The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past

Overview

What is history and why should we study it? Is there such a thing as historical truth? Is history a science? One of the most accomplished historians at work today, John Lewis Gaddis, answers these and other questions in this short, witty, and humane book. The Landscape of History provides a searching look at the historian's craft, as well as a strong argument for why a historical consciousness should matter to us today.

Gaddis points out that while the historical method is more ...

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The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past

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Overview

What is history and why should we study it? Is there such a thing as historical truth? Is history a science? One of the most accomplished historians at work today, John Lewis Gaddis, answers these and other questions in this short, witty, and humane book. The Landscape of History provides a searching look at the historian's craft, as well as a strong argument for why a historical consciousness should matter to us today.

Gaddis points out that while the historical method is more sophisticated than most historians realize, it doesn't require unintelligible prose to explain. Like cartographers mapping landscapes, historians represent what they can never replicate. In doing so, they combine the techniques of artists, geologists, paleontologists, and evolutionary biologists. Their approaches parallel, in intriguing ways, the new sciences of chaos, complexity, and criticality. They don't much resemble what happens in the social sciences, where the pursuit of independent variables functioning with static systems seems increasingly divorced from the world as we know it. So who's really being scientific and who isn't? This question too is one Gaddis explores, in ways that are certain to spark interdisciplinary controversy.

Written in the tradition of Marc Bloch and E.H. Carr, The Landscape of History is at once an engaging introduction to the historical method for beginners, a powerful reaffirmation of it for practitioners, a startling challenge to social scientists, and an effective skewering of post-modernist claims that we can't know anything at all about the past. It will be essential reading for anyone who reads, writes, teaches, or cares about history.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Will... never allow either the reader of history or the writer of it to think about the past in quite the same way as before."—The New York Times

"A masterful statement on the historical method.... Gaddis' characterization of the social sciences will surely spark debate even as it illuminates important intellectual connections between the disciplines. Delightfully readable, the book is a grand celebration of the pursuit of knowledge."—Foreign Affairs

"A bold and challenging book, unafraid of inviting controversy. It provides a strong statement for our time of both the limits and the value of the historical enterprise."—The New York Times Book Review

"A real tour de force: a delight to read, and a light-hearted celebration of the odd, 'fractal' patterns that intellectual and other forms of human and natural history exhibit."—William H. McNeill

"Turns the old argument over science and history upside down."—The Washington Post Book World

"Never before have I come across a book that so illuminated the craft of the historian."—Michael Pakenham, The Baltimore Sun

"This is another of those books that rewards the effort it requires. Besides providing invaluable insights into how the historian goes about his business, it teaches—like all really good books—of life beyond its boundaries."—Colin Walters, Washington Times

Foreign Affairs
A masterful statement on the historical method by a distinguished Cold War historian. Gaddis makes the case that the past may not be prologue, but it can be explored for lessons to guide human action. Historical knowledge provides the most important way in which society transmits acquired skills and ideas from one generation to the next. Gaddis depicts the historian's craft as akin to cartography — an open-ended process that requires faithfulness to detail, multiple points of view, and a constant eye on the horizon. The past is not unknowable, but neither is it a simple data bank that allows social scientists to derive and test abstract universal laws. Gaddis' most provocative claim is a powerful irony: Social science, with its independent variables and deductive theories, would appear to have more scientific pretensions than does history. But the historical method, which relies on thought experiments and the interplay of inductive and deductive reasoning, more fully shares the methodical logic of such fields as astronomy, paleontology, and evolutionary biology. Gaddis' characterization of the social sciences will surely spark debate even as it illuminates important intellectual connections between the disciplines. Delightfully readable, the book is a grand celebration of the pursuit of knowledge.
Kirkus Reviews
Entertaining, masterful disquisition on the aims, limitations, design, and methods of historiography. Gaddis (Military and Naval History/Yale; We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History, 1997) adapts the lectures he gave at Oxford while its George Eastman Visiting Professor (2000-01). Employing a wide range of metaphors (from Cleopatra's nose to Napoleon's underwear), displaying an extensive knowledge of current thinking in mathematics, physics, and evolutionary biology, alluding frequently to figures as disparate as Lee Harvey Oswald, Gwyneth Paltrow, John Lennon, and John Malkovich, Gaddis guides us on a genial trip into the historical method and the imagination that informs it. He begins by showing the relationship between a cartographer and a historian, asserting that the latter must "interpret the past for the purposes of the present with a view to managing the future." He also takes us through a set of principles he believes historians must employ and reminds us that the imagination of the historian must always be tethered to reliable sources. He takes on social scientists (especially economists), observing that as they attempt to become more "scientific" (establishing laws, making accurate predictions), they move in the opposite direction of today's "hard" scientists: "When social scientists are right, they too often confirm the obvious." Gaddis moves to a discussion of variables (declaring irrelevant the distinction between "independent" and "dependent": "interdependent," he says, is the more accurate term), examines chaos theory and explores theories of causation. He ends with an intriguing discussion of the role of the biographer, insisting that historians retain a moral view ofevents, and with a reminder that they must necessarily distort even as they clarify. Historians, like teachers, he says, both oppress and liberate. Provocative, polymathic, pleasurable. (Illustrations throughout)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195171570
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 4/8/2004
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 99,827
  • Product dimensions: 7.80 (w) x 5.30 (h) x 0.30 (d)

