The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past

The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past

The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past

The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

The University of Oxford has again provided a hospitable setting in which to write a book. The occasion this time was the 2000/1 George Eastman Visiting Professorship in Balliol College, a chair dating back to 1929 whose occupants have included Felix Frankfurter, Linus Pauling, Willard Quine, George F. Kennan, Lionel Trilling, Clifford Geertz, William H. McNeill, Natalie Zemon Davis, and Robin Winks. As befits a position with such diverse and distinguished predecessors, the Eastman electors do not find it necessary to provide current chairholders with detailed instructions as to what they are expected to do. My own letter of appointment specified only “participation in twenty-four academic functions during the three terms of the academic year.” It then added, accurately enough as I discovered, “that the Eastman Professor enjoys considerable scope for flexibility in adjusting the pedagogical activities in combination with scholarly projects which the holder may wish to pursue.”

Confronted with so much latitude in so congenial a setting, I was at first at a loss to know how to use my time. One possibility, I suppose, would have been simply to dine: high table at Oxford is definitely an “academic function.” Another would have been to spend the . . .

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