Well friends, I just finished The Landscape of History by John Gaddis. Certain parts of the book were really good, and one part left me scratching my head.
The book did a really fine job going into aspects of the historical method. I appreciated how Gaddis intentionally established that historical causation rests on contingency not categorical causation that we find in social scientists. Gaddis did a lot of comparison between history and the sciences, both social and natural. Where the sciences seek to identify independent variables, historians do not have that need to do so in their research. Furthermore, where science uses their research to build a structure, historians take the structure and seek to find the foundation. Historians’ research revolves around discovering the causes and impact of an event. That is what really makes that research interesting.
Where I disagree with Gaddis is when he talks about moral judgements. He makes the argument that historians have almost a duty to make judgements. Since as humans we live by a system of morals, we should not hold back from making those judgements in our history. Boy, do I think he is wrong! When we impose morals, we are imposing a bias from our own standards and that runs the risk of creating a seriously presentist view on history, and then we aren’t telling history we are just talking about the past like how the game winning quarterback would describe the last drive where he took his team down to the endzone and scored with 2 seconds left. Too biased. Our job is not to judge, our job is to understand, so I’ve got a pretty big beef with Gaddis about that. However, overall the book was pretty good. It had some good tips and good points about the historical method.
If you do read it, just be on your guard for his conversation about judgement. However, to give Gaddis more credit, he does also provide quotes supporting those who share my mindset about not morally judging the past.
Hope you enjoyed my thoughts. Next on my summer reading list is a Star Wars book, but then I’m going to open up Edmund Morgan’s, The Birth of the Republic, 1763-89 which has been a recent addition to my list.