To Be Civilized

A fellow mathematician called Robert Craigen told me in a tweet last October (2020),

I’m quite comfortable with the definition and usage of the term [“civilization”] in the work of Niall Ferguson.

Ferguson’s work then is going to be my concern here. I had asked Craigen in July,

Have you got a theory of civilization, to explain what is being destroyed? I admire (and have blogged about) Collingwood’s theory, worked out in The New Leviathan (1942) in response to the Nazis.

This was in response to his saying,

If you listen closely to those pushing all these things, destruction of civilized society is an explicitly articulated goal.

He was talking about a thread of tweets by Peter Boghossian. I am not going to talk about those tweets as such, but here they are for the record:

How to destroy civilization in 10 easy steps:

  1. Claim that science, reason, and rationality are tools of oppression.
  2. Focus on equality of outcome at the expense of equality of opportunity.
  3. Teach a generation of students that being offended by certain ideas makes them better people.
  4. “Decolonize” curricula by switching from robust epistemologies (scientific method) to radically subjective ones (autoethnography). Simultaneously, claim that anyone who has a problem with this isn’t merely mistaken but is a terrible person.
  5. Sanction and shame people who have conversations across political and moral divides. Guilt by association is a particularly good enforcement mechanism.
  6. Promote cultural, moral, and epistemological relativism. In other words, advance the notion that there’s no way to make independent judgments about cultural practices, moral codes, and ways of knowing.
  7. Create and legally enforce blasphemy laws. This will be most effective if certain ideas are made sacred and thus immune from criticism. Bonus: Equate criticisms of ideas with criticisms of immutable properties of people.
  8. Advance the narrative that what people can know is limited to exogenous, immutable characteristics, like skin color or gender.
  9. Deny people healthcare based upon their income.
  10. Do not provide a public education of the first rate for every citizen.

In the Preface to the UK Edition of his 2011 book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, Niall Ferguson says,

Collingwood has been my guide for many years, but never has he been more indispensable than in the writing of this book.

Collingwood then is also going to be my concern here. He has been my guide for many years, and I shall talk about what I have learned from him about history and civilization.

When I tweeted that I had questioned Ferguson’s understanding of Collingwood, Craigen told me,

As I said I’m no expert in this domain, but it strikes me as important to make a distinction between praising a writer’s correct practice of the discipline of history and supporting (or even understanding) the writer’s own philosophy. These are two different things.

I’ll take this to mean what is true, that Ferguson can be a fine historian without knowing Collingwood’s philosophy of history. Craigen himself said further, “It’s not a burning issue with me as it appears to be with you.”

The subtitle of Collingwood’s New Leviathan is Man, Society, Civilization, and Barbarism. Applying one sort of analysis learned from the book, I would say that civilization, or a civilization, can be any of three things:

  1. Civilization can be a process, namely the civilizing of a person or people. This is what the narrator wants to avoid, at the end of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:

    I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.

  2. Civilization can be a state reached by a process of civilizing, or the people undergoing the process. Ferguson mentions some examples in his book:

    In the pre-modern world, Adda Bozeman saw just five: the West, India, China, Byzantium and Islam.

  3. Finally, civilization can be the goal of civilizing. This would seem to be the sense of the title of an essay by Ferguson called “Western Civilization: A Good Idea,” available in pdf format from the Hoover Institution. The title is based on something that, “According to folklore,” was said by Mohandas Gandhi.

Ferguson’s essay is undated, but paragraphs constituting most of the first four of its seven pages appear also, in a different order, in the Introduction to Civilization: The West and the Rest. In the fourth of the book’s six chapters, Ferguson quotes words of Gandhi and Twain:

Asked what he thought of Western civilization, the Indian nationalist leader Mahatma Gandhi is said to have replied wittily that he thought it would be a good idea. In Hind Swaraj (‘Indian Home Rule’), published in 1908, Gandhi went so far as to call Western civilization ‘a disease’ and ‘a bane’.1 Mark Twain, America’s leading anti-imperialist, preferred irony. ‘To such as believe’, he wrote in 1897, ‘that the quaint product called French civilization would be an improvement upon the civilization of New Guinea and the like, the snatching of Madagascar and the laying on of French civilization there will be fully justified.’2

