Fischer and reductive fallacies

Over the past two days we've seen David Hackett Fischer try to define the reductive fallacy in history as a series of lineal, contingent events that are over compressed or otherwise abused to produce an erroneous conclusion.

I happened to be reading Gregor Sebba this weekend, an essay of his directed at college students written a few years before Fischer's. He was talking about something he called "historical myth" - it is actually something quite specific, a reductive fallacy in another guise.

Moreover it is not necessarily linear or dependent on contingent events. Sebba says "historical myth" is an understanding "reasonably consistent with the facts" although these facts "are but part of the very large picture," and that picture is not part of the myth. Hence my characterization "reductive." Myth thrives on a reader's "inability to see - much less to analyze, least of all to understand ... historical development." Historical myth satisfies the desire for a view of history in which the "unchallengeable facts" are not challeneged by other, irreconcilable facts.

This is tremendously close to the predicament of Civil War history, where a master narrative has been composed of literary elements which are inherently non-linear and even ahistorical and which can be combined in different ways to produce "history" that "everyone knows" and which is "unchallengeable." In the first year of this blog I spent some time on the myth "Lincoln finds a general," which is reductive, ahistorical, and yet to many readers "unarguable."

Take a few "facts" for example.

"Fact:" U.S. Grant had little use for intelligence and felt the enemy should worry about him, not vice versa. (Note that this is a conclusion that informs interpretations; alternatives are explored in a new book that argues the contrary.

"Fact:" Lincoln and Grant had a great working partnership after a string of generals disappointed the president. (Another qualitative judgement, non-linear, that informs interpretation. Alternative: Lincoln and Grant had a stressful relationship that replicated many of Lincoln's problems with earlier generals.)

"Fact:" Grant was apolitical, which made it easier for him to work with Lincoln. (Yet another conclusion that can be read into unfolding narratives. Alternative: Grant had extremely keen political sensibilities and talents and he used them.)

You can imagine, then, even this meager supply of just three "facts" could form the basis for reading and interpreting wide-ranging and complex events to produce similar conclusions. The spectacle we encounter, as long-time, serious readers is watching waves of the newly curious, launched into this field through contingency-rich movies or novels, hungry for Gettysburg-like what-if speculation, dashed against the deterministic, reductive work of Nevins, Catton and McPherson and their followers.

Those readers who stay in the field after exposure to these dominant treatments are rewarded - well rewarded - with a view of the war that is both unchallengeable and rich in reductive, non-historical literary elements that can be endlessly recombined to generate self-reinforcing interpretations no matter what bit of the ACW is being read.

Some readers may be thinking I'm off-topic, that this is a monologue about something that might better be called "the fallacy of the self-reinforcing interpretation." But building block conclusions, such as "Grant was apolitical" represent individual reductive fallacies arrived at much as was "The kingdom was lost for want of a nail in a horse's shoe." Put rafts of these reductive fallacies together in "approved assortments" and you are looking at the most successful books in Civil War publishing.

The summary Sebba gives for his "myth" covers Fischer's reductive fallacy as well:

Historical myth, then, is an incomplete historical rationalization that resists rational criticism because it is emotionally satisfactory and because the few historical facts it uses are accepted as a guarantee of its historical truth.

The construction of reductive, incomplete, emotionally satisfying rationalizations has dominated Civil War nonfiction for over 50 years.