Thursday, September 09, 2010

John Lewis Gaddis on the Nature of History

Gaddis, John Lewis. The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

What do historians do? How do they conceive of and go about their work? And what's the value of it? In this series of eight lectures, originally delivered at Oxford during the 2000-01 school year, John Lewis Gaddis responds to these and other basic questions. A native of Texas, Gaddis made his reputation by writing landmark books about the Cold War. He is currently the Robert A. Lovett Professor of History at Yale University.

To make his discussion of theory easier to follow, he constantly uses illustrations, analogies, and quotations. He borrows these mainly from the worlds of art, literature, and popular culture. Even the book’s cover art, Caspar David Friedrich’s The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, sets up the first of many metaphors that Gaddis puts to work in order to communicate what he wants to say.

Throughout the book, Gaddis also interacts with two illustrious predecessors who raised similar questions: Marc Bloch, who wrote The Historians Craft, and E. H. Carr, author of What Is History? He also brings in the observations of other historians—most notably William H. McNeill, R. G. Collingwood, and Thomas Babington Macaulay—and, significantly, one evolutionary biologist, the late Stephen Jay Gould.

The references to Gould the scientist are significant because they underscore one of Gaddis’s most fundamental conclusions: historians should at least try to attain, like scientists, “a consensus of rational opinion over the widest possible field” (38). Conversely, biology’s acceptance of punctuated equilibrium (as opposed to the old expectation that the fossil record should be uniform), and a general scientific awareness of change and development (as opposed to old notions of timelessness in a static universe), mean that scientists have become increasingly historical. The comparison of the two disciplines comes out most clearly in Chapter Three where the author makes the case that the processes by which historians develop, study and test their theses is comparable to methods used in the “hard” sciences.

But, notes Gaddis, to say that history should in some respects be like science, and that science has become more historical, is not to say that history belongs in the classification of “social science.” For unlike social scientists, Gaddis rejects the assumption that historians should be able to isolate an independent variable, which can then be used both to identify a historical cause and to forecast the future. The complexity of reality, historical or otherwise, simply won’t allow for the identification of independent variables. In fact, reality is full of interdependent variables. In a world like that, also full of processes, “so much depends on so much else” (55).

So, then, what is the proper work of historians? Gaddis answers that they “interpret the past for the purposes of the present with a view to managing the future” (10). But no sooner does he give that straightforward answer than he adds a caveat. The real trick is to do this “without suspending the capacity to assess the particular circumstances in which one might have to act, or the relevance of past actions to them” (11). In other words, to employ the “lessons of history” requires us to do other things, like perceiving how the present is like the past and how it’s different.

Even before that, though, historians have to do the work of making a map, a favorite metaphor of Gaddis’s. That is to say, historians must represent the past in a way that both corresponds to the terrain of historical reality and that proves useful to people who might want to actually use the map. This business of map-making, he notes, leads the historian to feel both masterful (he’s the one, after all, who exercises power by simply describing) and insignificant (the terrain he describes is vast and ancient and will long outlive him, etc.).

In addition to the question of history as a social science, Gaddis also deals with the advent of postmodern thought and the questions that it puts to historical research and presentation. Here we see him both embracing and rejecting postmodernism. On the one hand, he notes that historians have always known that arriving at historical consciousness means you’ve learned “that there is no ‘correct’ interpretation of the past” and that “the act of interpreting is itself a vicarious enlargement of experience” (10). On the other hand, he rejects the extreme conclusion that because “we have no absolute basis for measuring time and space” we therefore “can’t know anything about what happened within them” (34).

So what were some of my impressions of the book? I might say that I could have done without so many specific references to Oxford and Great Britain. A lot of them didn't register with me. I also found myself rolling my eyes at some of the wisecracks, often a little sappy or overdone. I sometimes detected slight errors. For example, a light year is not a measurement of time, but of distance (27). A sentence on page 55 should end with “form an ecological view of reality,” not “from . . . .”

But to say things like that would be quibbling. The fact is, Gaddis has produced a short, brilliant introduction to some of the most important questions that historians can ask themselves regarding what they do and what it means. And he’s done it with a good bit of flair and success.

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