Friday, January 26, 2007

Composition and war

In a recent interview, the historian Niall Ferguson is asked what his thesis is re the 2nd world war, and he says

"That there was no such thing. There were multiple conflicts that we choose to lump together."

I'm not sure what the point is here: a denial of unrestricted composition over events? I mean, everyone agrees that the 2nd world war was composed of many distinct conflicts, don't they? Surely we can just lump them together and name that 'the second world war'. What's the content of this thesis then?

Other news regarding composition: I've just found out that my paper 'The Contingency of Composition' will be coming out in a special issue of Philosophical Studies devoted to papers from the 2006 BSPC at WWU. This makes me happy - this was the first paper I wrote whose content didn't overlap at all with that of my thesis, so getting it published makes me feel all grown up!


Carrie Jenkins said...

Hmmmm ... well, the 'we choose to' is telling. He probably means there is no *natural*-looking grouping of these conflicts into one war. That he takes this to mean that there is 'no such thing' as WWII might then suggest that he thinks nothing is a good-enough candidate for the referent of 'WWII' which is not a natural grouping of conflicts.

(PS: Congrats on the paper!)

Nick Treanor said...

Ross, I'm not sure I'm seeing the problem (the interpretative problem).

Just about every (ordinary) person thinks there was such an event as the Second World War, but no such event as the Second World War + the Falklands War. Wouldn't Ferguson's denial of the claim that there is any such event as the Second World War be, as a thesis, of a kind with an ordinary person's denial of the claim that there is any such thing as the Second World War + the Falklands War? And that seems an intelligible claim, doesn't it?

Ross Cameron said...

Intelligible, yes (but also false).

But, really, do you think the point he is trying to make is the same as the man on the street would be trying to make if he denied the existence of this fusion of events?

My problem with interpretation was that I *could* make sense of the claim as a claim regarding the composition of events, but that I strongly doubted that a historian was attempting to make this metaphysical claim.

He may be doing what Carrie suggests: resisting the thought that there is a natural grouping of events here. Fair enough. But should that lead you to say that the second world war didn't exist? There's no natural grouping of landmasses that constitute the USA, but I wouldn't say that there's no such country. There *is* such a country - it's just that the world doesn't carve a joint between the US and everything else. (Despite what proponents of manifest destiny may tell you.) When we draw the lines on a map, we are not mapping natural divisions in the world, but that doesn't mean that there are no countries.

Nick Treanor said...

Very interesting.

Here is another possibility:

Ferguson could be thinking of "The Second World War" (or "WWII") as a connotative name that implies that the event it picks out is a war. So the historian's denial could be of the claim that the fusion of events picked out by that term was itself a war. (Suppose one grants unrestricted composition over events....not every fusion of wars is a war, is it? Or at least, this isn't obvious.)

To run this line of thought using your example: There is no such country as the USA + Canada, but this isn't because there are no natural lumpings of landmasses that constitute the USA + Canada. After all, there are no natural landmasses that constitute the USA, but for all that there is still such a country. The question of whether there is any such thing as the USA + Canada is not the same as the question of whether there is any such country as the USA + Canada.

I looked at the rest of his interview out of interest, and think what he says there may support the view that his thesis is that that thing commonly called WWII was not in fact a war. (see:

He identifies five different wars that are proper parts of 'WWII' and complains (generalizing a bit here) that they began at different times, differed in terms of their level of violence, and were 'over' different issues. My guess is that he thinks the event picked out by 'WWII' doesn't have the appropriate kind of unity to count as a war. I'm not sure how the fact that WWII's proper parts begin at different times and have different levels of violence is supposed to count against the claim that WWII is a war, but it doesn't seem crazy to me to suppose that a war has to be 'over something' and that an event the proper parts of which are over completely different things may fail, as a whole, to be over anything in the sense necessary to be a war. (I'm not saying I have a firm view on this question -- the answer is just not obvious.)

One thing that might count against this interpretation is Ferguson's saying, when asked about the Second World War, that "there was no such thing". This makes it sound as if he is saying there was no such event, rather than the the event was not a war. But I'm not sure this reading of his saying that is obligatory. If someone says "I visited the country of Canada + the USA", someone who replies "there is no such thing" can reasonably be taken to deny that there is any such country (rather than that there is no entity Canada + USA).

Maybe Ferguson will google himself one day, find this thread, and explain what he really meant!

Ross Cameron said...

Yes, that seems like a sesible hypotheis about what he in fact meant.

But if that is it, I still think he was wrong to say that the 2nd world war didn't exist. 'The 2nd world war' might not name a war just as 'the Holy Roman Empire' names neither something Holy, nor something Roman, nor an Empire.

There's no way Ferguson will come across this - who'd be vain enough to google themselves?? (I'm the number one hit except when the Australian MP of the same name has done something noteworthy, like cheating on his wife. I'm also first hit for 'essentiality of origin', which I'm quite pleased about.)

Nick Treanor said...

Regarding paragraph 2, sure, if Ferguson means that the Second World War was not a war, then it seems right to say that this point is not best put by denying that the Second World War existed.

Re: your google accomplishments.... that's pretty good, especially given that your name is not that uncommon.