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What is history and why should we study it? Is there such a thing as historical truth? Is history a science? One of the most accomplished historians at work today, John Lewis Gaddis, answers these and other questions in this short, witty, and humane book. The Landscape of History provides a searching look at the historian's craft, as well as a strong argument for why a historical consciousness should matter to us today.

Gaddis points out that while the historical method is more sophisticated than most historians realize, it doesn't require unintelligible prose to explain. Like cartographers mapping landscapes, historians represent what they can never replicate. In doing so, they combine the techniques of artists, geologists, paleontologists, and evolutionary biologists. Their approaches parallel, in intriguing ways, the new sciences of chaos, complexity, and criticality. They don't much resemble what happens in the social sciences, where the pursuit of independent variables functioning with static systems seems increasingly divorced from the world as we know it. So who's really being scientific and who isn't? This question too is one Gaddis explores, in ways that are certain to spark interdisciplinary controversy.

Written in the tradition of Marc Bloch and E.H. Carr, The Landscape of History is at once an engaging introduction to the historical method for beginners, a powerful reaffirmation of it for practitioners, a startling challenge to social scientists, and an effective skewering of post-modernist claims that we can't know anything at all about the past. It will be essential reading for anyone who reads, writes, teaches, or cares about history.

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also by john lewis gaddis
The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1941–1947
Russia, the Soviet Union, and the United States: An Interpretive History
Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American
National Security Policy
The Long Peace: Inquiries into the History of the Cold War
The United States and the End of the Cold War: Implications,
Reconsiderations, Provocations
We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History

How Historians Map the Past



Oxford New York
Auckland Bangkok Buenos Aires Cape Town Chennai
Dar es Salaam Delhi Hong Kong Istanbul Karachi Kolkata
Kuala Lumpur Madrid Melbourne Mexico City Mumbai Nairobi
São Paulo Shanghai Singapore Taipei Tokyo Toronto
Copyright © 2002 by John Lewis Gaddis
Published by Oxford University Press, Inc.
198 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10016
Oxford is a registered trademark of Oxford University Press
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be
reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted,
in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical,
photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior
permission of Oxford University Press.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Gaddis, John Lewis.
The landscape of history : how historians map the past / John Lewis Gaddis.
p. cm. Includes index.
isbn 0-19-506652-9
1. History—Philosophy. 2. History—Methodology.
3. Aesthetics—History. I. Title.
d16.8 .g23 2002 901—dc21 2002010392
Book design and composition by Mark McGarry, Texas Type & Book Works.
Set in Linotype Fairfield.
9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Printed in the United States of America
on acid-free paper

For Toni
The Love of Life and a Life of Love


Preface ix

The Landscape of History 1


Time and Space 17


Structure and Process 35
The Interdependency of Variables 53
Chaos and Complexity 71
Causation, Contingency, and Counterfactu; als 91


Molecules with Minds of Their Own 111


Seeing Like a Historian 129
Notes 153
Index 183


The University of Oxford has again provided a hospitable setting in which to write a book. The occasion this time was the 2000/1
George Eastman Visiting Professorship in Balliol College, a chair dating back to 1929 whose occupants have included Felix Frankfurter,
Linus Pauling, Willard Quine, George F. Kennan, Lionel Trilling, Clifford Geertz, William H. McNeill, Natalie Zemon Davis, and Robin
Winks. As befits a position with such diverse and distinguished predecessors, the Eastman electors do not find it necessary to provide current chairholders with detailed instructions as to what they are
expected to do. My own letter of appointment specified only “participation in twenty-four academic functions during the three terms of
the academic year.” It then added, accurately enough as I discovered,
“that the Eastman Professor enjoys considerable scope for flexibility in
adjusting the pedagogical activities in combination with scholarly projects which the holder may wish to pursue.”
Confronted with so much latitude in so congenial a setting, I was
at first at a loss to know how to use my time. One possibility, I suppose, would have been simply to dine: high table at Oxford is definitely an “academic function.” Another would have been to spend the


