Thursday, December 18, 2008

The landscape of history

John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History, How Historian Map the Past, Oxford 2002.

It all started with an answer I gave, in a typical pragmatic style of scientific proposals, to Professor K’s question what my paper would contribute to history of Tang or history of science. “The paper should be a critique of industrialized life, to inform the western world with an alternative living style,” I said. The answer obviously did not satisfy, but seemingly astonished him. Since then, I was looking for what really defines a history work, other than how to make a use of it, like what social scientists, economists etc. do.

Professor J recommended me to read The Landscape of History written by John Lewis Gaddis. Gaddis is a famous Cold War historian. He wrote The Landscape during the year spent in Oxford with no specific obligations. This precious year was made possible by a big fellowship called George Eastman Visiting Professorship that has accommodated other celebrity scholars like Linus Pauling and Felix Frankfurter. A professor set free indeed, Gaddis set out to discuss what history is about and how historians do it. The Landscape is dedicated for historian cubs and more generally for his fellow historians, because not all of them can articulate what history is about, or think this articulation is of any importance.

Gaddis provides a timely lesson. For my case, surrounded by scientists and social scientists, I did suspect if history has any methodological rigor. Anyway, telling a story based on manuscripts and correspondences can not really be regarded scientific, but I guessed trying to judge history as scientific or not is off the point – history has its own value as a record system and an art. Nevertheless, the “science envy” became a promoter to increase methodological rigor in humanities for the last several decades. That is why social sciences have been obsessed with “teasing out” independent variables from the dependent ones, while Gaddis himself just could not imagine the possibility that any social factor in reality exists in an “independent” mode. In defending history, Gaddis used a quirky way in defining science first. He says, look, while the social scientists are drudgingly emulating natural science by their awkward models which are far from reality, several branches of natural science have found the importance of narratives and become more history like, such as cosmology, ecology and paleontology. What defines science, consequently, is not its experimental methodology but its fitting representation about reality. With this methodological “passing of ships in the night”, historians should be proud because, first, they do not inflict themselves with erroneous assumptions about the existence of “independent variables” or concern themselves with the impossible task of making history a precise science; second, by doing so, they have already resembled some of the most interesting branches of natural science.

Comparing those history-like sciences with history, Gaddis brings a lot of analogies between history methods and those from other fields into his book. There is always danger of overusing analogies, and he is quite aware of it. He absolves himself from the guilty of overuse, or sometimes, misuse of analogies by saying that anyway, these comparisons serve only as metaphors. Thus when he compares historical scales to the structure of fractals, or when he tells a parable about historians’ work by describing how paleontologists design a representative skin according to the remaining skeleton of a dinosaur, we would forgive his impreciseness, or even learn to appreciate his pedagogical elegancy to make abstractions empirical. After all, Gaddis’ initial aim is to name the unnamed or the assumedly unnamable in the discipline of history. In light of the difficulty of the task, metaphors are invaluable helps to import the link from the familiar to the unfamiliar.

Caspar D. Friedrich’s art The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog serves as the main metaphor for history study and also the cover of the book. A man standing on the rocks, facing the fog covered terra, contemplates on what are happening before him. By gazing the vast terra from high, he would probably feel both empowered and diminished. I felt a sense of mission staring at this man’s back, assuming he is indeed a historian. After all, not all people climb to the rock, the vantage point, where historians stand, and try to grasp the past.

Final thanks to Gaddis for providing what I was looking for.


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