1 Gandhi, Hind Swaraj, ch. VI.     2 Twain, Following the Equator, p. 321.

When mentioning Collingwood in his Preface, Ferguson also alludes to his own purpose:

A polymath as skilled in archaeology as he was in philosophy, a staunch opponent of appeasement and an early hater of the Daily Mail, Collingwood has been my guide for many years, but never has he been more indispensable than in the writing of this book. For the problem of why civilizations fall is too important to be left to the purveyors of scissors-and-paste history. It is truly a practical problem of our time, and this book is intended to be a woodsman’s guide to it. For there is more than one tiger hidden in this grass.

The analogy between the historian and the woodsman is Collingwood’s, from An Autobiography (1939), as Ferguson explains. Both the historian and the woodsman help you understand a problem. If you want to shoot tigers, you can get a rifle from a gunsmith; but to learn to see a tiger and distinguish it from your own child at play in the tall grass, you go to somebody else.

I mentioned an analysis of civilization used in The New Leviathan. Ferguson himself uses another kind of analysis:

… A civilization is the single largest unit of human organization, higher though more amorphous than even an empire. Civilizations are partly a practical response by human populations to their environments – the challenges of feeding, watering, sheltering and defending themselves – but they are also cultural in character; often, though not always, religious; often, though not always, communities of language.

This would seem to be a sociological analysis. It does not give us a reason to preserve or defend a particular civilization.

Collingwood’s Autobiography is also a source for the doctrine of history as re-enactment of past thought. Ferguson gives an example of how he applies the doctrine.

In dutifully reconstructing past thought, I have tried always to remember a simple truth about the past that the historically inexperienced are prone to forget. Most people in the past either died young or expected to die young, and those who did not were repeatedly bereft of those they loved, who did die young.

On the subject of death, Ferguson makes two quotations from “my favourite poet, the Jacobean master John Donne.”

  1. The first is what Ferguson calls “the greatest of all exhortations to commiserate with the dead,” from Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (more precisely, the “XVII. Meditation” therein):

    Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

  2. The second is the second of the five stanzas of “A Nocturnal upon St Lucy’s Day, Being the Shortest Day”:

    Study me then, you who shall lovers be
    At the next world, that is, at the next spring;
     For I am every dead thing,
     In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
      For his art did express
    A quintessence even from nothingness,
    From dull privations, and lean emptiness;
    He ruin’d me, and I am re-begot
    Of absence, darkness, death – things which are not.

Ferguson’s comment now is,

Everyone should read these lines who wants to understand better the human condition in the days when life expectancy was less than half what it is today.

I don’t understand the purpose of the qualification after “human condition.”

While providing the quotations from Donne, Ferguson gives the reader such details as how, in sixteen years, Donne’s wife bore eleven children, three of whom died before they were ten; and then she herself died herself after a twelve child was stillborn. Thus the poet was “repeatedly bereft,” as Ferguson says; but he was also repeatedly gifted with new life – or new mouths to feed. Nothing determines the poet’s response.

Ferguson says earlier,

As for our choice of subject matter for historical investigation, Collingwood makes it clear that there is nothing wrong with what his Cambridge contemporary Herbert Butterfield condemned as ‘present-mindedness’: ‘True historical problems arise out of practical problems. We study history in order to see more clearly into the situation in which we are called upon to act. Hence the plane on which, ultimately, all problems arise is the plane of “real” life: that to which they are referred for their solution is history.’

Ferguson is quoting from Collingwood’s autobiography here. I happen to have the practical problem of dealing with the death of a close friend a few weeks ago. I don’t know about Ferguson, but I myself turn to Donne’s poetry to understand the condition, not of Jacobean England, but of myself.

Ferguson says of Donne that “the death of a close friend inspired him to write” the “Nocturnal.” Such inspiration should be distinguished from the kind induced by mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, or by a ventilator. Collingwood is emphatic on the point. Deaths of people around you are a part of your environment; and,

The effect of environment on a civilization is never direct or immediate.