p r e fa c e

year doing research, but this would have disappointed my hosts, who
clearly expected some sort of visibility. A third would have been to lecture on Cold War history; but I’d done that as Harmsworth Professor
eight years earlier and had since published the lectures.1 Even in a
rapidly changing field like this one, would there be that much new to
say? I rather doubted it.
So in the end, I settled on something completely different: a set of
lectures, delivered as before in the Examination Schools building on
High Street, on the admittedly ambitious subject of how historians
think. I had several purposes in mind in undertaking this project, the
first of which was to pay homage to scholars now dead and to students
very much alive, both of whom had taught me. The scholars, in particular, were Marc Bloch and E. H. Carr, whose respective introductions
to the historical method, The Historian’s Craft and What Is History?,
first forced me to think about what historians do. The students were
my own, undergraduates and graduates at Ohio, Yale, and Oxford universities, with whom I’d spent a good deal of time discussing these
and other less familiar works on historical methodology.
A second purpose derived from the first. I’d begun to worry that all
this reading and talking might soon begin to produce, in my own mind,
something like the effect Cervantes describes when a certain man of
La Mancha read too many books on knight-errantry: “he so bewildered
himself in this kind of study that . . . his brain . . . dried up, [and] he
came at last to lose his wits.” 2 I felt the need, at this stage in life, to
begin to sort things out, lest I start attacking windmills. It’s possible, of
course, that I’ve already arrived at that stage, and that these lectures
were the first offensive—but I’ll leave that for my readers to judge.
My third purpose—whether or not I’d dodged the dangers implied
in the second—was to do some updating. A lot has happened since
the Nazis executed Bloch in 1944, leaving us with a classic that breaks
off, like Thucydides, in mid-sentence; and since the more fortunate
Carr completed his George Macaulay Trevelyan lectures, which
became his classic, at Cambridge in 1961. It’s my impression, though,

p r e fa c e


that it’s not so much they as we who need the updating. For Bloch and
Carr anticipated certain developments in the physical and biological
sciences that have brought those disciplines closer than they once
were to what historians had been doing all along. Most social scientists have hardly noticed these trends, and most historians, even as
they read and teach Bloch and Carr, neglect what these authors were
suggesting about a convergence of the historical method with those of
the so-called “hard” sciences.3
That suggests my fourth purpose, which was to encourage my fellow historians to make their methods more explicit. We normally
resist doing this. We work within a wide variety of styles, but we prefer in all of them that form conceal function. We recoil from the
notion that our writing should replicate, say, the design of the Pompidou Center in Paris, which proudly places its escalators, plumbing,
wiring, and ductwork on the outside of the building, so that they’re
there for all to see. We don’t question the need for such structures,
only the impulse to exhibit them. Our reluctance to reveal our own,
however, too often confuses our students—even, at times, ourselves—
as to just what it is we do.
Bloch and Carr had little patience with such methodological modesty,4 and that brings me to my final purpose, which has to do with
teaching. It’s striking that, with all the time that’s passed since their
introductions to the historical method came out, no better ones for
use in the classroom have yet appeared.5 The reason is not just that
Bloch and Carr were accomplished methodologists: we’ve had many
since and some more skilled. What distinguished them was the clarity,
brevity, and wit— in a word, the elegance—with which they expressed
themselves. They showed that you can discuss ductwork gracefully.
Few methodologists attempt this today, which is why they speak
mostly to themselves and not to the rest of us. I’m sure it’s quixotic, on
my part, even to aspire to the example of these two great predecessors.
But I should like at least to try.
It remains only to thank the people who made this project possible:


p r e fa c e

Adam Roberts, who kindly suggested a return visit to Oxford eight
years ago as I was completing my first; the Association of American
Rhodes Scholars, for supporting the Eastman Professorship and for
providing such comfortable lodgings in Eastman House; the master
and fellows of Balliol College, who in so many ways made my wife Toni
and me feel welcome there; the students, faculty, and friends who
attended my lectures, and who provided so many insightful comments
on them in the question period afterwards; my indefatigable Yale
research assistant Ryan Floyd; and, finally, several careful and critical
readers of these chapters in draft form, especially India Cooper, Toni
Dorfman, Michael Frame, Michael Gaddis, Alexander George, Peter
Ginna, Lorenz Lüthi, William H. McNeill, Ian Shapiro, and Jeremi
Suri. I should also like to thank the Oxford microbes, which were
much more manageable than they had been eight years earlier.
Portions of what follows have appeared elsewhere, in “The Tragedy
of Cold War History,” Diplomatic History 17 (Winter 1993), 1–16; On
Contemporary History: An Inaugural Lecture Delivered before the University of Oxford on 18 May 1993 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995); “History, Science, and the Study of International Relations,” in Explaining
International Relations since 1945, ed. Ngaire Woods (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 32–48; “History, Theory, and Common Ground,” International Security 22 (Summer 1997), 75–85; “On
the Interdependency of Variables; or, How Historians Think,” Whitney Humanities Center Newsletter, Yale University, February 1999; and
“In Defense of Particular Generalization: Rewriting Cold War History,” in Bridges and Boundaries: Historians, Political Scientists, and the
Study of International Relations, ed. Colin Elman and Miriam Fendius
Elman (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001), pp. 301–26. The overall
argument, I hope and trust though, is a new one.
The dedication, this time, can only go to the person who changed
my life.
New Haven
April 2002


Caspar David Friedrich, The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog
(c. 1818. Hamburg Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany /
Bridgman Art Library.)

