either.

The other example Trueman uses is that of Luther’s anti-Semitism. There is, in a sense, no denying Luther hated the Jews, but Trueman brings out the fact that Luther didn’t always feel this way, as evidenced by his 1523 work, That Jesus Was Born a Jew, on the whole a pretty positive treatise on the Jewish people. This work for its time and place was exceptional, while Luther’s latter change of heart evidenced by his 1543 work, On the Jews and Their Lies was not and pretty much fit in line with the racism of the day. This is the work Luther is known for, and while it is certainly anti-semitic, it wasn’t sensationally so, and was not much different than other similar works in that day. In a European culture where church and state where so intimately mingled, a person who wasn’t a member of the church had a hard time assimilating into the state as well. Such was the position of the Jews. It would be wrong to down play Luther’s anti-Semitism, but at the same time, it would also be wrong to make it out to be that Luther was the figurehead or leader of a movement.

Moving lastly to Chapter 4, it is a collection of various fallacies one can fall into if not self-conscious about method. Briefly, these are:

  • reificiation (given an -ism a life of its own such that it encompasses and it used to explain disparate phenomena)
  • oversimplification (usually in terms of fallacies of causality)
  • post hoc, propter hoc (connecting events causally that just happened to follow one another)
  • word concept (confusing the word with the concept, like can happen with for instance, liberty
  • the genetic fallacy (see yesterday’s post)
  • generalization (somewhat necessary, but can be overused to flatten out evidence)
  • not asking the right questions of the data (framing questions incorrectly, or along any lines of error mentioned above)
  • category confusion (comparing and contrasting two unrelated things)
  • invoking providence as an explanation (which does not particularly illuminate anything, similar to explain the fall of the Twin Towers as a result of gravity)

In conclusion, if any of this piques your interest, I’d suggest picking up Trueman’s book. I found it an enjoyable read, although I enjoy history in general and I enjoy books on method. If you don’t enjoy either of those, you probably won’t enjoy this book.


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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