Historical Inevitability

We have midterm exams this week, so classes don’t begin again until next Tuesday. When we do start up both my survey and Advanced Placement classes in American history begin with the Civil War. I’ve been thinking about a few discussion questions to get us going on the first day back and I thought about asking them to analyze the question of whether the Civil War was inevitable. I should say that while I believe the question is suitable for the classroom it is arguably not an appropriate question for historians to consider. Here is what David Hackett Fisher has to say about what he calls the “the fallacy of metaphysical questions” in his highly readable book, Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought:

The fallacy of metaphysical questions is an attempt to resolve a nonempirical problem by empirical means. In its most common contemporary form, this fallacy consists in the framing of a question which cannot be resolved before the researcher settles some central metaphysical problem such as: “What is the nature of things? or “What is the inner secret of reality?” And these are questions which will not be resolved before the oceans freeze over.

Historians tend to make poor philosophers of history in large part because they approach the subject from a purely conceptual angle. They tend to assume the set of assumptions made popular by the logical positivists in the 1930′s. The positivists argued that epistemological questions of knowledge, causation, etc. could be answered through conceptual analysis; in other words they could engage in simple arm-chair analysis. Fisher’s approach is to begin with real historical studies, which makes his analysis highly empirical.

The question of whether the Civil War was inevitable is a perfect example to illustrate Fisher’s fallacy. One can imagine two historians who agree on all of the relevant causal events in the years leading to 1861 and disagree over the question of inevitability. And the reason is simply that the question of inevitability does not fall in the realm of history-assuming we are not referring to some type of Hegelian definition. Here again is Fisher:

A scholar who carries this question [the question of inevitability] to the archives can illustrate his answer by reference to historical events; he can add persuasive power to his metaphysical proposition by the appearance of factual solidity. But he can no more hope to resolve the issue of inevitability by empirical research than he can hope to determine by modern methods of quantification the number of angels which might be made to perch upon the head of a proverbial pin.

Similarly, the question of whether Confederate defeat was inevitable suffers the same fate, even as we acknowledge the dramatic appeal of Shelby Foote’s comment in Ken Burns’s documentary that the “North fought that war with one hand tied behind its back.” Notice how the reframing of the question by Gary Gallagher steers clear of this problem. According to Gallagher, the question of inevitability is a non-starter; the proper question to ask is why the Confederacy survived as long as it did. I suspect that the claims I referred to in my last post regarding importance somehow fall into Fisher’s fallacy.

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