Chapter One


A young man stands hatless in a black coat on a high rocky point.
His back is turned toward us, and he is bracing himself with a walking
stick against the wind that blows his hair in tangles. Before him lies a
fog-shrouded landscape in which the fantastic shapes of more distant
promontories are only partly visible. The far horizon reveals mountains
off to the left, plains to the right, and perhaps very far away—one can’t
be sure—an ocean. But maybe it’s just more fog, merging imperceptibly into clouds. The painting, which dates from 1818, is a familiar one:
Caspar David Friedrich’s The Wanderer above a Sea of Fog. The
impression it leaves is contradictory, suggesting at once mastery over a
landscape and the insignificance of an individual within it. We see no
face, so it’s impossible to know whether the prospect confronting the
young man is exhilarating, or terrifying, or both.
Paul Johnson used Friedrich’s painting some years ago as the cover
for his book The Birth of the Modern, to evoke the rise of romanticism
and the advent of the industrial revolution.1 I should like to use it here
to summon up something more personal, which is my own sense—
admittedly idiosyncratic—of what historical consciousness is all
about. The logic of beginning with a landscape may not be immedi-


the landscape of history

ately obvious. But consider the power of metaphor, on the one hand,
and the particular combination of economy and intensity with which
visual images can express metaphors, on the other.
The best introduction I know to the scientific method, John
Ziman’s Reliable Knowledge: An Exploration of the Grounds for Belief
in Science, points out that scientific insights often arise from such
realizations as “that the behavior of an electron in an atom is ‘like’ the
vibration of air in a spherical container, or that the random configuration of the long chain of atoms in a polymer molecule is ‘like’ the
motion of a drunkard across a village green.”2 “Reality is still to be
embraced and reported without flinching,” the sociobiologist Edward
O. Wilson has added. “But it is also best delivered the same way it was
discovered, retaining a comparable vividness and play of the emotions.”3 It’s here, I think, that science, history, and art have something
in common: they all depend on metaphor, on the recognition of patterns, on the realization that something is “like” something else.
For me, the posture of Friedrich’s wanderer—this striking image of
a back turned toward the artist and all who have since seen his work—
is “like” that of historians. Most of us consider it our business, after
all, to turn our back on wherever it is we may be going, and to focus
our attention, from whatever vantage point we can find, on where
we’ve been. We pride ourselves on not trying to predict the future, as
our colleagues in economics, sociology, and political science attempt
to do. We resist letting contemporary concerns influence us—the
term “presentism,” among historians, is no compliment. We advance
bravely into the future with our eyes fixed firmly on the past: the
image we present to the world is, to put it bluntly, that of a rear end.4


Historians do, to be sure, assume some things about what’s to come.
It’s a good bet, for example, that time will continue to pass, that grav-

the landscape of history


ity will continue to extend itself through space, and that Michaelmas
term at Oxford will continue to be, as it has been for well over seven
hundred years, dreary, dark, and damp. But we know these things
about the future only from having learned about the past: without it
we’d have no sense of even these fundamental truths, to say nothing
of the words with which to express them, or even of who or where or
what we are. We know the future only by the past we project into it.
History, in this sense, is all we have.
But the past, in another sense, is something we can never have.
For by the time we’ve become aware of what has happened it’s already
inaccessible to us: we cannot relive, retrieve, or rerun it as we might
some laboratory experiment or computer simulation. We can only represent it. We can portray the past as a near or distant landscape, much
as Friedrich has depicted what his wanderer sees from his lofty perch.
We can perceive shapes through the fog and mist, we can speculate as
to their significance, and sometimes we can even agree among ourselves as to what these are. Barring the invention of a time machine,
though, we can never go back there to see for sure.
Science fiction, of course, has invented time machines. Indeed
two recent novels, Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book and Michael
Crichton’s Timelines, feature graduate students in history at, respectively, Oxford and Yale, who use these devices to project themselves
back to England and France in the fourteenth century for the purpose
of researching their dissertations.5 Both authors suggest some things
time travel might do for us. It could, for example, give us a “feel” for a
particular time and place: the novels evoke the denser forests, clearer
air, and much louder singing birds of medieval Europe, as well as the
muddy roads, rotting food, and smelly people. What they don’t show is
that we could easily detect the larger patterns of a period by visiting it,
because the characters keep getting caught up in complications of
everyday life that tend to limit perspective. Like catching the plague,
or being burned at the stake, or getting their heads chopped off.
Maybe this is just what it takes to keep the novel exciting, or to


