Linguistic Teaser

Views from the Top

Highlights perspectives of stellar authorities (the “Top”) whose views on language in their fields deserve to be known to larger audiences.

Regardless of the field we’re in, our understanding is deepened if we pay attention to the works of researchers who face problems similar to ours. In particular, what problems of usage challenge practitioners outside of the well-known branches of clinical medicine? How do they deal with these problems?

Views from the Top highlights perspectives of stellar authorities (the “Top”) whose views on language in their fields deserve to be known to larger audiences.

In the past this page has featured perspectives on language by mineralogists Ernest H. Nickel and Joel D. Grice, ethologist Jane Goodall, physicist Lisa Randall, and physicist/volcanologist Wulf Mueller. We now feature the historian David Hackett Fischer. Professor Fischer explored the historiographer’s craft in his groundbreaking work, Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (New York: Harper & Row, 1970). The fallacies he critiqued included 10 Fallacies of Question-Framing. In one of these he disputed the legitimacy of one of the most important questions that historians ask: Why?

“In my opinion—and I may be a minority of one—that favorite adverb [why] 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, what, where, what, how—which are more specific and more satisfactory. Questions of this sort can be resolved empirically, and from them a skilled historian can construct a project with much greater sophistication, relevance, accuracy, precision, and utility, instead of wasting his time with metaphysical dilemmas raised by his profound ‘why’ questions, which have often turned out to be about as deep as the River Platte”. (Historians’ Fallacies, page 14)

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