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The Historians' Paradox

The Study of History in Our Time

Peter Hoffer

Publication Year: 2008

How do we know what happened in the past? We cannot go back, and no amount of historical data can enable us to understand with absolute certainty what life was like “then.” It is easy to demolish the very idea of historical knowing, but it is impossible to demolish the importance of historical knowing. In an age of cable television pundits and anonymous bloggers dueling over history, the value of owning history increases at the same time as our confidence in history as a way of knowing crumbles. Historical knowledge thus presents a paradox — the more it is required, the less reliable it has become. To reconcile this paradox — that history is impossible but necessary — Peter Charles Hoffer proposes a practical, workable philosophy of history for our times, one that is robust and realistic, and that speaks to anyone who reads, writes and teaches history.

Covering a sweeping range of philosophies (from ancient history to game theory), methodological approaches to writing history, and the advantages and disadvantages of different strategies of argument, Hoffer constructs a philosophy of history that is reasonable, free of fallacy, and supported by appropriate evidence that is itself tenable.

Published by: NYU Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-vi

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pp. ix-xi

How do we know what happened in the past? We cannot go back. Even historians who truly believe that in some future time historians would have assembled enough facts to understand with certainty how it was “then,” like the German historian Wilhelm Dilthey, admit that “the explanation of historical connections . . . cannot justify itself by incontestable ...

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Introduction: Why History Is Impossible,Yet Necessary All the Same

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pp. 1-8

Early in my career of teaching history at the college level, nearly forty years ago, I found myself writing and lecturing confidently, positive about something I could never really know, trying to take my students and readers back to a time and place where I had never been, asking them to believe what I said and wrote about it. I supported my ...

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1. It Would Be Logical to Assume... Can we really know about the past? Maybe we can. All about facts, deduction, inference, and reasoning.

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pp. 9-32

... Los Angeles police detective sergeant Joe Friday told witnesses. But witnesses left out key observations, mistook faces, and gave fleeting impressions the weight of truth. The detectives had to sort out the bits and pieces and assemble them into a viable case. Dragnet was fiction, for in it the police always got the right man. Would that historians ...

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2. What’s Wrong with This Argument? Historians use facts to make arguments. Sometimes those arguments are wrongheaded. But historians can learn to do better.

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pp. 33-51

If a commitment to reason and a knowledge of logical rules do no more than begin constructing the span from present to past, they still reassure us that we can make sense of what has survived from the past. In 1938 Allan Nevins recommended that we trust our common sense to make our historical arguments, but that common sense is prey to common logical mistakes. ...

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3. Historians and the Loaded Question: Historians are not above asking the loaded question and its benign cousins, the hypothetical and the rhetorical questions, are a useful part of historical analysis and teaching.

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pp. 52-64

One of the near-fallacies that so intrigue, and seem so to plague, historians deserves its own chapter. This is the loaded question. The loaded question is a misnomer because it is not really a question at all. It is a statement hiding in question form, answered at one’s peril, unless one is, like Frederick Jackson Turner, the author of the question. Then ...

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4. Cause for Alarm: Historical causation in words and with numbers is a vital part of our scholarship, and any philosophy of history.

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pp. 65-86

Part of the value of certain kinds of loaded questions is their analytical force. Who was Ebenezer Chaplin? He was a minor figure in a major event, the intellectual origin of the American Revolution. He wrote a sermon, reprinted as a pamphlet. The pamphlet writings of the future revolutionaries revealed to them a conspiracy against American liberty. ...

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5. One of Us Is Lying: And why not? Historians lie, and some entire histories are lies for hire or profit. But lying is a part of history too that can be turned to good use.

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pp. 87-105

History is a lie we tell about the dead, the old saying goes, and the saying has some truth, for some histories are out-and-out propaganda. Given this lurking peril, Himmelfarb’s warning about the thin line between imaginative reconstruction and simple invention should trouble us. The history in the many editions of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia changed ...

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6. The Politics of History and History in Politics: Historians have their own politics, and politicians use history all the time. Strange bedfellows, and a lesson for both.

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pp. 106-127

Fischer’s warning about reducing the motives of political figures to a single cause is certainly worth our attention, but it runs in the face of the origins of our profession. On the wall of the very first room used to teach history to graduate students in America, at the Johns Hopkins University, hung a banner. It read, “History is past politics, and politics ...

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7. Historians in the Marketplace: Historians are not just scholars or teachers. They are pitchmen and popularizers. What does that mean for a philosophy of history? Let’s ask game theory.

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pp. 128-145

Stephen Ambrose was one of America’s most beloved and best-read historians. He knew that history is big business in America and that historians and their work are commodities in the marketplace. Most teachers of history depend upon their salaries to pay the bills, but bestselling works of history routinely sell in six figures and may bring as much ...

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8. Uncertainties: Are historians’ words also things? Can historians find patterns in the chaos of the evidence? Can there be a true history, or will history always be relative to the time and place of its students?

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pp. 146-162

Becker wrote these words in a letter to the editor of the Cornell University student newspaper when students complained of a lack of certainties in their coursework. Adrift in the moral permissiveness of the “lost generation” of the 1920s, students looked to history and found only relativism like Becker’s. He was sympathetic but replied that history provided ...

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9. Historians Confront the Problem of Evil: The oldest and most vexing of historical dilemmas, and the one that historians alone may be able to solve.

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pp. 163-178

Historians know all about evil. Our subject is a primer of it. The evil that individuals, groups, and nations do to one another, and to themselves, the casual evil of neglect, the fierce evil of discrimination, the almost incomprehensible evil of genocide are the stuff of history. Fischer warned that writing our moral views into our history impermissibly confused present with past. But for many historians evil events demand moral ...

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Conclusion: A Bridge to the Past

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pp. 179-182

History is impossible. Nothing I have written or could write will change that brute fact. We cannot go back in time. But doing history, studying the past, is not impossible. If we complete the bridge from present to past, we must confront this final challenge that Megill poses. There is a striking scene near the end of the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade ...

Glossary: All the terminology introduced in the text, explained one more time.

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pp. 183-188

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A Very Brief Bibliographical Essay

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pp. 189-206

Even novelists are including bibliographies in their work these days, so while this book is meant for general readers and does not have those troublesome and odd-looking little numbers in the text or the crabbed and overstuffed pages of endnotes, a very brief bibliography is certainly in order. It is part tribute to the works that have inspired the ...


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pp. 207-214

About the Author

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E-ISBN-13: 9780814790854
E-ISBN-10: 0814790852
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814737149
Print-ISBN-10: 0814737145

Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2008