the landscape of history

make the movie rights marketable. I’m inclined to think, though, that
there’s a larger point lurking here: it is that the direct experience of
events isn’t necessarily the best path toward understanding them,
because your field of vision extends no further than your own immediate senses. You lack the capacity, when trying to figure out how to survive a famine, or flee a band of brigands, or fight from within a suit of
armor, to function as a historian might do. You’re not likely to take the
time to contrast conditions in fourteenth-century France with those
under Charlemagne or the Romans, or to compare what might have
been parallels in Ming China or pre-Columbian Peru. Because the
individual is “narrowly restricted by his senses and power of concentration,” Marc Bloch writes in The Historian’s Craft, he “never perceives more than a tiny patch of the vast tapestry of events. . . . In this
respect, the student of the present is scarcely any better off than the
historian of the past.”6
I’d argue, indeed, that the historian of the past is much better off
than the participant in the present, from the simple fact of having an
expanded horizon. Gertrude Stein got close to the reason in her brief
1938 biography of Picasso: “When I was in America I for the first time
travelled pretty much all the time in an airplane and when I looked at
the earth I saw all the lines of cubism made at a time when not any
painter had ever gone up in an airplane. I saw there on earth the mingling lines of Picasso, coming and going, developing and destroying
themselves.”7 What was happening here, quite literally, was detachment from, and consequent elevation above, a landscape: a departure
from the normal that provided a new perception of what was real. It
was what the Montgolfier brothers saw from their balloon over Paris in
1783, or the Wright brothers from their first “Flyer” in 1903, or the
Apollo astronauts when they flew around the moon at Christmas 1968,
thus becoming the first humans to view the earth set against the darkness of space. It’s also, of course, what Friedrich’s wanderer sees from
his mountaintop, as have countless others for whom elevation, by
shifting perspective, has enlarged experience.

the landscape of history


This brings us around, then, to one of the things historians do. For
if you think of the past as a landscape, then history is the way we represent it, and it’s that act of representation that lifts us above the
familiar to let us experience vicariously what we can’t experience
directly: a wider view.


What, though, do we gain from such a view? Several things, I think,
the first of which is a sense of identity that parallels the process of
growing up. Taking off in an airplane makes you feel both large and
small at the same time. You can’t help but have a sense of mastery as
your airline of choice detaches you from the ground, lifts you above
the traffic jams surrounding the airport, and reveals vast horizons
stretching out beyond it—assuming, of course, that you have a window seat, it isn’t a cloudy day, and you aren’t one of those people
whose fear of flying causes them to keep their eyes clamped shut from
takeoff to landing. But as you gain altitude, you also can’t help noticing how small you are in relation to the landscape that lies before you.
The experience is at once exhilarating and terrifying.
So is life. We are born, each of us, with such self-centeredness
that only the fact of being babies, and therefore cute, saves us. Growing up is largely a matter of growing out of that condition: we soak in
impressions, and as we do so we dethrone ourselves—or at least most
of us do—from our original position at the center of the universe. It’s
like taking off in an airplane: the establishment of identity requires
recognizing our relative insignificance in the larger scheme of things.
Remember how it felt to have your parents unexpectedly produce a
younger sibling, or abandon you to the tender mercies of kindergarten? Or what it was like to enter your first public or private school,
or to arrive at places like Oxford, or Yale, or the Hogwarts School of
Witchcraft and Wizardry?8 Or as a teacher to confront your first class-


the landscape of history

room filled with sullen, squirmy, slumbering, solipsistic students? Just
as you’ve cleared one hurdle another is set before you. Each event
diminishes your authority at just the moment at which you think
you’ve become an authority.
If that’s what maturity means in human relationships—the arrival
at identity by way of insignificance—then I would define historical
consciousness as the projection of that maturity through time. We
understand how much has preceded us, and how unimportant we are
in relation to it. We learn our place, and we come to realize that it isn’t
a large one. “Even a superficial acquaintance with the existence,
through millennia of time, of numberless human beings,” the historian
Geoffrey Elton has pointed out, “helps to correct the normal adolescent inclination to relate the world to oneself instead of relating oneself to the world.” History teaches “those adjustments and insights
which help the adolescent to become adult, surely a worthy service in
the education of youth.”9 Mark Twain put it even better:
That it took a hundred million years to prepare the world for [man]
is proof that that is what it was done for. I suppose it is. I dunno. If
the Eiffel Tower were now representing the world’s age, the skin of
paint on the pinnacle knob at its summit would represent man’s
share of that age; and anybody would perceive that the skin was
what the tower was built for. I reckon they would, I dunno.10

Here too, though, there’s a paradox, for although the discovery of
geologic or “deep” time diminished the significance of human beings in
the overall history of the universe, it also, in the eyes of Charles Darwin,
T. H. Huxley, Mark Twain, and many others, dethroned God from his
position at its center—which left no one else around but man.11 The
recognition of human insignificance did not, as one might have
expected, enhance the role of divine agency in explaining human
affairs: it had just the opposite effect. It gave rise to a secular conscious-

the landscape of history


ness that, for better or for worse, placed the responsibility for what happens in history squarely on the people who live through history.
What I’m suggesting, therefore, is that just as historical consciousness demands detachment from—or if you prefer, elevation above—
the landscape that is the past, so it also requires a certain
displacement: an ability to shift back and forth between humility and
mastery. Niccolò Machiavelli made the point precisely in his famous
preface to The Prince: how was it, he asked his patron Lorenzo de’
Medici, that “a man from a low and mean state dares to discuss and
give rules for the governments of princes?” Being Machiavelli, he then
answered his own question:
For just as those who sketch landscapes place themselves down in
the plain to consider the nature of mountains and high places and
to consider the nature of low places place themselves high atop
mountains, similarly to know well the nature of peoples one needs
to be [a] prince, and to know well the nature of princes one needs
to be of the people.12

