Liveblogging Wood's The Idea of America: Ferguson Was Noting Two Mistakes, Not One!

I have had many good things to say about Wood, so it's time for some criticism, directed at Wood's notion of historical causation.

This is expounded upon in the chapter on conspiracy theories. Wood quotes with approval Adam Ferguson noting that "in striving to remove inconveniences, or to gain apparent and contiguous advantages, arrive at ends which even their imagination could not anticipate... and nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design."

Wood rightly criticizes conspiracy theorizing for ignoring the fact that the emergence of a social outcome certainly does not mean anyone, let alone a whole group of people, designed that outcome. But he oddly ignores the first part of the famous dictum: "As... ideas [such as Ferguson's] evolved, laying the basis for the emergence of modern social science, attributing events to the conscious design of particular individuals became more and more simplistic." Real historians should not look to individual action to explain what occurred, but to the "deterministic process of history" (p. 122).

Wood forgets that while historical events are not (always) the result of human design, they are the result of deliberate human action. And sometimes they are just the plain result of design: When Booth shot Lincoln, that was pretty clearly exactly what he aimed to do. But even the aftermath, which Booth clearly did not intend -- for instance, he obviously did not desireLincoln's subsequent sanctification -- were still the result of his deliberate action, along with the deliberate responses to it on the part of a multitude of others. Wood goes so far as to seem to imply that recognizing the presence of the "deterministic historical forces" means recognizing that no one is really morally responsible for their actions. This is to fall into the exact opposite error of the conspiracy theorists.


  1. Gene,

    I have a question that is completely off topic, so I apologize in advance if this frustrates you. I will soon be going back to my studies of republicanism, and I plan on placing particular emphasis on Pettit and freedom-as-nondomination. My question is this: what type of freedom does Pettit (or yourself) find appropriate in analyzing the claims to freedom by political units (e.g., claims to group self-determination/ self-government)? I have not studied Pettit in some time, so any thoughts on the matter are appreciated. Thanks.


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