Historical Fallacies – Part One

It appears that during the deliberations about ‘contending with the past’, one Chair of the talks was unimpressed with the claims made on behalf of historical clarification. It may be that Dr Haass had in mind Lytton Strachey’s prefatory remarks in Eminent Victorians and that this made him perfectly wary:

For ignorance is the first requisite of the historian – ignorance, which simplifies and clarifies, which selects and omits, with a placid perfection unattainable by the highest art’.

Reflections on Strachey’s own inimitable style can be found in the excellent (and eminent) study of Historians’ Fallacies (1970) by the American historian David Hackett Fischer. It is a book which should have been on Dr Haass’s bedside table in his hours at the Europa Hotel. He, and the process, would have benefitted immensely from its wisdom.  It is a brilliant book, one aware of the many pitfalls of historical thinking and yet one which clarifies magnificently what Fischer calls the ‘logic of historical thought’. His comments on Strachey illustrate the problem of assuming too much about knowledge of the past (to which some of our other posts have alluded), namely that what appears real in the memory must be true, especially if it is repeated so often. On Strachey’s method of research, Fischer observes that a more professional approach (97-8):

would have confined him within limits with which he was apt to be more than a little impatient – the limits of truth. It would have told him when he was falsifying, and that was something which Strachey did not wish to hear’.

Strachey’s biographical method did make for enjoyable reading, it helped to establish popular understanding of the Victorian ‘character’, it set the tone for what EP Thompson later called the ‘enormous condescension of posterity’ – the sort of thing which Universities today would love to claim as ‘impact’ – but it revealed at source, according to Fischer, ‘careless, casual impressionism’ leading to ‘merely fantastic inventions’. These are certainly the ghosts haunting ‘contending with the past’ in Northern Ireland, spectral presences arranged in one of the fallacies identified in Fischer’s book: the fallacy of the prevalent proof. This fallacy makes mass opinion into a method of verification (or the ‘dogs in the street’ as we know it locally). This can mean two things: either, there is no need for historical clarification because we already know how it was; or, historical clarification is required in part to bring out into the light hidden truths about the past which we already know. As respected scholars, Haass and O’Sullivan were curiously inattentive to the possibilities of their profession.

The one grudging concession to historical method in the Haass/O’Sullivan proposals is the provisional recommendation of a Historical Timeline Group (HTG), what Karl Marx would have called a sort of conceptual faux frais to the real business of politically driven ‘themes’. The Haass/O’Sullivan draft suggested that the role of the HTG should be to ‘developing a factual chronology of the conflict’ and a ‘timeline of events from 1968 to 1998’. We have indicated already our dissatisfaction with that limitation of historical knowledge. However, in the event of such an enterprise being undertaken Fischer’s book provides an excellent guide to the fallacies of narration (timeline).

His operative principle is that good historians (unlike Strachey) tell true stories – it is not ‘history’ which speaks but ‘historians’. This is often taken as the equivalent of a criminal confession by those who are unsympathetic – an admission that, despite the claim to disinterest, the past all comes down to opinion and interpretation and that the ‘dogs in the street’ version is just as good as any other. Of course, such uncertainty is part of all intellectual activity (and the judgement of lawyers, conflict resolution experts and so on reveal the same processes). There is opinion and interpretation and not all opinion and interpretation are the same. There is Strachey’s opinion and interpretation (the fantastic as truth) and professional opinion and interpretation (‘what the evidence obliges us to believe’). In this case the loss of certainty does not mean the loss of objectivity – something which is often confused, intentionally or unintentionally. It is objectivity as far as it is humanly possible, according to canons of professional training, and what more can be asserted by anyone? Fischer proposes a number of fallacies which infest bad historical narratives (or ‘timelines’ as Haass/O’Sullivan prefer), fallacies which undermine best practice. The most significant are these.

The first is the fallacy of anachronism which Fischer takes to be the common denominator of all problems of historical narration. To exemplify this fallacy he considers an iconoclastic book of its day, Leonard Levy’s Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side, which was published in 1963. Here is Fischer’s criticism (134).

Levy formed in his own mind an idea of what civil liberties should entail – an idea which has some relevance in some of its particulars to some of Jefferson’s associates…Then he proceeds to condemn Jefferson, sometimes explicitly, sometimes by innuendo, for not living up to this exalted atemporal standard. In short, Levy analysed and evaluated Jefferson by measuring his acts and attitudes against the standards of the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] and tallying all the discrepancies. The result is objectionable not merely because it is unfair to Jefferson but also because it distorts and falsifies the texture of Jeffersonian thought’.