Those words are from § 4 of Chapter 3 of “The Principles of History.” Some sections of this manuscript appeared posthumously in The Idea of History (1946); but the section just quoted came out only in The Principles of History and Other Writings in the Philosophy of History (1999). Collingwood continues there, elaborating on what Ferguson knows from An Autobiography:

Since all history is the history of thought, the historian is not concerned with man’s physical organism any more than he is concerned with that organism’s physical environment. Anatomical and physiological descriptions of man, or of this or that variety of the human species, are physical anthropology, not history. Books about ‘The Races of Man’ have no historical interest whatever, except as documents of a propaganda by which natural science has tried, not so much to capture the field of history, as to obstruct the growth of historical thought by distracting public attention towards itself. Not man’s physical organism in itself, but what he does with it in order to express his thoughts, is the historian’s concern.

Concerning the question, “Why did the West come to dominate the Rest?” Ferguson says in the Preface of his book,

The answer needs to be analytical, it needs to be supported by evidence and it needs to be testable by means of the counterfactual question: if the crucial innovations I identify here had not existed, would the West have ruled the Rest anyway for some other reason that I have missed or under-emphasized? Or would the world have turned out quite differently, with China on top, or some other civilization?

My own purpose then is to investigate another counterfactual question: if Ferguson were as familiar with Collingwood as his words of praise suggest he ought to be, how might he approach civilization differently?

Before continuing with my investigation, let me note the one of Quote Investigator regarding the putative Gandhi quote that Ferguson uses in both book and essay. The evidence is poor that a journalist ever asked Gandhi what he thought of Western civilization, and he actually replied, “It would be a good idea.” The only date ever assigned to the supposed interview seems to be 1930. A similar exchange, but anonymous, was used as filler in Life magazine in 1923:

“What’s your opinion of civilization?”
“It’s a good idea. Somebody ought to start it.”

There was such a suggestion also in The Baltimore Sun in 1925:

The question is not where civilization began, but when will it.

In “Western Civilization: A Good Idea,” when Ferguson starts with the remark unaccountably attributed to Gandhi, he does this for rhetorical purposes, because he will end with remarks of Winston Churchill, “often thought of as his polar opposite.”

In Civilization: The West and the Rest, Ferguson starts the Introduction, after a couple of epigraphs, with the remark,

When Kenneth Clark defined civilization in his television series of that name, he left viewers in no doubt that he meant the civilization of the West – and primarily the art and architecture of Western Europe from the Middle Ages until the nineteenth century.

This is not quite right, on two counts:

  1. Clark doesn’t really define civilization. In the first episode of Civilisation, namely “The Skin of Our Teeth,” Clark says,

    What is civilisation? I don’t know. I can’t define it in abstract terms – yet. But I think I can recognize it when I see it; and I am looking at it now.

  2. Clark is looking at – or allowing us to look at behind him –

    the Cathedral of Notre Dame – not perhaps the most lovable of cathedrals, but the most rigorously intellectual façade in the whole of Gothic art.

    Nonetheless, Clark’s descriptions of civilization as such are not exclusive. He does contrast an African mask with the Apollo of the Belvedere, saying, “I don’t think there is any doubt that the Apollo embodies a higher state of civilisation than the mask.” If you have to suggest that there is no doubt, then there must be doubt; nonetheless, the distinction that Clark is looking for lies not in race or geography, but in an ideal:

    … at certain epochs man has felt conscious of something about himself – body and spirit – which was outside the day-to-day struggle for existence and the night-to-night struggle with fear; and he has felt the need to develop these qualities of thought and feeling so that they might approach as nearly as possible to an ideal of perfection – reason, justice, physical beauty, all of them in equilibrium. He has managed to satisfy this need in various ways – through myths, through dance and song, through systems of philosophy and through the order that he has imposed on the visible world. The children of his imagination are also the expressions of an ideal.

