Book Review: Histories and Fallacies

Histories and Fallacies is one of the most interesting books I have read in a long time, partly due to the topic, which is not really one relating directly to my task as a Pastor and Theologian, so it was really outside my normal milieu of reading. Histories and Fallacies is a book about the historical method, it is about helping people become better historians by aiding them in seeing their own blind-spots, in asking the right questions, and thus effectively honing their skills in understanding historical events/actions.

The book is written in a way that makes it accessible to someone with even a tertiary knowledge of history and the issues surrounding its interpretation, and yet I think it would be helpful for someone who perhaps has been working in this field for a while.

One of the most helpful aspects of this work is that it is not dry academia, Trueman writes in a vibrant and clear way. His illustrations are instructive and bring to life the concepts he tries to explain. One such example that I appreciated was the illustration of the difference between a historical method and philosophical commitment; Trueman showed how Marxism asks some helpful questions, that had you not understood something of a class struggle you would not have asked, and yet at the same time Marxism falls short of being a really meaningful historical method and falls into the realm of philosophical pre-commitment since it is unfalsifiable. What Trueman means by this is that all historical methods should be open to scrutiny and falsification (we can prove it wrong), however when Marxism is confronted with historical facts that contradict its basic tenant of dialectic progress, they deny it calling it ‘false consciousness’.

Trueman spends much time going through various fallacies that plague the historian as he tries to grapple with history, yet he does this in a humble and memorable way. He also demonstrates how the right question can lead to a better understanding of events, for example, he shows how the remarkable aspect of Luther’s writing on the Jews was not so much his anti-Semitic works written later in his life, that reflected a strong anti-Semitic feeling already present in Europe at the time, but rather Luther’s earlier work which was extremely favourable towards the Jews; asking questions about the earlier work is far more instructive in understanding Luther, since his second work was nothing new for that period of history.

Trueman does an excellent job in helping one think more critically and effectively about history and about the over simplifications people sometimes make in an attempt to explain human actions; in one place he does this by showing that the categories of race were not really big issues in the 15th century when Luther wrote, but are rather a 19th century category, thus to explain Luther’s anti-Semitic work as the basis for Nazi racism is to read back into Luther a category which Luther was not thinking in, Luther thought in religious categories, not so much racial ones.

Histories and Fallacies provides tools that would help anybody in beginning to think through a field that they may not have given much thought to before. It was an informative, engaging and extremely helpful read.

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