This has certainly been an issue of concern amongst former police officers who fear, when it comes to ‘contending with the past’, the imposition of an ideal model policing practice appropriate to present, peaceful conditions retrospectively imposed on the Troubles – policing which dealt had to contend with armed conspiracies, republican and loyalist, against law, order and peace.

The second fallacy is closely related to this first and is the fallacy of presentism, ‘in which the antecedent in a narrative series is falsified by being defined or interpreted in terms of the consequent’ (also known as ‘Whig history’). We noted in an earlier post a local example of that fallacy: the claim of Labour MP John McDonnell that ‘without the armed struggle of the IRA over the past 30 years’ the Belfast Agreement ‘would not have acknowledged the legitimacy of the aspirations of many Irish people for a united Ireland. And without that acknowledgement we would have no peace process’ (McDonnell 2003). That the IRA gave up its campaign and Sinn Fein showed leadership by engaging in a peace process in the 1990s does not retrospectively re-write the experience of the 1970s and 1980s. Equally, the fact that the main Unionist parties accept power-sharing today does not re-write the character of their opposition to it for most of recent history.

It is a fallacy compounded by what Fischer calls the telescopic fallacy or ‘putting big questions to little tests’ within a narrow range. For example, the justification of the Haass/O’Sullivan draft for choosing the period 1968 to 98 is perhaps self-evident, though Fischer warns of easy assumptions about such periodization – citing Michelet’s famous division of Louis XIV’s reign into two periods ‘avant la fistule’ and ‘apres la fistule’ (we are not too sure which part of a politician’s anatomy best describes the period pre 1998 and post 1998)  However, there is certainly a fold in history between 1998 and the present which qualifies the ‘1998 and all that’ appreciation of the Belfast Agreement as a ‘good thing’ after which the Troubles come to an…Moreover, there is no good reason why historical enquiry should remained fixed only on ‘the conflict’. The ‘conflict’ is not a freestanding historical experience for it only has meaning in the context of those who were opposed to conflict, who advocated alternatives to political violence and who argued that the paramilitaries on both sides had no legitimacy for ‘conflict’. There is no justification whatever for writing these voices out of history and it seems strange that (in particular) Alliance and the SDLP seem at ease with the narrowing of the past to what used to be called (in other quarters) ‘the war’.

And perhaps the most dangerous fallacy of all for objective historical knowledge (155-157) is the genetic fallacy which ‘mistakes the becoming of a thing for the thing which it has become’, an even more pernicious example of presentism. Why should that be? For Fischer, at any rate, it is pernicious when it converts ‘a temporal sequence into an ethical system’, otherwise known as historicism. Indeed, Fischer goes to some length to point to its danger in the following sequence: ‘Historicism, relativism, nihilism. There is no stopping place in this downward descent into nothingness’. One doesn’t have to go that far to see the dangers of this moralisation of history and in an earlier post we made reference to two of them in Northern Ireland’s case. At a more benign level, to say that the Belfast Agreement is ‘top notion’ (157) and was ethically implied in the conflict which went before is an obvious  falsification of the past, a cunning of reason at which even a good Hegelian might baulk.

So, what positive recommendations does Fischer have for any putative Historical Timeline Group? They can be summarised thus (161):

within an appropriate time scheme, events must be located with accuracy and precision. A historian must preserve an uncompromising respect for the temporal integrity of the story and of its various components. [The historian] must beware of the temptations of retrospective symmetry, in which antecedents are defined in terms of consequents.’

Above all, the historian must be on guard against ‘anachronisms in every form’. The task is to establish connections amongst relevant events, rather like Oakeshott’s conception of history as a ‘dry wall’ rather than an architectural edifice. Usefulness is not the first consideration of historical knowledge but Fischer concludes (315) that history can be useful in substantive ways. In particular, it can serve to ‘clarify contexts in which contemporary problems exist – not by a presentist method of projecting our own ideas into the past but rather as a genuine empirical discipline’, which is conducted with as much objectivity as is humanly possible.

It is that historical understanding and understanding of history which are missing in Haass/O’Sullivan.