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How Historians Map the Past


Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2002
ISBN: 0-19-506652-9
Publisher: Oxford Univ.

Entertaining, masterful disquisition on the aims, limitations, design, and methods of historiography.

Gaddis (Military and Naval History/Yale; We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History, 1997) adapts the lectures he gave at Oxford while its George Eastman Visiting Professor (2000–01). Employing a wide range of metaphors (from Cleopatra’s nose to Napoleon’s underwear), displaying an extensive knowledge of current thinking in mathematics, physics, and evolutionary biology, alluding frequently to figures as disparate as Lee Harvey Oswald, Gwyneth Paltrow, John Lennon, and John Malkovich, Gaddis guides us on a genial trip into the historical method and the imagination that informs it. He begins by showing the relationship between a cartographer and a historian, asserting that the latter must “interpret the past for the purposes of the present with a view to managing the future.” He also takes us through a set of principles he believes historians must employ and reminds us that the imagination of the historian must always be tethered to reliable sources. He takes on social scientists (especially economists), observing that as they attempt to become more “scientific” (establishing laws, making accurate predictions), they move in the opposite direction of today’s “hard” scientists: “When social scientists are right, they too often confirm the obvious.” Gaddis moves to a discussion of variables (declaring irrelevant the distinction between “independent” and “dependent”: “interdependent,” he says, is the more accurate term), examines chaos theory and explores theories of causation. He ends with an intriguing discussion of the role of the biographer, insisting that historians retain a moral view of events, and with a reminder that they must necessarily distort even as they clarify. Historians, like teachers, he says, both oppress and liberate.

Provocative, polymathic, pleasurable. (Illustrations throughout)