Monday, September 6, 2010

John Lewis Gaddis: The Landscape of History

I today finished The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (2003, 183 p.) by John Lewis Gaddis, professor of history at Yale. Gaddis wrote this in the tradition, and very much considering, the precedents of E. H. Carr's What is History?
and Marc Bloch's The Historian's Craft. Gaddis certainly does very well by himself while standing in the shadow of these and other illustrious predecessors. Gaddis updates our understanding of history by using complexity theory to help us appreciate how causes merge and meld into the unfolding of reality. Causes are like tributaries leading to the present, where they pause but for an instant, and then recede into the distance, from which point we try to map their course. Gaddis likens history to mapmaking or painting, which must of necessity attempt to make sense out of a present by abstracting those features that grab our attention and give meaning to us. Gaddis spends a good deal of time contrasting the aims of historians from those of social scientists. Social scientists, he says, hope to isolate variables with the ultimate intention of forecasting the future (something that I expect more and more social scientists have become more wary of attempting). Thus, whereas historians want to consider all of the causes worth noting that lead to an event or situation, social scientists want to isolate and abstract with the hope of obtaining structural knowledge, if not forecasting ability. Another interesting facet of Lewis's work is his consideration of history in comparison with the so-called "hard sciences". Lewis, who quotes and cites Stephen Gould almost as much as any historian, notes that the sciences have become more and more historical in their outlook. Some, like evolutionary biology, must perforce due so; however, this might also prove relevant to physics and chemistry, which do deal with change over time, although it's often on such a scale that it doesn't affect outcomes or actions. Historians, Gaddis argues, can't run lab tests to gauge the accuracy of their theories, but they can provide plausible explanations subject to peer review and criticism. He argues that the lab for historians lies in their minds and imaginations, much like geologists and paleontologists. Of course, both these scientists and historians diligently hunt and weigh the evidence of the past that they can identify, whether fossils or archive documents, but neither can, strictly speaking, re-run the past in order to test the accuracy of their understanding. Thus, replicability is replaced by virtual replicability as the standard of reference. Gaddis writes: "Imagination in history then, as in science, must be tethered to and disciplined by sources: that's what distinguishes it from the arts and all other methods of representing reality." (43).

I hope that the above offers some sense of Gaddis's take on these subjects, although this book is much richer than I can give it credit for in this brief report. In closing, I find that Gaddis seems to track with my thinking (greatly influenced by John Lukacs) that history is the master science in some sense. As Lukacs argues, all knowledge comes from the past. How it got here, like the path of evolution, determines what arrived. Like biological evolution, this path of travel may be so slow that we ignore that it represents change over time, nevertheless, this is how it all happens. Understanding and appreciating the interdependence of variables and complexity (and therefore uncertainty) of our world is a huge challenge; yet, understanding history through this lens will prove very fruitful, and it will continue the quest interminably into the future.

P.S. How does the "interdependency of variables" (the title of one of Gaddis's chapters) fit in with the Buddhist concept of co-origination and the like?