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A Short Review of John Lewis Gaddis' "The Landscape of History"

Updated on May 9, 2012

The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past was the beginning of my love of historical theory, rather than just my love of history. Up until I read this book I was more concerned with the people and places and times rather than those who actually contributed to the study and preservation of history, without which we could not know the people and places and times which most students study today. History is not all about memorizing the facts and dates, of who did what and when, and why. Gaddis' book was the first book I read, and thoroughly enjoyed, on the subject having to do with historiography, of history writing itself. Furthermore, he seems to strengthen my belief that history is not a science (a point which I argue in The Commandment of History) but it is as much an art as anything. He argues, whether directly or indirectly, that history is a field all on its own, standing in the middle of science and art. In fact, the very first thing he does is compare history- not to the field of science, research, and methodology, but to a painting of all things. A piece of art, and a well-known one at that. He sets down the premise that history is an art- before he goes into dealing with it as a science.

"A Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog" by Caspar David Friedrich, a German romantic painter. Painted in 1818 the original currently hangs in Kunsthalle Hamburg in Germany. Gaddis uses this painting to relate the methods of history.
"A Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog" by Caspar David Friedrich, a German romantic painter. Painted in 1818 the original currently hangs in Kunsthalle Hamburg in Germany. Gaddis uses this painting to relate the methods of history. | Source

Gaddis' book is a book on methods of seeing, studying, and relating history. He wants to relate to the reader the job of the historian- not just the act of knowing history- how one can see history as a landscape and how one can take in everything all at once. He argues that the best a historian can do is represent reality by smoothing over details and looking for larger patterns, just as a painter would do with a physical landscape. By doing this, historians are capable of taking on a macroscopic viewpoint, but can also see and relate history from a microscopic view, as the skills for one are needed for both.

Gaddis also states that historians are capable of bridging the gap between natural sciences and social sciences. He argues that the methods of a historian are not unlike those of non-lab scientists. After all, historians must start with surviving structures, deduce the processes that created them, factor in that many sources do not always survive to the present, and understand how to work and deal with the contradictory evidence in their work. Like many non-lab scientists, historians must incorporate both logic an dimagination. However, much of the difference between social scientists comes down to what he terms particular generalization for historians, and general particularization for scientists. When elaborating on a hypothesis, generalizing specific points is the goal; "to assume things that could otherwise bog us down." Social scientists particularize for general purposes, detailing a theory after it has been stated. In addition, historians must practice empathy- something that scientists (lab and non-lab) do not usually have to deal with every day in the field.

Empathy, in Gaddis, is stated as being necessary for historians in relating history, especially in the case of biography. A historian must completely immerse himself or herself in the mind of the person or persons who they are studying and writing about, in order to see and understand how they did; including their moral values, whether "right" or "wrong" in the world of today.

The Landscape of History is just that- a landscape. It maps out the past and as mapmakers, a historian's job is to make it useful to those who cannot always be in the time or place they are reading about. Similar to a student of geography studying a place where they have never been, a map needs to be both general and specific, and in the areas that are relevant. This book does a wonderful job of stating just that- Gaddis' argument is well-founded and persuasive. I, personally, am inclined to agree with his points and the examples that are presented here from the beginning of the book to the end. His points on the relationship between history as an art, or history as a science, and how it can be both- as historians often must stand on middle ground.


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