The problem with historical arguments from silence

Historical arguments from silence are a common feature of academic work. Originally a means of dealing with historical subjects where a weak or missing evidentiary record makes direct examination of an event impossible, arguments from silence instead draw inferences from what is not said or not recorded. For example, if a historical document neglects to mention another well known and verified event that happened around the same time it was written, certain inferences may be made about the author’s likelihood of capturing that event or, alternatively, biases as a witness given the oversight. Carefully deployed, silence can be a tool of necessity in interpreting a subject where records are deficient for any number of reasons, be they accidental loss, destruction, or even the byproduct of biases in the selection of material for preservation

Arguments from silence are accordingly common in areas of history where records are sparse. They’re also a staple line of argument in fields that utilize various iterations of critical theory to interpret the past, usually operating under the not-unfounded assumption that recorded attestations of the condition of marginalized persons (usually on lines of race, class, or gender) are less likely to have survived to the present day. This is a challenge faced by any historian, whether working in critical theory or not. But I would also argue that critical theorists are especially prone to pushing historical arguments from silence too far, effectively supplanting observed evidentiary gaps from the past with imported political ideologies from the present day.

A closely related problem with constructing historical arguments from silence is the tactic’s tendency to heighten the epistemic biases of the historian who deploys it. Put another way, a finding of silence itself is a perceived and observational characteristic. It entails the review of existing historical materials and identifying a gap, by inference, of content that one might expect to find. In making an inferential claim from silence, a simultaneous assumption is made about the finality of the extant state of historical records. In other words, when a historian infers a strong claim about a historical figure’s actions, beliefs, or awareness from “silence” – that is to say from an omission of expected references and content in available records – she is also necessarily implying that those records encompass a representative range of that figure’s known actions, beliefs, and comments from the time period in question.

There’s a great risk at play here in pressing an argument from perceived silence. All it takes to break that silence is a new and previously unaccounted record coming to light containing alternative or contradictory information.

Unfortunately, many scholars invest too heavily in arguments constructed from the perceived silence of their subjects, as ascertained by viewing available materials. Doing so sets an argument up for refutation upon the discovery of contradictory information that existed outside of the scope of the originally perceived silence. An honest scholar might respond to this occurrence by legitimately changing her mind to account for the new evidence. But that’s often not what happens.

Instead, when new primary source evidence comes to light, rather than modify their views, an alarming number of academics ignore it, resist it, downplay it, or denigrate it as “faux.” They then double down on the original argument from silence, as if nothing had changed.

I have witnessed this pattern too many times to count, but a few examples serve to illustrate. The recent controversy over economist James M. Buchanan and segregation provides textbook case. Several scholars formed their initial impressions of Buchanan by reading Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains and assuming, largely on account of her prior scholarly “reputation” and her own claims of novelty in accessing Buchanan’s papers, that her study contained a thorough and comprehensive examination of the available source materials. As MacLean’s individual claims have been called into question (including by my own work), a number of scholars who agreed with her initial conclusions have adopted their own arguments from silence – usually to portray Buchanan as complicit in the segregationist Massive Resistance movement of 1950s Virginia.

Thus we are told that Buchanan “failed to condemn” segregation, or that he allowed his ideas to be “used” by segregationists and is therefore morally culpable for those uses. In each case, the “evidence” for the charge is a perceived silence – the alleged absence of Buchanan saying or doing anything that would contradict the segregationist political class of the era. In the past week or so, several academics who are critical of Buchanan’s theories have explicitly adopted this “argument from silence” approach, among them the economic historians Peter Temin, Sandy Darity, and Trevon Logan.

The problem with the perceived silence around Buchanan is it is still highly dependent upon MacLean’s own faulty historical work. These scholars are essentially assuming that MacLean did a comprehensive sweep of Buchanan’s materials and, equally important, made a faithful representation of their contents in her book. Except this isn’t the case at all. MacLean was not comprehensive – she actually missed dozens of directly pertinent archival collections and hundreds of pages of additional evidence. She also misinterpreted much of the evidence she did have – sometimes badly – and severely inflated the originality of her work in an allegedly “secret” archive that was in fact already being prepared for professional cataloging and release after Buchanan’s death. I’ll leave it to readers to search this blog if interested in specific examples, or to evaluate them in a comprehensive account here. Briefly summarized, while Buchanan’s entry into the segregation debate was infrequent given its distance from his own scholarly focus and expertise, it was also (a) far from silent and (b) generally in the opposite direction of anything MacLean claims about him.

So what is a scholar to do after appealing to Buchanan’s perceived silence, only to encounter evidence that this perception was mistaken? Unfortunately the aforementioned pattern is starting to take root: double down on the original claim of silence, all while ignoring or – worse – attacking and dismissing counter-evidence that MacLean missed in her original assessment.

Curiously, this exact same pattern played out several years ago in another area of direct pertinence to my work – the history of Abraham Lincoln’s involvement in the colonization of freed slaves. A longstanding historical consensus on the colonization topic took the form of a classic argument from silence: Since Lincoln did not publicly mention colonization in his known statements and speeches after January 1, 1863, the consensus view assumed that he dropped this policy from his administration’s agenda.

Except Lincoln didn’t actually drop colonization after January 1, 1863. He moved it into the diplomatic back channels of the State Department, where it enjoyed some insulation from the political graft and corruption that plagued the program over the preceding year. This move, the subject of several of my published works (see here), removed the program from public view while generating hundreds of pages of forgotten records on colonization negotiations over next 2 years. Very little of that evidence was known before I started digging it up with a couple of other scholars in the mid-2000s – mainly by looking in archival sources that had never really been thought of or searched before. After all, Lincoln is the most scrutinized president in American history so surely the major collections of materials from his life and presidency are known and accounted for. It turns out that they weren’t though, and in fact there are pertinent records spread out across the consular records of the State Department and the archival holdings of several foreign countries in the former British, Dutch, and Danish Caribbean empires. Due to simple previously unaccounted findings of this nature, Lincoln suddenly wasn’t silent after all, and historians since then have had to revise a longstanding assumption about his colonization programs. But as always, there’s an incorrigible segment of the profession that’s wedded to the older, earlier argument from silence. Rather than accommodate new findings and concede the earlier argument from silence was wrong, they opt to cling to the original argument from silence. They dismiss, ignore, or denigrate the new evidence.

And thus we arrive at a dispute where one side simply isn’t interested in engaging with material that might alter its position. In asserting “silence” they’re really just asserting an appeal to stature of obsolescent arguments and the personal authority of those who made them.