You feel small, whether as a courtier or an artist or a historian,
because you recognize your insignificance in an infinite universe. You
know you can never yourself rule a kingdom, or capture on canvas
everything you see on a distant horizon, or recapture in your books
and lectures everything that’s happened in even the most particular
part of the past. The best you can do, whether with a prince or a landscape or the past, is to represent reality: to smooth over the details, to
look for larger patterns, to consider how you can use what you see for
your own purposes.
That very act of representation, though, makes you feel large,
because you yourself are in charge of the representation: it’s you who
must make complexity comprehensible, first to yourself, then to others. And the power that resides in representation can be great indeed,


the landscape of history

as Machiavelli certainly understood. For how much influence today
does Lorenzo de’ Medici have, compared to the man who applied to
be his tutor?
Historical consciousness therefore leaves you, as does maturity
itself, with a simultaneous sense of your own significance and insignificance. Like Friedrich’s wanderer, you dominate a landscape even as
you’re diminished by it. You’re suspended between sensibilities that
are at odds with one another; but it’s precisely within that suspension
that your own identity—whether as a person or a historian—tends to
reside. Self-doubt must always precede self-confidence. It should
never, however, cease to accompany, challenge, and by these means
discipline self-confidence.


Machiavelli, who so strikingly combined both qualities, wrote The
Prince, as he immodestly informed Lorenzo de’ Medici, “considering
that no greater gift could be made by me than to give you the capacity
to be able to understand in a very short time all that I have learned
and understood in so many years and with so many hardships and
dangers for myself.” The purpose of his representation was distillation:
he sought to “package” a large body of information into a compact
usable form so that his patron could quickly master it. It’s no accident
that the book is a short one. What Machiavelli offered was a compression of historical experience that would vicariously enlarge personal
experience. “For since men almost always walk on paths beaten by
others . . . , a prudent man should always . . . imitate those who have
been most excellent, so that if his own virtue does not reach that far, it
is at least in the odor of it.”13
This is as good a summary of the uses of historical consciousness
as I have found. I like it because it makes two points: first, that we’re
bound to learn from the past whether or not we make the effort, since

the landscape of history


it’s the only data base we have; and second, that we might as well try
to do so systematically. E. H. Carr elaborated on the first of these
arguments when he observed, in What Is History?, that the size and
reasoning capacity of the human brain are probably no greater now
than they were five thousand years ago, but that very few human
beings live now as they did then. The effectiveness of human thinking, he continued, “has been multiplied many times by learning and
incorporating . . . the experience of the intervening generations.” The
inheritance of acquired characteristics may not work in biology, but it
does in human affairs: “History is progress through the transmission of
acquired skills from one generation to another.”14
As his biographer Jonathan Haslam has pointed out, Carr’s idea of
“progress” in twentieth-century history tended disconcertingly to associate that quality with the accumulation of power in the hands of the
state.15 But in What Is History? Carr was making a larger and less controversial argument: that if we can widen the range of experience
beyond what we as individuals have encountered, if we can draw upon
the experiences of others who’ve had to confront comparable situations in the past, then—although there are no guarantees—our
chances of acting wisely should increase proportionately.
This brings us to Machiavelli’s second point, which is that we
should learn from the past systematically. Historians ought not to
delude themselves into thinking that they provide the only means by
which acquired skills—and ideas—are transmitted from one generation to the next. Culture, religion, technology, environment, and tradition can all do this. But history is arguably the best method of
enlarging experience in such a way as to command the widest possible
consensus on what the significance of that experience might be.16
I know that statement will raise eyebrows, because historians so
often and so visibly disagree with one another. We relish revisionism
and distrust orthodoxy, not least because were we to do otherwise, we
might put ourselves out of business. We have, in recent years,
embraced postmodernist insights about the relative character of all


the landscape of history

historical judgments—the inseparability of the observer from that
which is being observed—although some of us feel that we’ve known
this all along.17 Historians appear, in short, to have only squishy
ground upon which to stand, and hence little basis for claiming any
consensus at all on what the past might tell us with respect to the
present and future.
Except when you ask the question: compared to what? No other
mode of inquiry comes any closer to producing such a consensus, and
most fall far short of it. The very fact that orthodoxies so dominate the
realms of religion and culture suggests the absence of agreement from
below, and hence the need to impose it from above. People adapt to
technology and environment in so many different ways as to defy generalization. Traditions manifest themselves so variously across such
diverse institutions and cultures that they provide hardly any consistency on what the past should signify. The historical method, in this
sense, beats all the others.
Nor does it demand agreement, among its practitioners, as to precisely what the “lessons” of history are: a consensus can incorporate
contradictions. It’s part of growing up to learn that there are competing versions of truth, and that you yourself must choose which to
embrace. It’s part of historical consciousness to learn the same thing:
that there is no “correct” interpretation of the past, but that the act of
interpreting is itself a vicarious enlargement of experience from which
you can benefit. It would ill serve any prince to be told that the past
offers simple lessons—or even, for some situations, any lessons at all.
“The prince can gain the people to himself in many modes,” Machiavelli wrote at one point, “for which one cannot give certain rules
because the modes vary according to circumstances.” The general
proposition still holds, though, that “for a prince it is necessary to have
the people friendly; otherwise he has no remedy in adversity.”18
This gets us close to what historians do—or at least, to echo
Machiavelli, should have the odor of doing: it is to interpret the past
for the purposes of the present with a view to managing the future,

