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The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past

by John Lewis Gaddis

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In The Landscape of History, Gaddis discusses the historian’s process, as well as the significance of the study of history in the modern world. In doing this, he uses a plethora of metaphors, which are fairly effective, if not at times overdone, to discuss the tensions, such as between scope and depth or between the historian’s morality and that of their subject, that are always present in historical thinking. For me, this discussion of tensions proved fairly interesting. I also found his discussion, late in the book, on the appropriateness of passing moral judgments on history to be thought provoking.

The Landscape of History undoubtedly made obvious and put into words concepts that I had been vaguely aware of wrestling with before in my history classes. However, at times, I felt that Gaddis bogged himself down with a lot of vocabulary, which necessitated unnecessarily complex definitions. At other times, Gaddis seemed to pursue tangents that I do not believe advanced his argument, but instead, proved distracting.

In the final chapter, I was slightly put off by Gaddis’ lionizing of historians and their methods as the best way to ensure the health and continued vigor of societies, and I felt that he pushed his animosity against the social sciences too far for my liking. I do agree though with his belief that history can be an effective tool for helping individuals to examine and understand themselves more deeply.
  ac214 | Mar 1, 2013 |
John Gaddis’s The Landscape of History came together as a series of lectures Gaddis gave while at Oxford University’s Balliol College during his time as the George Eastman Visiting Professor. It evolved from a number of historiographies, principally the classics The Historian’s Craft by Marc Bloch and What is History? by Edward Carr. All three attempt to explain how historians think, what they do, and why. All three are excellent books but Landscape is outstanding for its clarity and Gaddis’ excellent choice of metaphors.
The use of metaphors allowed me to better understand the points he was making. Describing a thought process is no easy feat and his concrete examples made understanding his ideas easier than I found the other books.
Having read the other book might be part of the reason that Gaddis’ writing was so clear to me however The Historians’ Craft is nearly seventy years old and What is History? is fifty years old. Although I am accustomed to reading texts from other times not needing to worry about the changes in style and meaning that inevitably happens over time seems to make learning the subject easier.
I recommend all three books to anyone considering history as a profession but someone who simply enjoys reading history would enjoy Gaddis’ Landscape and the window it opens into historians’ minds. ( )
  TLCrawford | Dec 11, 2010 |
What do historians think about the study of history? What is history? Is it science, pseudoscience, or none of the above? Through the years scholars have examined these questions and have provided us their answers. Historians such as Marc Bloch and E.H. Carr have examined these issues and helped focus generations of students' thinking about what it is that historians do. But, the classic works by these scholars were written more than fifty years ago.
John Lewis Gaddis's book seeks to not just update what those scholars had to say about historiography but also to clarify their (and his own) thinking about what it is that historians do and how they do it. Gaddis, a professor at Yale University, had several purposes in mind for this book: to honor Bloch and Carr, to update their work, to encourage other historians to be more explicit, and to facilitate teaching. He succeeds admirably in accomplishing most of these goals.
The book's successes begin with the opening sentences of the book when Gaddis compares the study of history with a painting depicting a windblown man gazing at a fog-covered landscape. Historians, according to Gaddis, "portray the past as a near or distant landscape;" they cannot know or see every feature of the landscape, but they can produce an account that seeks to allow us to better understand the past (3). As the past is not completely knowable, we must depend on such sources as exist to produce a narrative to make sense of the unknowable.
Gaddis really shines when he discusses the historian's craft. History, he says, is sort of like art: historians, like artists, are not hemmed in by constraints of time or space. Time or space can be expanded or shrank to fit the needs of the historical narrative, just as artists can take great liberties with reality when creating works of art (18). Gaddis wittily describes the freedom and constraints on the historian: time can be sped up or slowed down at will, but the historian cannot know everything—his knowledge is always incomplete. There are an unknowable number of facts or events filling every man's life, so a historian must glide over what he cannot know and generalize where possible.
The bulk of the book seems to focus on the processes of history and how they compare with "science." While always useful in focusing our thinking, some parts are more useful than others. For example, knowing that thought experiments—reconstructing things unseen using one's imagination combined with physical evidence—are essential in writing some kinds of history is useful; however, being told that some brands of scientists rely on the same methods is not really that useful. It may bolster some historian's self esteem to know that he uses 'scientific' methods, but the average historian-on-the-street does not really need to know or care about this tidbit to do his job.
Similarly, knowing that there are usually a variety of variables that may effect or cause a certain event is valuable knowledge for a historian-in-training. However, an exhausting examination into which sciences use independent variables and which cherish and interdependency of variables, while interesting, is not necessary knowledge for a historian. While reading this section, one begins to wonder if all "social sciences" contain this tendency for evaluating and defending the "scientific-ness" of their respective discipline. How useful is it to know that both history and geology generally believe in interdependent variables, while others do not? Again, is it mere ego boosting for historians who may be suffering from what Gaddis calls "physics envy"?
Does Gaddis accomplish his goals for the book? While not a "historiography for dummies," Gaddis does go a long way toward illuminating the attitude, focus, and purpose of a historian. Because historians are freed from the constraints of time and space, they are free to focus their attentions broadly to sketch over unknown events, or to slow things down and focus on the most minute of details in the hope that it will clarify how things were at some point in time. Historians are also not constrained with the need to find independent variables. Essentially, while high school physics chooses to eliminate extraneous variables that complicate the equations, historians cannot ignore outsides influences. Events affect events to the extent that there is no true independent variable.
These chapters are the meat and potatoes of the book: Gaddis describes the methods of the historian and how they are affected by such concepts as chaos theory and free will. These are concepts that could render invalid any general theory that may be developed by historians to describe how the world may work in the future. Succinctly put, historians may be able to describe the past with some degree of accuracy; they cannot hope to predict the future.
The Landscape of History is a worthy addition to the historiography canon. Utilizing extensive references, anecdotes, and metaphors, Gaddis convincingly describes the way of the historian. He makes good use of humor and wit to make his points. Occasionally his language bogs down; one must remember that his remarks began as lecture and later became book. Maybe something was lost in the translation from auditory to visual experience. The one great weakness (or distraction) of the book is the sense that Gaddis is trying a little too hard to prove that history is really a science, but without the laboratory. Thankfully, by the time one reaches this point in the book, you are ready to give Gaddis the benefit of the doubt, and, as you follow along, you conduct your own experiments in the laboratory of the mind.
1 vote cao9415 | Jan 30, 2009 |
A decent book. It is a fairly good read, although the contractions sort of get in the way. He is trying to be colloquial, I think, and it comes off a bit buffoonish. It certainly isn't (like the contraction?) scholarly. He uses "you" way too much as well.

