Fairburn and the Antiquarians, Peter Munz

The New Zealand Journal of History
Vol. 25, No2, 1991, Auckland, The University of Auckland

Even today’s old countries were once new, but the new countries of the 19th century had a newness of their own. Where much has been done in Australia and America to define this special form of newness, New Zealand historians have lagged behind. In the middle of our century they were following J C Beaglehole in destroying the Wakefield myth that New Zealand was settled according to a blue-print and ever since then they have been busy being paralysed by Keith Sinclair’s proclamation that what we need above all is monographic information. They have been digging up facts and piling them upon one another – so that nothing remotely coherent could emerge. It is not information we are lacking, but intelligent discourse about that information. Sinclair’s book on New Zealand nationalism might have been a tentative essay in the right direction had it not got stuck in its failure to resolve the conceptual conflict between ‘tribe’ and ‘nation’. Miles Fairburn’s The Ideal Society and its Enemies, published in 1989, at long last ended this dearth and pushed New Zealand historical thinking into the 20th century by presenting a coherent interpretation of the social history of New Zealand 1850-1900. Fairburn not only owed his title but also the method of inquiry to Karl Popper, who spent some of the most active years of his life (1936-1945) teaching philosophy in Christchurch. Following Popper, Fairburn avoided positivism as well as induction. He does not rest his case on the mere heaping of information in the illusory hope that, once the heap gets high enough, it will turn into a coherent picture of our past. His analysis and description is neither a portrait nor a map of the past, but a model which mediated between theory and empirical observation in order to explain.

Fairburn starts from the premise that people came out to New Zealand to find an Arcadia which avoided the stresses and pains of the Old World caused by class conflict, by hierarchical oppression and by stifling individuality through excessive ties with kin and neighbours. He then advances the bold hypothesis that this Arcadia did not work because its very success in preventing horizontal, vertical and local bonding, made people too atomized so that Arcadia’s very victory turned sour or, to speak with Hegel, produced its own contradiction.

The book is elegantly written, polemical as well as illustrative of its thesis and an incisive interpretation. With the exception of Belich’s The New Zealand Wars, it is by far the most readable and stimulating story about our past I have ever come across. Its exceptional merit is that it explains not only much of New Zealand’s past; but also why there have been intelligibly divergent views of that past. This merit is indeed exceptional, because a story about the past acknowledges that it is one of the possible stories when it is able to take a critical measure of alternative stories about that past. The question of whether it is ‘accurate’ in Ranke’s old sense of telling us what actually happened, cannot arise. A model can explain by simulating events; but, unlike a theory, it cannot be falsified by the production of further illustrations. Some of the greatest historical works like Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, are of this type. They are to be judged by their explanatory power; not, as one would judge a map, by the correspondence of every detail to reality. Nobody has ever tried to falsify Tocqueville’s classic on American equality by citing evidence that even in the 19th century some Americans were more equal than others. It is indeed very difficult to define in what sense books of this kind are ‘true’, because it has become increasingly recognised that they construct the reality they seem merely to refer to. For, though the past is past and has really happened, it does not lie there, waiting to be reproduced in the shape of a realistic portrait. As with knowledge in general, including scientific knowledge, one cannot use a simple correspondence criterion of truth. Stories about the past are, literally, constructions of the past and every past is capable of being constructed in countless different ways. As every reader of Thomas Kuhn will recognise, the relationship between history and the past on which the truth of a story depends, is as tenuous and indirect as the relationship between science and nature.

The New Zealand Journal of History has now devoted a whole issue to Fairburn. Unfortunately it fails to live up to the high expectations one might have had of our historians. Though it looks like an intelligent symposium, complete with Fairburn’s reply to his critics, closer inspection shows that it was put together by industrious research workers and collectors of facts who, like genuine antiquarians, found the thrust of Fairburn’s argument too taxing. They consistently mistake ‘model’ for ‘map’, they have no grasp of Max Weber’s ‘Ideal Type’, they are either impervious to or ignorant of the cul-de-sac into which inductive procedures must lead and they fail to understand the finely chiselled nuances involved in Fairburn’s use of the concept of ‘atomicity’. Nobody, especially not Fairburn, would argue that there are such beings as social atoms. It always takes two to make one and even the most alienated and transient person has acquaintances and enemies, if no friends and family. ‘Atomicity’is a concept like ‘anomie’ and ‘alienation’ – its importance lies in the features it denies; not in what it literally asserts. It is a word which draws attention to margins, that is, the absence of its opposite.

Instead of challenging Fairburn by addressing these central concepts, the contributors to this issue try to bury him under heaps of ill-assorted, isolated examples which are not relevant to his subtly constructed model. In doing so, they show an astonishing lack of comprehension and mistake the random information they are offering for thoughtful knowledge. Caroline Daley cites incidents of local community in Taradale in May 1886, Raewyn Dalziel proves that there were siblings travelling to New Plymouth, 1840-1843, and Duncan Mackay, that there was mateship among kauri bushmen. These pieces of motley evidence are beside the point. Not only does one swallow not make a summer, but the crucial issue is to discuss how many would. It is as if Fairburn, bound from Wellington for Invercargill, had taken a ferry to Picton and a gang of antiquarians, on the mistaken assumption that he was planning to visit Taihape, proved that he did wrong in taking the ferry to Picton. If anything, the critics have demonstrated that they are out of their depth. They are writing under the impression that the canons of understanding the past still are as Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886) defined them last century. During Ranke’s own lifetime, Nietzsche pointed out that what mere antiquarians are dangling in front of the donkey is a fake carrot. By now Ranke is well and truly dead because historians have grasped that he was wrong in thinking that archival research can discover ‘what actually happened’ and that historians can ‘tell it how it was’. These self-appointed guardians of our past seem to be ignorant of countless considerations which have gone to destroy Ranke’s faith that one can reconstruct the past by the industrious accumulation of accurate details and are protesting that Ranke is not dead, but alive and well and living in New Zealand. The Editors, moreover, want to keep him that way by making their Journal a reservation for the undisturbed practice of antiquated Rankean skills. They seem to regard the old fallacy that the facts speak for themselves as the ultimate canon of historical understanding. Obviously, some of these historians will have to rattle their dags if they want to catch up with the 20th century before it ends!


Peter Munz is Professor Emeritus of History at Victoria University of Wellington and author of several books on history and the philosophy of history.


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