the landscape of history


but to do so without suspending the capacity to assess the particular
circumstances in which one might have to act, or the relevance of past
actions to them. To accumulate experience is not to endorse its automatic application, for part of historical consciousness is the ability to
see differences as well as similarities, to understand that generalizations do not always hold in particular circumstances.
That sounds pretty daunting—until you consider another arena of
human activity in which this distinction between the general and the
particular is so ubiquitous that we hardly even think about it: it’s the
wide world of sports. To achieve proficiency in basketball, baseball, or
even bridge, you have to know the rules of the game, and you have to
practice. But these rules, together with what your coach can teach
you about applying them, are nothing more than a distillation of accumulated experience: they serve the same function that Machiavelli
intended The Prince to serve for Lorenzo de’ Medici. They’re generalizations: compressions and distillations of the past in order to make it
usable in the future.
Each game you play, however, will have its own characteristics: the
skill of your opponent, the adequacy of your own preparation, the circumstances in which the competition takes place. No competent
coach would lay out a plan to be mechanically followed throughout
the game: you have to leave a lot to the discretion—and the good judgment—of the individual players. The fascination of sports resides in
the intersection of the general with the particular. The practice of life
is much the same.
Studying the past is no sure guide to predicting the future. What it
does do, though, is to prepare you for the future by expanding experience, so that you can increase your skills, your stamina—and, if all
goes well, your wisdom. For while it may be true, as Machiavelli estimated, “that fortune is the arbiter of half our actions,” it’s also the case
that “she leaves the other half, or close to it, for us to govern.” Or, as
he also put it, “God does not want to do everything.”19


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Just how, though, do you present historical experience for the purpose
of enlarging personal experience? To include too little information can
render the whole exercise irrelevant. To include too much can overload the circuits and crash the system. The historian has got to strike a
balance, and that means recognizing a trade-off between literal and
abstract representation. Let me illustrate this with two well-known
artistic portrayals of the same subject.
The first is Jan van Eyck’s great double portrait The Marriage of
Giovanni Arnolfini, from 1434, which documents a relationship
between a man and a woman in such precise detail that we can see

Two representations of the same subject,
one from a particular time and the other for all time.
Jan van Eyck, The Marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini, 1434,
London, National Gallery (Alinari / Art Resource, New York), and Pablo
Picasso, The Lovers, 1904, Musée Picasso, Paris (Réunion des Musées
Nationaux / Art Resource, New York; © 2002 Estate of Pablo Picasso /
Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York).

the landscape of history


every fold in their clothes, every frill in the lace, the apples on the
windowsill, the shoes on the floor, the individual hairs on the little
dog, and even the artist himself reflected in the mirror. The picture is
striking because it’s as close as anything we have to photographic realism four hundred years before photography was invented. This can
only have been 1434, these can only have been the Arnolfinis, and they
can only have been painted in Bruges. We get the vicarious experience
of a distant but very particular time and place.
Now, contrast this with Picasso’s The Lovers, an ink, watercolor,
and charcoal drawing dashed off quickly in 1904. The image, like van
Eyck’s, leaves little doubt as to the subject. But here everything has
been stripped away: background, furnishings, shoes, dog, even clothes,
and we’re down to the essence of the matter. What we have is a transmission of vicarious experience so generic that anyone from Adam and
Eve onward would immediately understand it. The very point of this
drawing is the abstraction that flows from its absence of context, and
it’s this that projects it so effectively across time and space.
Switch now, if you can manage this leap, to Thucydides, in whom I
find both the particularity of a van Eyck and the generality of a
Picasso. He is, at times, so photographic in his narrative that he could
be writing a modern screenplay. He tells us, for example, of a Plataean
attempt against a Peloponnesian wall in which the soldiers advanced
with only their left feet shod to keep from slipping in the mud, and in
which the inadvertent dislodgment of a single roof tile raised the
alarm. He places us in the middle of the Athenian attack on Pylos in
425 b.c. just as precisely as those remarkable first moments of Steven
Spielberg’s film Saving Private Ryan place us on the Normandy
beaches in 1944 a.d. He makes us hear the sick and wounded Athenians on Sicily “loudly calling to each individual comrade or relative
whom they could see, hanging upon the necks of their tent-fellows in
the act of departure, and following as far as they could, and when
their bodily strength failed them, calling again and again upon heaven
and shrieking aloud as they were left behind.”20 There is, in short, an


