Niall Ferguson
Professor of History, Harvard University
01:58

Niall Ferguson on Historical Interpretation

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Ferguson talks about getting through the chaos of information.

Niall Ferguson

Niall Ferguson is a Scottish-born historian, political commentator, and public intellectual. He is also the Lawrence Tisch Professor of History at Harvard.  Ferguson graduated from Magdalen College and studied for two years as a Hanseatic Scholar in Hamburg and Berlin. Before joining the Harvard faculty, Ferguson taught at Oxford University and New York University.

A prolific commentator on contemporary politics and economics—he came out in favor of the Iraq War in 2003—Ferguson is a contributing editor for the Financial Times and publishes regularly elsewhere in the British and American press. In 2004, Time magazine named him one of the world's hundred most influential people. Ferguson is the bestselling author of the popular histories The Pity of War: Explaining World War One, Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire, and The War of the World. Ferguson splits his time between the United Kingdom and the United States.

Transcript

Question: What is the challenge of historical interpretation?

Ferguson: Begin with as little as possible.  Ideally without a hypothesis, without any preconception.  You read.  More than any other activity, history involves the assimilation – and this is particularly true of the kind of history I do at the modern end – of vast quantities of documentation. 

And you have to eat voraciously and indiscriminately this raw material in order to try to get a sense, first of the chaos of the past, because the historical process is not like a novel or a play.  It doesn’t actually have a naturally recurring, dramatic or narrative structure.  It’s chaos.  It’s a mess.  And the first challenge is to confront that chaos.

Thomas Carlyle put this very well when he said that the past was an ever-changing chaos of being.  So the first thing is to embrace the chaos.  Immerse yourself in it.  And once you’ve done that, then, if you’re lucky, you will begin to discern some kind of structure that you can impose on this chaos to make it intelligent.  And the process of making it intelligent was the ___________; how you can craft some understandable analysis, which you then try to pass on to the people living to explain what it was like.  As Rancor said, part of what we’re doing as historians is trying to explain these ____, what it was essentially like.  And that’s what historians are supposed to do.  We don’t always succeed in doing that, but that is ideally what a historian does.

 

Recorded on: Oct 31 2007 

 

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