Niall Ferguson’s Hegelian aspirations

SquaretowerI have just started reading Niall Ferguson’s new book, The Square and the Tower. This comes after reading some of his other books, and hearing him in interviews. He’s an extraordinarily well-read, well-spoken, and intelligent fellow – and, I gather, viewed with some hostility by academics because he sells a lot of books and is a swaggering conservative. But I’m still looking for a critical engagement with his views that goes beyond disparaging these qualities.

The Square and the Tower is a history of the influence of networks, which means looking not so much at what people try to do and believe so much as at how the connections among people amplify, dampen, exalt, or destroy what people try to do and believe. People can be connected in various ways, in different sorts of hierarchies or in different styles of networks. Ferguson’s question is: to what extent does the structure or form of a social network affect the advance or decay of a culture or civilization?

As I said, I’ve only started the book, but I’ve been struck early on by the Hegelian dimensions of it. (It’s no coincidence that students and I are studying Hegel now, so I’m likely to see Hegel everywhere. Bear with me.) According to Hegel, if we want to make sense of human history, we need to understand the logic of evolving human structures. For history is not just one damn thing after another, but a story that makes sense; and if we want to grasp the plot, we need to understand how the elements of history – ideas, institutions, and the occasional great person – follow from previous elements and give rise to future ones. Once again: there is a logic in history, and historians will always come up short so long as they ignore that logic.

the-square-and-the-tower-by-niall-ferguson-17-638Ferguson’s book is peppered with diagrams of kinds of networks, and how they compare along various dimensions. Some networks are resilient, and some are fragile; some rely critically upon a few hubs, and some are “scale free”, or more equal in terms of how well-connected each node is. The upshot seems to be that, if you want to understand human history, you need to bear in mind the logic of the structure of human networks. (*) For example, Luther’s attempt at reformation would have been forgotten had it not been for the ways in which the printing press extended and amplified the networks of proto-Protestant people; and the plague spread much faster in Europe than in China precisely because of Europe’s (relatively) scale-free networks.

I nearly fell out of my Hegelian armchair when Ferguson at various points characterized ancient China as a rigid hierarchy in which only the emperor was allowed flexibility; ancient Greece as a network of limited flexibility; and early modern Europe as one with such flexibility as to allow for the emergence of science and global trade. Actually, Ferguson’s claims more careful and nuanced than this hasty sketch suggests, but I’m putting it this simplistic way because his conclusions mirror Hegel’s bold claims that in China one man was free, while in Greece some men were free, and in Germany (of course) all men are free. The close parallel between Ferguson and Hegel makes me wonder to what extent the form of an author’s approach determines the conclusions they are likely to draw. Does the structure of the network in an historian’s own head determine the kind of story that gets told?

I doubt that Ferguson is eating the entire Hegelian burrito, and prophesying a grand telos for human history. But he might claim that, given the logic of networks, there is a most-stable sort of social structure which, once we get into, we’re unlikely to get out of. We’ll see.

I’m sure I’ll write about the book again as soon as I finish it, but right now I’m having a grand time thinking through the broad territory Ferguson is taking on.

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(*) Sid Meier’s Civilization V provides some modeling of  a society’s formal structure in its “Choose an Ideology” mechanism.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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