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The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past
By John Lewis Gaddis
Oxford University Press, 2002, 224 pp.
A masterful statement on the historical method by a distinguished Cold War historian. Gaddis makes the case that the past may not be prologue, but it can be explored for lessons to guide human action. Historical knowledge provides the most important way in which society transmits acquired skills and ideas from one generation to the next. Gaddis depicts the historian's craft as akin to cartography -- an open-ended process that requires faithfulness to detail, multiple points of view, and a constant eye on the horizon. The past is not unknowable, but neither is it a simple data bank that allows social scientists to derive and test abstract universal laws. Gaddis' most provocative claim is a powerful irony: Social science, with its independent variables and deductive theories, would appear to have more scientific pretensions than does history. But the historical method, which relies on thought experiments and the interplay of inductive and deductive reasoning, more fully shares the methodical logic of such fields as astronomy, paleontology, and evolutionary biology. Gaddis' characterization of the social sciences will surely spark debate even as it illuminates important intellectual connections between the disciplines. Delightfully readable, the book is a grand celebration of the pursuit of knowledge.
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