Wednesday, 4 November 2015

The Landscape of History- John Lewis Gaddis

by Anna Sykes


Having read much historiography recently, my eyes have been opened to how we view past events, the significance of history and the role of a historian in a much broader context. Whereas at school we are taught facts and dates and the methods by which we must analyse such information, I believe what is crucially lacking from the curriculum is an insight into what history actually is.


Gaddis approaches history from a very unique viewpoint, and despite appearing somewhat clichéd, his metaphor of history as a landscape serves as a good starting point. By likening the role of the historian to that of a cartographer, we are able to recognise artificialities in history. History is not simply facts and dates but it is what comes as a result of these tools and that is used to craft something suitable for the circumstances. In the same way that we would not use a road map for locating the whereabouts of different countries, different approaches to history are necessary for each individual situation. Additionally, the job of a cartographer is to represent the landscape through the most accessible means for the person using that map. Similarly, the task of the historians is to attempt to represent reality.


In one sense, historiography has made me realise that it is important to both doubt and question the reliability of history because, as it is easy to forget, in many circumstances nobody alive has lived through these events and thus our own understanding is based on a belief of sources and accounts which are not always factually correct. Furthermore, even for those who were present at such events, there is no one ultimate ‘correct’ history. Instead, each account simply provides a singular perspective and it is the job of the historian to put this perspective into broader context, analysing its significance with hindsight and cross-referencing its reliability against other sources. Unlike a subject such as maths or science, there is no one definitive answer in history. History is, in fact, a representation of reality that we achieve by looking for larger patterns. Through this, we are enabled to take on a macroscopic viewpoint as well as seeing and relating history from a microscopic perspective.


Another clear distinction that Gaddis draws is between the role of the historian and that of the social scientist. He asserts that social scientists undertake ‘general particularization’; particularizing for general purposes, as they detail a theory after it has been stated. In contrast, historian’s methods tend to fall into the category of ‘particular generalization’, whereby they generalize from the knowledge of a particular outcome, deriving a process from its surviving structure. This is unlike the social scientist who is so frequently required to forecast or predict the outcome of events. Essentially, Gaddis argues that the job of a historian has more credibility or legitimacy to it than that of a social scientist. Furthermore, he highlights the difference between scientists and historians due to the fact that whereas the former provide a consensus of rational opinion, following laws and rules, the latter must take into account the fact that they are dealing with human matter, things with consciousness’s that can easily override such pre-conceived laws. Thus, he implies that historians are subject to more contingencies and fail to obtain the same level of scientific precision. Although this is one argument, surely the historian lacks the ability to gain the same level of precision simply as a result of the fact that history is based on limited perspectives, where imprecision is bound to be inherent.

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