    Later in the episode, he refines the ideal:

    Civilisation means something more than energy and will and creative power: something the early Norsemen hadn’t got, but which, even in their time, was beginning to reappear in Western Europe. How can I define it? Well, very shortly, a sense of permanence … Civilised man, or so it seems to me, must feel that he belongs somewhere in space and time; that he consciously looks forward and looks back. And for this purpose it is a great convenience to be able to read and write.

Clark may have his opinions on who has or has not been civilized; but the ideal of civilization would seem to be available to all.

Ferguson distances himself from Clark’s approach. He speaks not of an ideal of civilization, but an idea:

My idea of civilization is as much about sewage pipes as flying buttresses … To my mind, a civilization is much more than just the contents of a few first-rate art galleries. It is a highly complex human organization. Its paintings, statues and buildings may well be its most eye-catching achievements, but they are unintelligible without some understanding of the economic, social and political institutions which devised them, paid for them, executed them – and preserved them for our gaze.

Does this skepticism apply to the poetry of John Donne, as well as to paintings, statues and buildings?

One of the two epigraphs of the Introduction to Ferguson’s book is by James Boswell:

[Johnson] would not admit civilization [to the fourth edition of his dictionary], but only civility. With great deference to him, I thought civilization, from to civilize, better in the sense opposed to barbarity, than civility.

The quotation is found in the Oxford English Dictionary, and Collingwood alludes to it in Chapter XXXIV of The New Leviathan:

Johnson’s use of words showed the finer and more scrupulous correctitude; what justifies Boswell in usurping the name of a process for the name of a state is that in the life of mind there are no states, there are only processes.

Every case of mental ‘being’, so called, turns out on examination to be a case of mental ‘becoming’. To describe a community as being in a state of civility, or any state approximating thereto, is a way of saying that it is undergoing a process of civilization; or perhaps, in certain cases, the reverse: a process of barbarization.

I don’t think Ferguson cares about the subtleties here. He says,

Samuel Johnson, as the first epigraph to this Introduction makes clear, would not accept the neologism, preferring ‘civility’.

More precisely, Johnson did accept the word “civilisation” in its original sense,

A law, act of justice, or judgment, which renders a criminal process civil; which is performed by turning an information into an inquest, or the contrary.

That is a quotation from John Harris’s Lexicon Technicum (1704–10). One can now obtain the quote from an online version of Johnson’s dictionary. The quote is also in the OED, where Johnson’s use of it is noted.

Collingwood notes the obsolete sense of civilization used by Harris. Ferguson cannot be bothered by these details. He says,

‘Civilisation’ is a French word, first used by the French economist Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot in 1752.

That’s wrong in two ways, as far as I can tell.

  1. We have just seen that the word was used half a century earlier in English. I might have expected a scholar to find this out from the OED, if nowhere else.

  2. According to the Larousse dictionnaire d’étymologie, the French word dates to 1734, when it was substituted for police by somebody whom the dictionary calls Guyau de Pitavel. I’m guessing this person was François Gayot de Pitaval, “a French advocate” who “compiled a famous collection of causes célèbres,” according to Wikipedia.

For his etymology, Ferguson cites Braudel. Perhaps Braudel used the dictionary of Littré, who also cites Turgot, though without a year.

Now I quote the close of “Western Civilization: A Good Idea,” for what it says about Churchill, Ferguson, and civilization and the threats to it. The bold emphasis is mine; the ellipses, Ferguson’s.

I began with Gandhi. Let me conclude with Churchill, who is often thought of as his polar opposite, if only because of some derogatory terms he once applied to him. “There are few words which are used more loosely than the word ‘Civilization’,” declared the greatest of all Western leaders in 1938, at a time when civilization as he understood it stood in mortal danger. “What does it mean?” His answer was as follows:

It means a society based upon the opinion of civilians. It means that violence, the rule of warriors and despotic chiefs, the conditions of camps and warfare, of riot and tyranny, give place to parliaments where laws are made, and independent courts of justice in which over long periods those laws are maintained. That is Civilization – and in its soil grow continually freedom, comfort and culture. When Civilization reigns in any country, a wider and less harassed life is afforded to the masses of the people. The traditions of the past are cherished and the inheritance bequeathed to us by former wise or valiant men become a rich estate to be enjoyed and used by all.

