Published on Jul 23, 2014
Ferguson argues that the popular saying, "money makes the world go 'round", is wrong; instead he presented a case for human actions in history motivated by far more than just economic concerns.
Ferguson sometimes champions counterfactual history, also known as "speculative" or "hypothetical" history, and edited a collection of essays, titled Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals (1997), exploring the subject.
Ferguson likes to imagine alternative outcomes as a way of stressing the contingent aspects of history. For Ferguson, great forces don't make history; individuals do, and nothing is predetermined. Thus, for Ferguson, there are no paths in history that will determine how things will work out. The world is neither progressing nor regressing; only the actions of individuals determine whether we shall live in a better or worse world.
His championing of the method has been controversial within the field.
In a 2011 review of Ferguson's book Civilization: The West and the Rest, Noel Malcolm (Senior Research Fellow in History at All Souls College at Oxford University) stated that: "Students may find this an intriguing introduction to a wide range of human history; but they will get an odd idea of how historical argument is to be conducted, if they learn it from this book."
Ferguson is critical of what he calls the "self-flagellation" that he says characterises modern European thought. "The moral simplification urge is an extraordinarily powerful one, especially in this country, where imperial guilt can lead to self-flagellation," he told a reporter. "And it leads to very simplistic judgments. The rulers of western Africa prior to the European empires were not running some kind of scout camp. They were engaged in the slave trade. They showed zero sign of developing the country's economic resources. Did Senegal ultimately benefit from French rule? Yes, it's clear. And the counterfactual idea that somehow the indigenous rulers would have been more successful in economic development doesn't have any credibility at all."
Richard Drayton, Rhodes Professor of Imperial History at the University of London, has stated that it is correct to associate "Ferguson with an attempt to 'rehabilitate empire' in the service of contemporary great power interests".
Bernard Porter attacked Empire in The London Review of Books as a "panegyric to British colonialism". Ferguson in response to this drew Porter's attention to the conclusion of the book, where he writes: "No one would claim that the record of the British Empire was unblemished. On the contrary, I have tried to show how often it failed to live up to its own ideal of individual liberty, particularly in the early era of enslavement, transportation and the 'ethnic cleansing' of indigenous peoples." Ferguson argues however that the British Empire was preferable to the alternatives: 'The 19th-century empire undeniably pioneered free trade, free capital movements and, with the abolition of slavery, free labour. It invested immense sums in developing a global network of modern communications. It spread and enforced the rule of law over vast areas. Though it fought many small wars, the empire maintained a global peace unmatched before or since. In the 20th century too the empire more than justified its own existence. For the alternatives to British rule represented by the German and Japanese empires were clearly -- and they admitted it themselves -- far worse. And without its empire, it is inconceivable that Britain could have withstood them.'