Historical Fallacies – Part Two

In a previous post we considered the relevance of David Hackett Fischer’s book Historians’ Fallacies (1970) to the narrative intent of the Historical Timeline Group in the Haass/O’Sullivan Draft Seven. We think there is sufficient material in Historians’ Fallacies, appropriate to ‘confronting the past’ in Northern Ireland, to justify another post. In particular, it is worth considering the arguments in Fischer’s chapter ‘Fallacies of Factual Verification’ (40-63).

There is a tendency to link together objectives in discussion about the past in Northern Ireland – truth and justice and truth and reconciliation immediately come to mind. They are attractive combinations though their association makes large assumptions. They are easy to say, and comforting, but each part is challenging.  Here is Fischer’s understanding of ‘truth’ when considered historically (40):

It is no easy matter to tell the truth, pure and simple, about past events; for historical truths are never pure, and rarely simple. And the process of historical truth-telling itself is never more intricate than the truths which historians tell. Every true statement must be thrice true. It must be true to its evidence, true to itself, and true to other historical truths with which it is colligated. Moreover, a historian must not merely tell truths, but demonstrate their truthfulness as well.

For Fischer, the historian is judged not only by veracity but also by the professional skill of verification. There is a certain intellectual austerity which attaches to that description of historical virtue which will clearly irritate those who wish to achieve outcomes ‘as the crow flies’. It was Disraeli who once observed that there is nothing more ridiculous than a statesman in a hurry and one senses there is something of this in the historical ‘themes’ which politicians wish to impose upon past events. It represents an impatient ‘cut to the chase’, that field of pursuit in which we exercise our moral and political opinions, like whippets in a meadow on Sunday afternoon. Those with political agendas tend to be hostile, as was Stalin famously, to ‘archive rats’ and those infected with the virus of ‘bourgeois objectivism’.

As we suggested in Historical Fallacies One, the tone of some responses to historical clarification in the Haass/O’Sullivan talks was – though certainly not Stalinist – at least impatient at the suggestion that ‘contending with the past’ required the application of thrice verifiable techniques. The past, so one imagines their argument, is too important to be left to the historians. The reason is that the past is not considered to be ‘historical’ at all, but ‘practical’, concerned only incidentally with proof as factual verification and mainly with proof as in ‘proving one’s case’.  Moreover, there appears to be an unspoken assumption that somehow the proposition that ‘contending with the past’ is pre-eminently the job of the historian is itself an intolerable presumption. We noted in the previous post why this is not the case but it is worth repeating the argument.

Fischer is an excellent guide here (42-3). He observes that there is:

  • A common confusion between the way historical knowledge is acquired and the validity of that knowledge.
  • A common confusion between knowledge that is ‘incomplete’ with ‘partiality’ or even ‘falsehood’.
  • A common mistake that there is a ‘mistake-proof’ intellectual discipline and history certainly isn’t that discipline.

Therefore, concedes Fischer, ‘it is correct argue that no historian can hope to know the totality of history as it actually happened. But it is wrong to conclude that objective historical knowledge is therefore impossible’. Those mistakes and logical errors inform the political reluctance to allow the past to be considered as history. And in Northern Ireland it is clear to see what is at stake when other forms of reading the past are allowed to become ‘themes’. In his appreciation of factual significance, Fischer identifies two – in Northern Ireland we suggest that these are related – pernicious fallacies.

The first of these two fallacies is the furtive fallacy (74-5). This is the:

 ‘erroneous idea that facts of special significance are dark and dirty things and that history itself is a story of causes mostly insidious and results mostly invidious. It begins with the premise that reality is a sordid, secret thing; and that history happens on the back stairs a little after midnight, or else in a smoke-filled room…It is something more, and something other than merely a conspiracy theory, though that form of casual reduction is a common component. The furtive fallacy is a more profound error, which combines a naïve epistemological assumption that things are never what they seem to be, with a firm attachment to the doctrine of original sin’.

This is not to deny that there are examples of back stairs intrigues, that sordid things do happen, and that there are devious people who engage in conspiracies. Nor is it to deny, as Fischer admits, that there is a little of the furtive fallacy in everyone and that it is very seductive. For the furtive fallacy, however, reality is always either more than meets the eye or less than meets the eye. Hegel once wrote of his own philosophy of history that if you look at the world rationally it will reveal its reason to you. For those in thrall to the furtive fallacy, if you look at the world from the perspective of a conspiracy then the world will reveal that conspiracy to you, especially when the evidence for it is otherwise either limited or insufficient. What evidence there is can be projected, like shadows in the Platonic cave, by the fire of rhetoric and by dubious analogy. As Fischer puts it, reality is ‘reduced to a set of shadows, flickering behind a curtain of flimsy rhetoric’. We would argue that much of the literature about the ‘conflict’ in Northern Ireland, whether from a republican or a loyalist perspective, suffers from the furtive fallacy such that terms like ‘dirty war’ and ‘collusion’ take on rhetorical substance while the reality they purport to describe remains – conveniently – insubstantial. For example, despite a raft of recent enquiries at great expense, such as in the cases of Wright and Nelson, the findings were of no collusion. The review by Desmond de Silva QC of the murder of Pat Finucane, published in 2012, found – as had the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday –no evidence of political conspiracy either. As Fischer so insightfully grasped, the persistence of the furtive fallacy on all sides in Northern Ireland can be traced to a notion of original sin – the partition of Ireland according to nationalists and republicans, challenge to the Britishness of Northern Ireland according to unionists and loyalists. The demands of the furtive fallacy are impossible to satisfy (according to the evidence) because not to come to the appropriate conclusion is to prove the furtiveness of that evidence.

The second, and closely related fallacy, is the pragmatic fallacy which selects useful facts in the service of a social or political cause. This is the historical approach which Oakeshott called practical history, what Fischer here describes (82) as the attempt to combine a scholarly monograph and a social or political manifesto in a single operation. Again, as Fischer acknowledges, there is probably something of the pragmatic fallacy in everyone. And the desire to be useful – to achieve peace and reconciliation, for example – is a noble example. However, as we considered in a previous review of the recent book by Anne Cadwallader Lethal Allies, the pragmatic fallacy, when combined with the furtive fallacy, can lead to all sorts of historical confusion. There is no need to repeat our criticism of that book except to say that it is the very opposite of the sort of historical understanding Arkiv thinks is appropriate for dealing with the past in Northern Ireland.

If we are to avoid both of these fallacies what sort of historical explanation is required? Fischer states it concisely but effectively (100): ‘A historical explanation is an attempt to relate some historical phenomenon in a functional way to other historical phenomena. Nothing is literally self-explanatory. An explanation, properly executed, relates the unknown to the known in a series of orderly inferences’. It does not do so with the help of shadowy allusions and partisan assumptions. The Haass/O’Sullivan draft could have opened up a slight opportunity to attempt this sort of serious engagement with the past but it had neither the intellectual courage nor, to be fair to the joint Chairs, the political permission to do so.