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authenticity in this particularity that puts us there at least as effectively as one of Michael Crichton’s time machines.
But Thucydides, unlike Crichton, is also a great generalizer. He
meant his work, he tells us, for those inquirers “who desire an exact
knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future,
which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not
reflect it.” He knew that abstraction—we might even call it a Picassolike separation from context—is what makes generalizations hold up
over time. Hence he has the Athenians telling the rebellious Melians,
as a timeless principle, that “the strong do what they can and the weak
suffer what they must”: it follows that the Athenians “put to death all
the grown men whom they took, and sold the women and children for
slaves, and subsequently sent out five hundred colonists and inhabited the place themselves.” Thucydides also shows us, though, that
there are exceptions to any rule: when the Mityleneans rebel and the
Athenians conquer them, the strong suddenly have second thoughts
and send out a second ship to overtake the first, countermanding the
order to slaughter or enslave the weak.21
This tension between particularization and generalization—
between literal and abstract representation—comes with the territory,
I think, when you’re transmitting vicarious experience. A simple
chronicle of details, however graphic, locks you into a particular time
and place. You move beyond it by abstracting, but abstracting is an
artificial exercise, involving an oversimplification of complex realities.
It’s analogous to what happened in the world of art once it began, in
the late nineteenth century, to depart from the literal representation
of reality. One objective of impressionism, cubism, and futurism was
to find a way to represent motion from within the necessarily static
media of paint, canvas, and frame. Abstraction arose as a form of liberation, a new view of reality that suggested something of the flow of
time.22 It worked, though, only by distorting space.
Historians, in contrast, employ abstraction to overcome a different
constraint, which is their separation in time from their subjects.

the landscape of history


Artists coexist with the objects they’re representing, which means that
it’s always possible for them to shift the view, adjust the light, or move
the model.23 Historians can’t do this: because what they represent is in
the past, they can never alter it. But they can, by that means of the
particular form of abstraction we know as narrative, portray movement
through time, something an artist can only hint at.
There’s always a balance to be struck, though, for the more time
the narrative covers, the less detail it can provide. It’s like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, in which the precise measurement of one
variable renders another one imprecise.24 This then, is yet another of
the polarities involved in historical consciousness: the tension
between the literal and the abstract, between the detailed depiction of
what lies at some point in the past, on the one hand, and the sweeping sketch of what extends over long stretches of it, on the other.


Which brings me back to Friedrich’s Wanderer, a representation in art
that comes close to suggesting visually what historical consciousness
is all about. The back turned toward us. Elevation from, not immersion in, a distant landscape. The tension between significance and
insignificance, the way you feel both large and small at the same time.
The polarities of generalization and particularization, the gap between
abstract and literal representation. But there’s something else here as
well: a sense of curiosity mixed with awe mixed with a determination
to find things out—to penetrate the fog, to distill experience, to depict
reality—that is as much an artistic vision as a scientific sensibility.
Harold Bloom has written of Shakespeare that he created our concept of ourselves by discovering ways—never before achieved—of
portraying human nature on the stage.25 John Madden’s film Shakespeare in Love, I think, shows that actually happening: it’s the moment
when Romeo and Juliet has been staged for the first time, when the


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last lines have been delivered, and when the audience, utterly
amazed, sits silently with eyes bulging and mouths agape, unsure of
what to do. Confronting uncharted territory, whether in theater, history, or human affairs, produces something like that sense of wonder.
Which is probably why Shakespeare in Love ends at the beginning of
Twelfth Night, with Viola shipwrecked on an uncharted continent,
filled with dangers but also with infinite possibilities. And as in
Friedrich’s Wanderer, it’s a backside we see in that last long shot as she
wades ashore.
Now, I don’t mean to suggest that historians can, with any credibility, play the role of Gwyneth Paltrow. We’re supposed to be solid, dispassionate chroniclers of events, not given to allowing our emotions
and our intuitions to affect what we do, or so we’ve traditionally been
taught. I worry, though, that if we don’t allow for these things, and for
the sense of excitement and wonder they bring to the doing of history,
then we’re missing much of what the field is all about. The first lines
Shakespeare has Viola speak, filled as they are with intelligence,
curiosity, and some dread, could well be the starting point for any historian contemplating the landscape of history: “What country, friends,
is this?”

