Napoleon Series Archive 2015

Facts and Research
In Response To: Re: Napoleon and the Kings ()

Once again, you're not either using or relying on facts, but merely your own innate bias against the French which is indicative of not doing accurate research.

Kevin, given the rather frequent application of words like "facts", "bias", "accurate," and so on, it may be useful to review the differences between a Fact, an Assertion, an Opinion, and an Error. (Veterans of the craft can stop reading now; thank you for your indulgence!)

A Fact is typically a simple statement that can be proven by documentation. In most cases, this means some sort of primary source. For example: "On 19 Jan, 1807 Napoleon ordered the burning of the towns of Eschwege and Hersfeld and the execution of 'sixty or more' of the civilians." That is a fact, given that we have Napoleon's own correspondence to that effect. The statement that he ordered it, is documented by the order itself. Ideally the fact should be corroborated by other primary sources, although the burden of proof is rather low in this particular case, since one needs only to verify that such an order was issued, in order for that statement to be factual.

An Assertion is a statement presented as if it were a fact, but which is still awaiting documention. For example:

"The first organization was the Inspecteurs aux Revues who inspected regimental administration, pay, and property accounts, amongst other administrative paperwork and functions. Their reputation as a group was excellent and in the first year of their existence they found and reported nearly 50,000 false returns which ruined a number of promising careers."

That is an assertion, presented without documentation.

A common shortcut taken by undergrads is to present a quote from a secondary source as documentation for an assertion. Unfortunately, doing so is not proof of the assertion; it is simply repeating somebody else's assertion. In some cases the student might not yet understand proper citation, or might simply be fluffing, and throwing out a reference like this:

"See Napoleonn’s Diplomatic Service by Edward Whitcombe."

... in which no page numbers are given, nor any specific context as to why this particular secondary source supports the assertion.

In order to prove an assertion as a fact, primary sources are typically required. It is regarded as very poor form simply to crib somebody else's citation when one has not actually looked at the primary source in question, onesself. (Indeed, it will earn you an academic dishonesty violation in our school.) When one has not seen the original sources, the proper way to phrase the assertion is: "According to Herbie the Historian, who quotes Bob Bigshot, blah blah blah..." (page #).

Another issue arises when the assertion is based upon a premise that was not proven. For example:

"If Napoleon insisted on honesty in his officials, and he did, then it would not be logical that he would personally be corrupt."

Although that looks at first glance like a tautology, it is actually an example of circular reasoning: the premise is in as much need of proof as the conclusion. It cannot be proven definitively that Napoleon "insisted on honesty." The existence of so many documented examples of Napoleonic officials that were corrupt means that his alleged insistence upon honesty must remain questionable. Moreover, there is no necessary logical connection between the premise and the conclusion, even if the former could be proven. After all, it is entirely possible that a leader might insist on honesty from his subordinates without being honest himself. Such an assertion fails on all three levels: reasoning, facts, and logic.

An Opinion is often presented as an assertion, but it does not require any - or perhaps cannot be verified by any - documentation. As in the case of the well-known orifice, everybody has at least one. For example:

"Napoleon was not a dictator."

That is an opinion. Since there is no objective definition of "dictator" that could satisfy all observers (unlike the way that a fact can be objectively satisfied by documentation), then the most one can do is to present the opinion as an assertion and to let the readers form their own opinions.

At their best, opinions can be useful conclusions or provide context. At other times they function in the manner of the aforementioned orifice.

(Apropos of nothing, the other night I listened to an argument between a German and a Pole on the subject of whether or not Vladimir Putin is a dictator. Strong arguments were presented by both sides, but of course there is no way to settle it objectively; the best one can hope for is persuasion.)

An Error (in historical writing) is an assertion that can be definitively disproven by the application of documented facts that directly contradict the assertion. For example:

"Napoleon governed according to the rule of law."

If that statement is meant to be taken absolutely, as in: "Napoleon always governed according to the rule of law," then it is obviously an error, since there are so many examples of Napoleon acting in ways contrary to his own laws. For example, his ordering the arrest and/or execution of people who criticized his government, despite the fact that politicial liberty was guaranteed by his own imperial constitution(s). Or his interference in his own legal process such as ordering the accused to be be executed, before they had even arrived for their trial. (Those things are documented facts.)

If the statement is not meant to be taken absolutely, as in: "Napoleon governed according to the rule of law... except when he didn't," then it could be an assertion. But such a statement, obviously, is not very useful since a similar thing could be said about anybody on pretty much any topic. (For example: I jog five miles a day, except on the days I don't.)

--

There are admittedly many grey areas in all of this, which is why we spend a few weeks on it with the sophomores in the research methods class. They fight tooth and nail against it at first, but I find they do begin to internalize it, and I often hear them teasing each other by saying things like, "Dude, that's only an assertion..." So I think in the end it not only helps them, but hopefully they also enjoy having learned it. None of us is so rigorously consistent that we do not make these mistakes ourselves, at whatever age, so it behooves us all to review them from time to time.

In any event, I hope that it will be helpful.

--

PS - none of the above are to be confused with fallacies, which are an even richer and stickier repast. A dated, but still useful primer on these is of course David Hackett Fischer's Historians' Fallacies.

If I'm not mistaken, the following is an example of the "Fallacy of Inconsistent Comparison":

As to corruption in government officials, listing generals from the army among government officials is incorrect.... Such generals as Davout, Berthier, Bessieres, Eble, Serurier, Gourgaud, Rapp, Savary, Mouton, Moncey, Narbonne were honest and honorable men. Massena, Soult, Augereau, and others might loot, but that cannot be said for the whole of the French general officers. The high officials of the French government, such as Lavalette, Daru, Carnot, Maret, Roederer, Cambaceres, Tronchet, Portalis and many others were good and honest public servants and served honestly and well.

(Note that the first sentence proposes that one's opponent should not use a particular line of reasoning - in this case including army generals in an argument alongside civilian officials. But then the rest of the statement does exactly that.)

Messages In This Thread

Napoleon and the Kings
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and "le soin de pouvoir ...."?
the silly--and unsupported--claims about Naps bein
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Sidney Smith
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Wow! Another Excellent Post.
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Gov. treatment of Smith
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Maida was not a 'Decisive Victory'
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The Failure in Calabria...
Borodino, Lützen, Bautzen, Dresden
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Spot On.
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Similar Orders
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And has been explained to you
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By the time of Bayonne
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The precipitant of invasion ...
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Slightly different circumstances
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Facts and Research
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*NM* merci pour la manche *NM*
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French Peasants and Russian Serfs...
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Lannes
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Biography of Lannes
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Fitzgerald, Lord Robert Stephen (1765-1833
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AR Disney, A History of Portugal (vol 1)
Warre's perhaps?
Pedreira and Costa - Joăo VI O Clemente
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What goes around ...
Portuguese History
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OT-With Some Guts Behind It
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You could go even further if you wished Susan
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