Once the reader gets past those distractions, the book is not bad. He addresses some theoretical issues facing the historian. The anecdotes are wonderful and often humorous.

This book would likely not interest anyone outside the field of history, although I suspect that Gaddis thinks it would. ( )
  w_bishop | Jan 21, 2009 |
This excellent book rhapsodizes eloquently on the topic of history and historians. Gaddis argues that historical method is more scientific than most people realize - historians included - whereas the social sciences with their focus on outdated scientific method fail to keep up with the hard sciences. I like this as it explains in some sense my historical mind is frustrated by the methodologies of social sciences such as anthropology and library science. Instead, history is comparable to art, geology, paleontology, and evolutionary biology. Gaddis uses lots of metaphors to make an illuminating and humorous work. He also finds a place in history for chaos, multiple variables, and counterfactuals. And with not a bit of complicated prose charged with big words. One of the best books I've read all year.

"The direct experience of events isn't necessarily the best path toward understanding thm, because your field of vision extends no further than your own immediate senses. You lack the capacity, when trying to figure out how to survive a famine, or flee a band of brigands, or fight from within a suit of armor, to function as a historian might do." - p. 4

"The larger problem, though, was that historians don't think in terms of independent and dependent variables. We assume the interdependency of variables as we trace their interconnections through time. Sorting them into separate categories just isn't very useful to us." p. 53

"It's the suggestion that survivors tend to be those organisms that are required to adapt frequently -- but not too frequently -- to the unexpected. A controlled environment is bad because you become complacent, set in your ways, and unable to cope when the controls finally do break down, as they ultimately will. But a completely unpredictable environment allows to little room for consolidation and recuperation. There is, thus, a balance between integrative and disintegrative processes in the natural world -- the edge of chaos, so to speak -- which is where innovation, especially through self-organization, normally occurs." p. 87

The Cheese and the Worms - Carlo Ginzburg's

The Question of Hu - Jonathan Spence

Seeing Like a State - James C. Scott ( )
1 vote Othemts | Jun 25, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0195171578, Paperback)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:40:41 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

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.… (more)

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