Thursday, July 14, 2011

Histories and Fallacies by Carl R. Trueman

Trueman, Carl R. Histories and Fallacies: Problems Face in the Writing of History. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010.

Historian Carl R. Trueman reflects on the art of his discipline in Histories and Fallacies. The book is not an exhaustive guide to the techniques used by historians. It is a set of linked essays based on Trueman’s reflections on what is done right and wrong in his own work and that of others.

The opening chapter deals the value of history. Can one historical narrative be thought of as truer, or more reflective of what actually happened, than another? Can a historian, or anyone else, evaluate the merits of differing views of what happened and what they mean? Trueman argues that you can. Reflective people can weigh the evidence, with its strengths and weakness, and make reasonable decisions about it, even if the come to with strong points of view. As an example this, he looks at the work of holocaust deniers, who maximize niggling weaknesses in holocaust accounts, minimize the overall preponderance of evidence, and are careful to dress their work for the appearance of scholarliness.

Historians can also fall into the trap of making the evidence fit the theory rather than having a flexible theory that adapts to the evidence. As an example, Trueman points to Marxism. He acknowledges that Marxists brings to the fore the real effects of economics and class that may be overlooked by other historians. The problem is that Marxism excludes other historical causes, it’s all about class struggle, and has mechanisms to explain away contradictory evidence. Any over-commitment to a ridge explanatory system can lead a historian to drastic mental gymnastics and conclusions that are contrary to plain evidence and good sense.

A chapter is devoted to the pitfall of anachronism. A modern person can bring many notions to a historical document that didn’t exist in the mind of the writer or any of his contemporaries. Trueman illustrates this by comparing Reformation-era writing against Jews to twentieth century, particularly Nazi, anti-Semitic writings. The earlier writers had no modern notion of race Judaism was a matter of religion and belief, and therefore malleable. To the more modern anti-Semites, it is a matter of race, to them a concept of biology, and therefore unalterable.

Other fallacies and bad practices can trip up a historian. Some of them are summarized on one of the later chapters of the book.

Trueman is a historian of ideas who teaches church history. His examples generally come from these areas, though he touches on a great breadth of historical era, theories and techniques.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in
How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster
Maus by Art Spiegelman
The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization by Anthony Esolen