The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past

The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past

by John Gaddis, Jeremy Marshall, Edmund Weiner
     
 

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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…  See more details below

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

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:
9780199741212
Publisher:
Oxford University Press
Publication date:
11/14/2002
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Sales rank:
623,353
File size:
3 MB

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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