Exposing History’s Cracks in Logic

Historical novelists are always prospecting the deep strata of the past for untapped veins. Some of the richest lodes can be found in the lapses of logic and analysis that even the most astute historians are prone to commit.

Perhaps the best compilation of errors in judgment and interpretation is Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought, published in 1970 by Brandeis University professor David Hackett Fischer.

Readers may remember Fischer from Albion’s Seed, his exploration of the impact of British folkways on American society, and Washington’s Crossing, his study of George Washington’s leadership with the Continental Army.

Fischer’s impressive overview of historiography should be kept close at hand. Most of the miscalculations he skewers—exemplified by excerpts from the writings of his colleagues, many of whom no doubt chafed at being called to task—apply with equal force to the writing of historical fiction.

In future posts, we’ll examine several of these fallacies, but three will suffice presently. The best known of these gaffes gave Fischer the title for his book.

The historian’s fallacy is the error of assuming that the leaders and decision makers of the past possessed the facts and perspectives of hindsight.

As an example, Fischer offers the popular belief that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor should have been foreseen from numerous warning signs. He cautions against the tendency of disregarding evidence that, at the time, might have clouded one’s judgment or even supported a contrary opinion.

Likewise, historical novelists should remain on guard against attributing to their characters more knowledge than is warranted. It’s easy enough now to criticize Robert E. Lee for ordering Picket’s Charge. The task of both the historian and the novelist is to recreate the fog of war at Gettysburg with such verisimilitude that the reader will come to understand why such Lee’s decision may have been viewed as rational (if not by Longstreet) on July 3, 1863.

The Civil War seems to have served as a target for every fallacy condemned by Fischer. Another infamous example is the discovery by Union scouts of the cigar-wrapped copies of Lee’s orders for the Antietam campaign.

Most history buffs have encountered the contention that this fortuitous turn for the Union set in motion a chain of events that ultimately altered the course of the war. Yet Fischer dismisses this conclusion as a product of the reductive fallacy,  the error of boiling down a complex stew of causal ingredients down into a single, simplified explanation.

In his discussion of another error—the fallacy of division, which argues that a quality shared by some in a group is shared by all—Fischer offers a faulty syllogism for our dissection:

Most Calvinists were theological determinists.
Most New England Puritans were Calvinists.
Therefore, most New England Puritans were theological determinists.

Fischer observes that modern scholarship (in the 1970s) suggested that the Puritans were not determinists, at least not as was commonly assumed. Here the historical novelist finds a nugget of gold : An idea for a story set in Puritan New England with a main character who, unlike his fellow congregants, believes in free will.

Many such themes against the grain are there for the picking for the writer who will persist in sifting events through the sieve of these historical fallacies.

In The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown made great use of yet another historian’s error that comes under special opprobrium from Fischer: the furtive fallacy.

This is the assumption, as Fischer describes it, that certain events and facts of “special significance” are “dark and dirty things and that history itself is a story of causes mostly insidious and results mostly invidious.”

Of course, some of the best historical fiction would be cast onto Savonarola’s bonfire if a ban on this fallacy were enforced.

Fischer doesn’t argue that conspiracies never occur. Rather, he criticizes a more fundamental paranoia that, if left unchallenged, can undermine the very foundations of institutions. Reality is never fully seen. Real history is made behind closed doors. Practitioners of this fallacy start with the assumption that things are never what they seem. There can also be an attraction to the doctrine of Original Sin and the fundamental depravity of man.

Still, Professor Robert Langdon of The Da Vinci Code fame might remind his real-life academic colleagues that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.

The enterprising historical novelist should exploit the delicious possibilities presented by these fallacies—so long as he or she does so consciously.