The Central principle of Civilization is the subordination of the ruling class to the settled customs of the people and to their will as expressed in the Constitution …

These days, most economists and political scientists agree with Churchill, though they use rather different language when they are emphasizing public order, private property rights, the rule of law and other benign institutions.

In 1938 the principal threat to Western civilization appeared to come from within it: from Germany. Yet Churchill understood that Hitler was not the real threat; the real threat was the delusion of the appeasers within his own party “that the mere … declaration of right principles … will be of any value unless … supported by those qualities of civic virtue and manly courage – aye, and by those instruments and agencies of force and science which in the last resort must be the defence of right and reason.” Churchill was emphatic. “Civilization will not last, freedom will not survive, peace will not be kept,” he declared, “unless a very large majority of mankind unite together to defend them and show themselves possessed of a constabulary power before which barbaric and atavistic forces will stand in awe.”

Barbaric and atavistic forces are abroad to day, too. But today, as then, the biggest threat to Western civilization is posed not by other civilizations, but by our own pusillanimity – and by the historical ignorance that feeds it.

The essay ends there. The part of it that’s not in Ferguson’s book is about how universities don’t teach Western civilization any more, but offer courses like, “Madwomen: The History of Women and Mental Illness in the U.S.”

My guess would be that the paucity of general courses like “European Civilization, 1684–1945” might have to do with historians’ need to publish to keep their jobs, and specialize in order to publish. I wish Ferguson would clarify exactly what “barbaric and atavistic forces” he sees abroad today.

Such praise as Churchill’s for the rule of law can be found also in Collingwood’s New Leviathan. Thus it would have been helpful, for my own understanding, if Ferguson had made reference to that book.

Ferguson’s citation for his quotations of Churchill is only “Churchill, ‘Civilization,’ pp. 45f.” I find the passages in “Chancellor’s Address, Bristol University, 2 July 1938,” published on the website of The Churchill Project at Hillsdale College, but nowhere else.

Ferguson’s assertion, “Hitler was not the real threat,” which he says he shares with Churchill, is possibly in accord with Collingwood’s “Principles of History.” We have already seen that Collingwood distinguishes history from natural science. There is an example of how to do this in the same section:

In Java, where I am writing, agriculture means the growing of rice in irrigated sawahs. Among the features of Javanese agriculture that strike every European visitor are these: that sawahs are not manured, and that the rice-seedlings are invariably planted out by women. Europeans would say that the first of these features is based on the true belief that sawahs do not need manure; true, because the irrigation-water brings down a constant supply of silt from the rich volcanic soil of the mountains; and that the second is based on the false belief that rice planted out by men would not bear children in the form of grain; false, because the way in which a plant develops is not affected by the sex of the person who plants it.

The imagined Europeans speak as natural scientists. That’s fine, but they should be clear about what they are doing. If they want to be historians, they will recognize that both beliefs under consideration are true, insofar as they really are the basis for Javanese practice. Once the Europeans understand this, they may go home and observe that their own practices have foundations that today might be called superstitious. The point for Collingwood is this:

What man, at any stage of history, thinks of himself as dealing with, when we say that he is dealing with nature, is never nature as it is in itself but always nature as at that stage of history he conceives it. All history is the history of thought: and wherever in history anything called nature appears, either this name stands not for nature in itself but for man’s thought about nature, or else history has forgotten that it has come of age, and has fallen back into its old state of pupilage to natural science.

In particular, the threat of an Adolph Hitler lies not in a human being such as might undergo physical or even sociological analysis; it lies in what people actually think that human being to be. However, this point is easy to misunderstand.

The history of thought, which is just what history is, involves the re-enactment of past thought. As Ferguson puts it in a book review,

Systematically rethinking past experiences, Collingwood argued, provided the basis for a new historical “science of human affairs”. The historical profession has done little to realise Collingwood’s ambitious vision. So it’s refreshing to encounter the assertion in this entertaining volume, that “putting themselves into the past is what historians have to do if their work is to be effective.” They must “become so attuned to the way that historical actors thought and behaved that it is almost as if they were there”.

