Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

How to ask a question

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“A moment’s reflection should suffice to establish the simple proposition that every historian, willy-nilly, must begin his research with a question,” David Hackett Fischer writes in Historians’ Fallacies. Despite its title, this fascinating book, which was first published in the early seventies, is a valuable guide for critical thinking of any kind, and if you replace “historian” in the previous sentence with “writer,” or even “journalist,” you get a better sense of how widely applicable its advice can be. Fischer continues:

Questions are the engines of intellect, the cerebral machines which convert energy to motion, and curiosity to controlled inquiry. There can be no thinking without questioning—no purposeful study of the past, nor any serious planning for the future. Moreover, there can be no questioning in a sophisticated sense without hypothesizing, and no systematic testing of hypotheses without the construction of hypothetical models which can be put to the test. Often, this intricate process is partly hidden from a historian, as well as from his readers. Occasionally it is entirely invisible. But always it exists.

Fischer concludes: “Without questions of some sort, a historian is condemned to wander aimlessly through dark corridors of learning.” He’s right. And at a moment at which diligent questioning and investigation by responsible journalists—whose work often amounts to writing history in real time—is under active attack, it seems worth looking at the kinds of questions that lead to real answers, or at least to a deeper understanding of the problems involved.

Of course, this assumes that a historian, reporter, or biographer should enter a project with a specific set of questions in mind, which not everyone accepts. Fischer calls this attitude the Baconian fallacy, or “the idea that a historian can operate without the aid of preconceived questions, hypotheses, ideas, assumptions, theories, paradigms, postulates, prejudices, presumptions, or general presuppositions of any kind.” And he isn’t just inventing a straw man here. Fischer quotes Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges, a French historian of the nineteenth century, who writes:

Since [the historian] cannot know the cause beforehand, he should not be content to study a specific category of facts; he should carefully observe all the facts, all the institutions, all regulations public or private, all the customs of domestic life, and particularly everything that relates to the possession of land [sic!]. He should study all of these things with equally careful attention, for he does not know beforehand from which side enlightenment will come to him. This method is slow, but it is the only one which is sure. It is not the method of the doctrinaire, but of the inquirer.

At first glance, this seems reasonable enough, and even we conclude that it expresses an unattainable ideal, we might be inclined to agree with the historian G.R. Elton, whose more moderate position Fischer quotes as well: “Preconceived notions are a much greater danger to historical truth than either deficiency of evidence or error in detail…The historian must certainly make one initial choice, of main area of study or line of approach. But after that (if he is worth considering at all) he becomes the servant of his evidence of which he will, or should, ask no specific questions until he has absorbed what it says.”

Yet even if this were a practicable approach for the working writer or scholar, when it comes to making real discoveries, it’s markedly inferior to framing an initial question as consciously as possible, and then revising it as necessary in light of new information. Fischer uses a striking image to express the contrast between these two conceptions of the historian’s task:

The most common everything-about-something school imagines that historical science might be constructed on the same architectural principles as the Pyramid of Khufu, with monographs stacked upon thick square monographs in one vast granite pile, the whole massy structure to be crowned some day with the gilded figure of a historiographical Newton. But a glance at the history of historical writing suggests that this is not at all the way in which historiography develops. The monographs do not commonly come first and the general interpretations second. Instead some master architect—not master builder—draws a rough sketch of a pyramid in the sand, and many laborers begin to hew their stones to fit. Before many are made ready, the fashion suddenly changes—pyramids are out; obelisks are in. Another master architect draws a sketch in the sand, and the hewing and chipping starts all over again. A few stones can be salvaged, but most have to be cut from scratch. As Huizinga writes, “when the master builder comes, he will find most of the stones you have laid ready for him unusable.”

And his conclusion seems just as valid today as it did nearly half a century ago: “But there is no whole truth to be discovered by a simple method of induction. Every true historical statement is an answer to a question which a historian has asked. Not to The Question. Not to questions about everything. But to questions about something.”

So how do we know which questions to ask? After listing eleven common fallacies, Fischer proposes a few positive axioms for framing “a proper historical question,” including this piece of excellent advice: “One way to balance the difficult dual requirement of freedom and control is to begin with a cluster of questions, and for each of them, a cluster of answers which are generated by hunches and preliminary explanations…These clusters of questions and hypotheses can and indeed must be designed in such a way as to neutralize a predisposition to actualize any one of them.” This is what good historians and journalists do in practice, even if they aren’t always conscious of it. And Fischer’s most helpful insight of all may be about the word “why,” of which he warns us:

In my opinion—and I may be a minority of one—that favorite adverb of historians should be consigned to the semantical rubbish heap. A “why” question tends to become a metaphysical question. It is also an imprecise question, for the adverb “why” is slippery and difficult to define. Sometimes it seeks a cause, sometimes a motive, sometimes a reason, sometimes a description, sometimes a process, sometimes a purpose, sometimes a justification. A “why” question lacks direction and clarity; it dissipates a historian’s energies and interests. “Why did the Civil War happen?” “Why was Lincoln shot?” A working historian receives no clear signals from these woolly interrogatories as to which way to proceed, how to begin, what kinds of evidence will answer the problem, and indeed what kind of problem is raised. There are many more practicable adverbs—who, when, where, what, how—which are more specific and more satisfactory.

This seems particularly applicable today, when many of us are asking “Why?” of problems that would benefit from more practicable adverbs. My personal favorite is “How?” And if journalists are under fire these days, it’s because they have an advantage over historians, which makes them more dangerous. They can implicitly raise, if not answer, the question that matters the most: “What now?”

Written by nevalalee

May 30, 2018 at 8:01 am

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