Book Review: Histories and Fallacies by Carl Trueman
Most who read this review probably have no desire to research and write history, so why read a book on how to do it? First, even if you never intend to put your own ideas to paper, Carl Trueman’s Histories and Fallacies will equip you to evaluate the historical writings of others, as well as develop your skills in critical thinking. Second, Trueman, one of the more engaging writers in the Reformed community, possesses an ability to make most any subject interesting, even for those who hated taking history in high school. He peppers the work with analogies and illustrations from the likes of Led Zeppelin to Winston Churchill and everything in between. Trueman dispels the myth that all works of history must bore the reader with endless facts and dates.
The first chapter alone makes the book worth buying. Trueman explains how the postmodern assumption that all truth is relative has seeped into the historical profession and has created a rising skepticism. Those who take this relativism to the extreme posit that every narrative of the past contains merely the projection of the historian’s circumstances and opinions. Trueman concedes that the historian’s situation in life, choice of subject, selection of evidence, and other factors, all influence the nature of the narrative that he or she constructs. No history is “neutral” in the sense of “just the facts, ma’am.” This does not entail, however, that all histories are valid. The denial of stark neutrality does not rule out genuine objectivity. Trueman makes clear that the task of the historian involves wrestling with issues of verifiability and accountability by public criteria. Most historians acknowledge in their methodology that public criteria exist. For example, one can make a distinction between a history that claims that Henry V defeated the French at Agincourt and a history that denies the existence of Henry V. The most staunch postmodernist must admit that one is valid and one is not, based on the evidence available.
The idea that one can be objective without claiming to be neutral has significant ramifications outside the walls of academia. Trueman provides an extensive look at the phenomenon of Holocaust Denial and its use of historical data. Proper historical methodology separates those who deny the Holocaust and those who do not. Of course, presuppositions come into play, but evaluators of the evidence can label one interpretation plausible and another implausible by generally agreed upon procedures of verification.
The remainder of the book builds on the groundwork of chapter one. In the second chapter, Trueman examines issues of interpretative frameworks, with a focus on Marxism. He presents the strengths and weaknesses of this grand theory of interpretation. Chapter three covers the problem of anachronism, an imposition on the past of ideas, categories, or values that were nonexistent or significantly different during the historical period under examination. In chapter four, Trueman offers a brief survey of fallacies most tempting to historians. The postscript includes helpful suggestions for further reading in historical methodology.
Histories andl Fallacies will help those preparing to research and write history, as well as those who read history. It will sharpen your ability to evaluate evidence and spot the fallacies in the arguments of others. It comes highly recommended, especially at a very affordable price.