A historian’s view of questioning

Some keen insights from Pulitzer Prize–winner David Hackett Fischer

DavidHackettFischerI received a wonderful email the other day from one of the AMBQ core team members, Bill Welter, who wrote:

It’s a cold, damp day in Chicago, so grabbed an old book at random from the shelf with thoughts of “exploring” with a cup of hot coffee. Anyway, as soon as I opened the book I thought of your writing project. The book is Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought, by David Hackett Fischer, 1970.

The opening chapter is entitled “Fallacies of Question Framing.” The second sentence in the chapter is:


Hackett ends the chapter with six affirmative axioms, which I found to be pretty good. Here’s a summary:

  • First, a proper historical question must be operational—which is merely to say that it must be resolvable in empirical terms.
  • Second, a question should be open-ended, but not wide open.
  • Third, a question must be flexible (avoid “hardening of the categories”).
  • Fourth, a question must be analytical, which is to say that it must help a historian to break down his problem into its constituent parts, so that he can deal with them one at a time.
  • Fifth, a question must be both explicit and precise.
  • Finally, a question must be tested.

Thank you, Bill, for sharing this. I like the concept of “operational” questions. And I strongly believe that questions—even the most grand, lofty and “beautiful” ones—should be tested. And most of all, I just love the idea that you plucked this 40-year-old book at random off the shelf and found it to be so relevant to something we’re working on right now.

By the way, here’s a little background on the impressive David Hackett Fischer: He is a professor of history at Brandeis University who received the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for history for his book, Washington’s Crossing. Fischer, according to his bio, is known for “his meticulous and methodologically rigorous reconstruction of famous events” (as evidenced not only by his book on Washington’s crossing but also his bestselling Paul Revere’s Ride).

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About the Author

Journalist and speaker Warren Berger realized that the majority of successful creatives and entrepreneurs he was interviewing over the years were great questioners. His wondering about “How can we all learn to do what they do?” led to this website and the writing of THE BOOK OF BEAUTIFUL QUESTIONS and A MORE BEAUTIFUL QUESTION. Follow him on Twitter at @GlimmerGuy and subscribe to his blog posts here.

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