Niall Ferguson on Historical Interpretation
Niall Ferguson, MA, D.Phil., is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a senior fellow of the Center for European Studies, Harvard, where he served for 12 years as the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History. He is also a visiting professor at Tsinghua University, Beijing, and the Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation Distinguished Scholar at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC.
He is the author of 14 books. His first, Paper and Iron: Hamburg Business and German Politics in the Era of Inflation 1897-1927, was short-listed for the History Today Book of the Year award, while the collection of essays he edited, Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals, was a UK bestseller. In 1998 he published to international critical acclaim The Pity of War: Explaining World War One and The World’s Banker: The History of the House of Rothschild. The latter won the Wadsworth Prize for Business History and was also short-listed for the Jewish Quarterly/Wingate Literary Award and the American National Jewish Book Award.
His latest book is The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook (2017).
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
Ferguson talks about getting through the chaos of information.
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