Meet the Author

John Lewis Gaddis is the Robert A. Lovett Professor of Military and Naval History at Yale University. A leading authority on Cold War history, his books include We Now Know, The Long Peace, and Strategies of Containment. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut.

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Table of Contents

Preface
1. "The Landscape of History"
2. "Time and Space"
3. "Structure and Process"
4. "The Interdependency of Variables"
5. "Chaos and Complexity"
6. "Causation, Contingency, and Counterfactuals"
7. "Molecules with Minds of Their Own"
8. "Seeing Like a Historian"
Notes
Index

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 7 of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 18, 2004

    A Painless Discussion of Historical Philosophy

    Gaddis examines the nature of history and the function of historians through a wide range of metaphors. By putting forth the question: Hw long is the British coast line? Gaddis immediately sets out that if we measure in miles we won't get to the alcoves and cubbyholes and we'll probably end up with a nice round number. If we measure in microns and millimeters, it'll take a while but we'll measure every single bend and dog leg and we'll have a much larger number. Many of Gaddis' metaphors spur philosophical discussions but he does not approach them with a philosophical background, instead he sets out to solve a functional question: What is history? Is it a natural science? If it is, then why can we not replicate any historical findings as biology and physiology can? Is it a social science? Then why do other social sciences like economics and anthropology try to find an independent variable upon which everything hangs when historians try to put out the bigger picture? Gaddis' conclusion then is that history is its own beast. It does not mirror either the hard sciences nor the social sciences although it may pick up some of their properties. Gaddis uses metaphors that seem to have little connection with hsitory, such as fractal geometry and natural sciences. The connections are then developed and this may be a way of making scientists understand the nature of history or giving students with a familiarity in natural sciences a correlation to the study of history. Also, Gaddis' humor makes a philosophical discussion of history a little less tense and certainly more cheerful. All in all, this book is very readable for a historiography and may appeal to non-historians seeking a perspective on history. The chapters read more like the text of a speech than a textbook so the minimal 140 or so pages will make this a very easy read.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 25, 2003

    A Good Book With Some Bad Science

    I agree with Gaddis' premise about HOW historians work: by gathering data, assimilating ideas, working back and forth between inductive and deductive reasoning, adding detail after a theory is constructed, and reconstructing theories based upon newly discovered details. I wish that he had not tried to graft the metaphors of complexity theory, chaos, and sensitive dependence on initial conditions onto an otherwise thoughtful and emotive book. Virtually everything he says about sensitive dependence is wrong. He shows absolutely no understanding of complex systems, chaos, or sensitive dependence. And yet, explanations of those topics make up an important part of the book. If you choose to read it (and it is worth reading), please ignore everything he says about the science of complexity, about chaos, and about sensitive dependence on initial condition.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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