The “entertaining volume” under Ferguson’s review is I Wish I’d Been There: Twenty Historians Revisit Key Moments in History, edited by Theodore K. Rabb and Byron Hollinshead. If the “past experiences” that one is “systematically rethinking” are just things that have happened, then Ferguson has missed an important aspect of thinking, which is that it is successful or not.

History is one of the “human sciences,” and

all the human sciences distinguish what a thing is meant to be from what it is, and aim at distinguishing cases where the two coincide (successes) from cases in which they do not (failures). But according to the assumptions of our natural science, assumptions consciously worked out and explicitly stated in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and thereafter taken for granted, cases of this kind are not distinguishable in the world of nature, because the world of nature, being God’s handiwork, contains no failures.

That’s Collingwood from § 2 of Chapter 3 of “The Principles of History.” He has given a couple of simple examples:

The works of man are seldom just what they are meant to be, and whenever we think about them we must bear this fallibility in mind. Here is something which looks like a ship, but it won’t float; what does that prove? Does it prove that it is not a ship at all but something else? No; what it proves is that it is an attempt at a ship, but an unsuccessful attempt. Here is something that looks like an argument, but it doesn’t prove anything; what then? It is an attempt at an argument, but an unsuccessful attempt.

We have seen Ferguson state his problem as understanding “why civilizations fall.” Does the falling of civilization then represent a failure? If so, what was the civilization trying to succeed at?

Ferguson expresses his problem a bit more positively in the “Preface to the UK Edition” of Civilization: The West and the Rest:

The principal question addressed by this book increasingly seems to me the most interesting question a historian of the modern era can ask. Just why, beginning around 1500, did a few small polities on the western end of the Eurasian landmass come to dominate the rest of the world, including the more populous and in many ways more sophisticated societies of Eastern Eurasia?

The question of why western Europe rose to prominence may be interesting to Ferguson, as the etymology of a word or the proof of a theorem may be interesting to me.

As an amateur, I have a standard procedure for researching etymologies: start with the dictionaries; then, if possible, look up the literary sources.

If I’m trying to prove a theorem, I may not have a clear procedure; but I have a clear way of knowing if I have found what I was looking for.

How is Ferguson going to know when he has answered his “why” questions?

In the Buddhist Parable of the Poisoned Arrow, if you have been shot with such an arrow, but refuse treatment before learning all sorts of details about the arrow, the archer, and the bow, then you will die. Some questions are less important than others, or less urgent. However, in the Wikipedia article just linked to, Sangharakshita (born Dennis Philip Edward Lingwood) is quoted as saying, “The important thing is to get rid of the arrow, not to enquire where it came from.” It would seem to me that you might well want to know where the arrow came from, in order to know whether you should try to remove it now or run for shelter. Thus maybe we should know where we came from, in order to figure out where to go next. This could be Ferguson’s motivation.

Collingwood faced the practical problem of responding to the Nazis. He hated the Daily Mail for replacing news with entertainment in such a way that the people allowed parliament to support fascism in Spain. He saw the war against the Nazis as being a war for civilization. This he ultimately identified (in Chapter XXXVI of The New Leviathan) as civility, in the sense of being civil to one another:

Behaving ‘civilly’ to a man means respecting his feelings: abstaining from shocking him, annoying him, frightening him, or (briefly) arousing in him any passion or desire which might diminish his self-respect; that is, threaten his consciousness of freedom by making him feel that his power of choice is in danger of breaking down and the passion or desire likely to take charge.

An aspect of civil behavior is sharing your know-how with whoever wants to learn it. Collingwood was open source. He didn’t copyright his books.

He recommends home-schooling your children. That’s easy for him to say, whose father could teach him Latin and Greek and offer him a large home library (and a lake outside the door to go sailing on). Collingwood is still practically minded.

