During the oral arguments prior to the Supreme Courts’ evisceration of The Voting Rights Act, Justice Scalia made reference to the problem of racial entitlements. “It’s been written about,” he said. What in the hell does this mean? Is this an example of the great minds we need on the SCOTUS? Someone wrote about it? It reminds me of the TV ad where a man announces he has finished the Internet: he has been places no one should go! Places it is not even legal to go.
A lot of what has been written should be ignored. Like Scalia’s majority and minority opinions.
I was required to read David Hackett Fishers’ Historians’ Fallacies for a graduate school course in historiography. While I quibble with some of what he writes, this is the most important book I have ever read on history. It simply haunts me, and is sadly out of print.
One of Fishers’ first fallacies covered is the “fallacy of false dichotomous questions”. I know this is a problem for historians because Fisher commits it later in the book. I always respect writers who supply the evidence for both the point the make and the one they argue against.
Dividing the world into simple pro and con positions is rampant not just in history. In another blog of mine I was accused of supporting totalitarianism within minutes of posting a mild criticism of capitalism. That reader would probably feel confirmed in his views when I now posit the dialectic as the answer to false dichotomy. Certainly I must be a communist. Anarchist perhaps, but I am not thinking of Marx here (not, to channel Jerry Seinfeld, that there is anything wrong with that). It has more to do with Hegel, though he didn’t quite decide what exactly he meant by the dialectic, he put the concept on the table as an historical force.
For me the dialectic is a description of an emergent property of mostly human interactions that is not linear in its causal reality. Thus one plus one equals something other than two. This is to say that for instance human groups are usually more diverse than the individuals that comprise them, and act in ways that are not always strictly logical. This is sometimes viewed as irrational, and it certainly can be. The important point is that it is often not what one might assume when trying to force logic into the question. It is similar to the idea of the golden mean, as long as one is aware of the fact that it is neither inherently golden, a mean, or any other clearly mathematical calculation.
It is closer to what Nassam Nicholas Taleb calls antifragility in his book of the same name. Here what we are dealing with is dynamic complex reality rather than simple linear causation.
So, getting somewhere back to our point, false dichotomies are a function not just of fallacies often committed by the human mind: we love patterns and dichotomies are the easiest to imagine. This is close to Hackett’s argument. They also happen because human interaction is incapable of being dichotomous. And the dialectic, dispite the “dia” is anything but a simple dualistic reality. I like to compare it to the three body problem in physics. There are always more than either two or three bodies in history, or even biography. It is always complex, no matter our insistence otherwise.
I am starting this blog to force myself to write about a number of issues dealing with the writing of history that have consumed my attention since dropping out of graduate school in history. We will see what happens.
I am largely influenced in this project by the historiography courses I attended at Miami University taught by Jeffery Kimball, though he is not responsible for my misunderstandings of what he taught.