Mark Kleiman: Todd Akin and Niall Ferguson vs. Reality
Liveblogging World War II: August 22, 1942

Timothy Burke on Niall Ferguson: A Scholar, An Expert, An Intellectual

Timothy Burke writes:

A Scholar, An Expert, An Intellectual | Easily Distracted: I’m perfectly content with one possible version of Ferguson’s claims in Empire: that the British Empire left behind political or social institutions that had unintended or complex positive value… liberalism… was a sort of “collateral effect” of imperialism. I’m less happy with the idea that these outcomes were the laudable purpose or intention of imperialism, or all the shifty “gotta break eggs to make the omelette of modernity” stuff going on in that book… but I think those are arguments which can still legitimately take place within the sphere of scholarly and intellectual work. What I was annoyed by… was… Ferguson didn’t engage a huge corpus of both specific and general work by other scholars that sees British imperialism very differently… a typical rhetorical move by a certain kind of contrarian: that all other scholarship is politically motivated, and hence need not really be discussed….

I was rather surprised when Ferguson himself showed up in the comments. The gist of his reply was, “Look at everything I’ve published and done in the last ten years: do I really seem lazy to you, especially compared to all of you small minnows hereabouts?” and “It was a book connected to a TV series, it’s not the right place for a lot of nitty-gritty historiographical debate”. To the former, I said ok, but that wasn’t the kind of lazy that I meant. To the latter I said ok, but you can still be attitudinally generous towards a very big historiography created by the dedicated labor of your peers even if you reserve the right to interpret things differently. And that is where it stood.

Ferguson is one of the kinds of scholars and intellectuals that I wanted to work very hard to create room for in my own discursive universe. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t letting my own politics override my ability to listen to very different interpretative frameworks, very different sensibilities…. You have to be curious about everything or you might as well be curious about nothing….

Equally, when we’re asked to render expert opinion, it has to be based on something other than our gut reaction, though expertise is sometimes legitimately derived from very quick processing and inference based on long experience. But it is for this reason that I’m not sure I have space for Ferguson any more as a peer, a professional, someone who is living up to the minimal norms and responsibility of any of these three roles…. [S]cholarship requires some measure of self-aware and reflective movement between what you know and what you believe, and the relationship between your own movements and those of your professional peers…. Being an intellectual takes some form of thoughtfulness, some respect for evidence and truth, something that goes beyond hollow, sleazy rhetoric that plays dumb every time it gets caught out truncating quotes or doctoring charts….

I think back on all the folks like Ferguson that I worked hard to include inside my circle of “we”…. I still have to work hard to keep that circle big and permeable, but I don’t have to regard Ferguson as a professional by the standards of any of my worlds, as a person entitled to say that he’s inside any of those sets. He’s left for other climes, and they’re welcome to him.