Again, Ferguson notes this. However, he also says,

So what can historians do? First, by mimicking social scientists and relying on quantitative data, historians can devise ‘covering laws’, in Carl Hempel’s sense of general statements about the past that appear to cover most cases (for instance, when a dictator takes power instead of a democratic leader, the chance increases that the country in question will go to war). Or – though the two approaches are not mutually exclusive – the historian can commune with the dead by imaginatively reconstructing their experiences in the way described by the great Oxford philosopher R. G. Collingwood in his 1939 Autobiography. These two modes of historical inquiry allow us to turn the surviving relics of the past into history, a body of knowledge and interpretation that retrospectively orders and illuminates the human predicament. Any serious predictive statement about the possible futures we may experience is based, implicitly or explicitly, on one or both of these historical procedures.

Again, Collingwood’s aim is to reconstruct, not past experiences in the sense of “weary marches in heat or cold, or the thrills and chills of battle or the long agony of wounded men.” The aim is to re-enact past thoughts:

plans and counter-plans : … thinking about strategy and thinking about tactics, and in the last resort … what the men in the ranks thought about the battle.

That’s all in An Autobiography. Experiences just happen to us; thoughts are successful or not. If we can understand past successes, this may better equip us to achieve our own successes. This is the reason to do history.

Ferguson seems interested not in achieving success, but in predicting what is going to happen, as if it were a solar eclipse. Above he mentions “any serious predictive statement.” Does he really think this is what history is supposed to make?

He does add a qualification. The predictive statement is about “the possible futures we may experience.” Maybe he means that the possibilities depend on what we do now, and so we should be careful about what we do.

It’s not clear though. After stating his “principal question,” quoted earlier, he says,

My subsidiary question is this: if we can come up with a good explanation for the West’s past ascendancy, can we then offer a prognosis for its future?

I think back to a radio interview of Noam Chomsky, on CBC I think it was. At the end, the interviewer asked something like, “What do you see for the future?”

As Chomsky pointed out angrily, we don’t predict the future. It depends on what we do now.

What are we going to do?


This particular post began when, by email, almost a week ago (on May 21, 2021), a friend mentioned Niall Ferguson’s recent book, Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe. I had criticized Ferguson’s understanding of Collingwood in my 2018 post “Re-enactment.” I thought I should give the historian more of a chance.

In a few posts of this blog, I have been critical of Leo Strauss’s criticism of Collingwood. It’s not right to criticize somebody for not writing the book that you wish had been written; you should just write that book yourself. I mean to criticize Ferguson, not for what he doesn’t say, but for what he does: that Collingwood was his guide for the writing of Civilization: The West and the Rest. As far as I can tell, Ferguson has

  • a shallow reading of what he has read by Collingwood,
  • a lack of curiosity to read any more.

You can be a fan of something you don’t understand. Pascal was a fan of the Bible, without understanding the Parable of the Talents, as Eric Temple Bell observed in a quotation I made in February.

I like to think you have misunderstood Plato, if you read the Republic as a guide for the creation of a fascist dictatorship. On the other hand, one may ask why Plato wrote the Republic in such a way as to make that confusion possible.

Possibly Niall Ferguson has read everything by Collingwood, but disagreed with such details as I have tried to bring out in the present post. However, this is why I have retained in the present post the details of the etymology of the word “civilization.” I could cut them out, but they show some carelessness in Ferguson’s scholarship.

If Ferguson did read The New Leviathan, he must not have been paying attention. He wasn’t reading it for a second or third time, writing a blog post on each chapter like me, with no deadline (I spent five years).

But how can you write a book about civilization, and call Collingwood your guide in the writing of it, and not pay attention to Collingwood’s own book on the same subject?

When I set out to write this post, I did not expect to use “The Principles of History.” I was going to talk about how Collingwood’s Essay on Metaphysics (1940) illuminates two points:

  • What it means to ask a why question, such as Ferguson’s “Why did the West come to dominate the Rest?”

  • How Christian theology gives mythological expression to the absolute presuppositions of modern science (this is taken up in The New Leviathan as well).

I think Ferguson himself is not interested in such things.

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