The Landscape of History: History as a Science

the-landscape-of-historyHistory and the social sciences are very different academic disciplines, and John Lewis Gaddis, in his book The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (2004), explains why. Gaddis is the Robert A. Lovett Professor of Military and Naval History at Yale University and is best known for his work on the Cold War. In The Landscape of History, he argues that both history and the social sciences are scientific, but what the disciplines are concerned with differs. In simplistic terms, social scientists are concerned with the future and historians are concerned with the past. Because the social sciences are more speculative in that way, they are more likely to inaccurately carry out their task. The social sciences will almost never be able to predict future events, but historians will be able to describe the past in more or less accurate ways.

The social sciences understand reality by dividing it into parts and use each part to explain the whole. They look for these independent variables and expect to find them out in the world. Natural sciences like geology and astronomy have an ecological worldview that allows them to study how each part effects the whole and how the whole affects the parts. There is no way to separate each variable from the whole and study them as though the variables could exist independently from the whole.

Gaddis argues, in even more simplistic terms, that the reductionist view is exclusive and the ecological view is inclusive. For the social sciences, the reductionist viewpoint allows them to make predictions about future behavior. Future behavior can be predicted because it conforms to rules that have operated in the past, are operating in the present, and can be discovered. These rules are assumed to apply to everyone, everywhere, and to never change over time. Historians, however, don’t concern themselves with future predictions.

Gaddis believes that the social sciences overlook reality in order to preserve their theories about the world. They try to mimic laboratory science by extrapolating variables from the world around them and then using each of these generalizations to explain the whole. Historians, on the other hand, make generalizations and categories in able to better explain events that happened in the past. Gaddis calls this particular generalization. These are more like tools used for descriptive purposes than rules or laws that reflect a hypothesis. Historians only apply their generalizations to a specific area: the past, and not across all of time and space. Historians create simulations to describe the past. Social scientists create models in order to predict future behavior.

Gaddis accuses the social sciences of being more preoccupied with theory than with reality. The categorization of data that the social sciences engage in removes them from the practical into the methodological, whereas in history categorization serves the very practical purpose of describing events at one place and time in the assumed collective whole of world history.

Is history a science? John Lewis Gaddis argues that, yes, it is, even though it is different from disciplines like psychology, sociology, and political science. I tend to disagree. Although efforts have been made to tie history to hard data and analysis, history is a fundamentally literary pursuit. It involves cherry-picking events in order to tell a story about the past–a process that is completely subjective. Every generation will have a new way of retelling this story. That is what makes history so rich and interesting, it is constantly changing and being reinterpreted. Never-the-less, The Landscape of History is a must read for anyone looking for a fresh perspective on the subject.

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