Abductive logic and avoiding tyrants

Joseph Ford Cotto reviews Ben Novak’s “Hitler and Abductive Logic: The Strategy of a Tyrant.” I helped Ben deliver the manuscript to Lexington Books, and am glad to see Ben’s scholarship on abductive logic continuing to earn coverage. It’s a form of logic that may give rise to new heroes and villains alike, and it’s important to understand. Cotto writes:

While the facts about why Hitler did what he did are often discussed, the question of how he was able to attain stratospheric political, economic, military, and, in the broadest sense, societal power typically goes unanswered. Ben Novak, who retired from practicing law to begin a new career in historical scholarship, seeks to provide an explanation.

In Hitler and Abductive Logic: The Strategy of a Tyrant, he writes that the aforementioned despot had a most unique ability “to ‘scent out’ the fundamentals of political power and to imagine and inquire in an extraordinary way, quite unlike what ‘normal’ people do.” Novak argues that this sixth sense of sorts allowed Hitler to utilize a seldom-mentioned concept called ‘abductive logic.’

First identified by Charles Sanders Pierce, a nineteenth century Johns Hopkins University professor who Webster’s Biographical Dictionary deemed “the most original thinker and greatest logician of his time,” it is — per Stanford University’s philosophy encyclopedia — “the stage of inquiry in which we try to generate theories which may then later be assessed.” Pierce described abductive logic as “the process of forming explanatory hypotheses. It is the only logical operation which introduces any new idea”. He also said that it pertains to “all the operations by which theories and conceptions are engendered”.

Novak believes that Hitler used abductive logic to, above all else, capture the hearts and minds of millions who, when confronted by other power-seekers, would not have been nearly as receptive. Laying out in painstaking detail how Hilter put abduction to work for the Nazi Party, Novak delves deep into the dictator’s life story, long before his infamous altercation in a Munich beer hall, let alone ascension to Germany’s chancellorship. …

Novak, in tracing Hitler’s childhood and rise to power as an adult, more than ably disseminates a story of how the lowest depths of humanity were reached. From Hitler — an unremarkable, unsuccessful farm boy gone to the big city — channeling his deep personal rage into political power to the ease with which throngs of voters rallied to his cause to how he attained stomach-wrenching domestic order primed to liquidate not only those within but abroad, nary a stone is left unturned.

Especially astounding is that, for all of the power he attained, Hitler never delivered typical campaign promises, like pragmatic solutions to pressing popular concerns. Instead, he cast such a spell over those around him that Nazi supporters were willing to pay admission so they could be present at their party’s gatherings.

“Hitler was no ordinary demagogue who merely flattered the crowds, played on their emotions, and told them what they wanted to hear,” Novak specifies at the end of his book. “Rather, he acted on a plan he created in advance completely in his mind, and then, in a very short period of time, methodically put each element of what he had only imagined into place. Perhaps, what is most astonishing is that he did it, as he himself admits, ‘against all factors of human reason,’ by doing the opposite of what both his opponents and contemporary observers expected him to do, and by being prepared to take advantage of the opportunities he imagined would result.”

That Hitler followed this course of action yet found success for years on end reveals a terrifying truth regarding human nature. Hitler and Abductive Logic is not bedtime reading or any sort of literature for those who, even while learning about catastrophe, expect silver linings to grace the clouds. Nonetheless, it is an immensely powerful work which not only researchers of World War II should read, but anyone who is prepared for an education in how raw power is coveted, worked toward, obtained, and sustained for purposes so horrific that they roam beyond what words can describe.

When people write off villains like Hitler, Stalin, Mao, etc. as simply “madmen,” they are ignoring the fact that the clinically insane end up on the street—not in the halls of power. What Ben tries to point out is that tyrants often rise for specific reasons, and through the force of a specific logic, and if we don’t understand that logic and how to counter it, we’re more likely to see more tyrants.