C h a p t e r Tw o


One of the things that’s striking about that final scene in Shakespeare in Love is its suggestion of an abundance of time and space: all
possibilities are open; nothing is ruled out. “Had we but world enough
and time,” the poet Andrew Marvell wrote regretfully, acknowledging
that he did not.1 But in this cinematic image of a backside, an empty
beach, and an uncharted continent, it seems that we really do.
Individual historians, like Marvell, are of course bound by time
and space, but history as a discipline isn’t. Precisely because of their
detachment from and elevation above the landscape of the past, historians are able to manipulate time and space in ways they could never
manage as normal people. They can compress these dimensions,
expand them, compare them, measure them, even transcend them,
almost as poets, playwrights, novelists, and film-makers do. Historians
have always been, in this sense, abstractionists: the literal representation of reality is not their task.
And yet they must accomplish these manipulations in such a way
as at least to approach the standards for verification that exist within
the social, physical, and biological sciences. Artists don’t normally


the landscape of history

expect to have their sources checked. Historians do.2 That fact suspends us somewhere in between the arts and the sciences: we feel
free to rise above the constraints of time and space, to use our imagination, to boldly go—as the scriptwriters of Star Trek might have put it
in their relentless pursuit of the split infinitive—where no actual person has or ever could have gone before. But we have to do this in such
a way as to convince our students, our colleagues, and anyone else
who reads our work that these departures from the dimensions in
which we usually live our lives do indeed give us reliable information
about how people in the past lived theirs. This isn’t an easy task.


Let me begin my discussion of it with one of the most famous of all
fictional rearrangements of time and space (to say nothing of gender),
Virginia Woolf ’s novel Orlando. It begins and ends with her eponymous hero sitting quietly on a hill, under a large oak tree, from which
he (who by the end of the book has become a she) can see some thirty
English counties, “or forty, perhaps, if the weather was very fine.” The
spires and smoke of London are visible in one direction, the English
Channel in another, and the “craggy top and serrated edges of Snowden [sic]” in another. Orlando returns to this place regularly over some
three and a half centuries without visibly aging. Elizabeth I finds him
enchanting, but she—for there is an unexpected change of sex about a
third of the way through—is still flourishing in the reign of George V.
So what’s going on here?
Well, first of all, Orlando is a thinly disguised portrayal of Woolf ’s
lover, Vita Sackville-West: what better gift than to liberate such a person from constraints of time, space, and gender? But the novel is also
Woolf ’s send-up of biography as a genre—especially those tedious
multivolume “life and times” monuments favored by the Victorians.3

t i m e a n d s pa c e


“It was now November,” she tells us in recounting one of the less
eventful years in Orlando’s life:
After November, comes December. Then January, February,
March, and April. After April comes May. June, July, August follow.
Next is September. Then October, and so, behold, here we are
back at November again, with a whole year accomplished. This
method of writing biography, though it has its merits, is a little bare,
perhaps, and the reader, if we go on with it, may complain that he
could recite the calendar for himself and so save his pocket whatever sum the publisher may think it proper to charge for the book.

More significantly for our purposes, and as this quote suggests,
Orlando is a protest against the literal representation of reality. Woolf
makes the point most clearly in a striking passage on the nature of
time: “An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human
spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length; on
the other hand, an hour may be accurately represented on the timepiece of the mind by one second. This extraordinary discrepancy
between time on the clock and time in the mind is less known than it
should be, and deserves fuller investigation.” 4
So let us take her up on that suggestion, and see where it leads.
The desk calendar method of writing history has ancient precedents in
the form of chronicles, which dutifully recount the weather, the crops,
and the phases of the moon, as well as more extraordinary developments. But as the philosopher of history Hayden White has noted,
events recorded in the strict order of their occurrence almost immediately get rearranged into a story with a discrete beginning, middle, and
end.5 These then become histories, and White’s analysis of them
beyond this point becomes jargon-laden. Suffice it to say, though, that
when he’s writing about “emplotment” and “formist, organicist, mechanistic, and contextualist” modes of explanation, what he’s really


the landscape of history

describing is the historian’s liberation from the limitations of time and
space: the freedom to give greater attention to some things than to
others and thus to depart from strict chronology; the license to connect things disconnected in space, and thus to rearrange geography.
These procedures are so basic that historians tend to take them for
granted: we rarely even think about what we’re doing when we do it.
And yet they get at the heart of what we mean by representation,
which is simply the rearrangement of reality to suit our purposes.6 As a
way of illustrating this point, consider Thomas Babington Macaulay
and Henry Adams, two prominent nineteenth-century exemplars of
the traditional historical narrative. Despite their reputations, both
managed to liberate themselves from literal representation with a selfconfidence that would have astonished the world of art at the time,
had they been capable of expressing it in visual terms.
The multiple volumes of Macaulay’s History of England, published
between 1848 and 1861, and of Adams’s History of the United States of
America during the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James
Madison, which appeared between 1889 and 1891, move grandly
through time, not hesitating to select evidence that confirms their
authors’ convictions and to neglect that which does not. Macaulay,
hence, imposes the “Whig” interpretation of history so authoritatively
that subsequent generations of historians have staggered under its
weight. Adams, for his part, bears the burden of family history: his
view of Jefferson and Madison is, inescapably—even genetically—
that of John and John Quincy Adams.7 The discrepancy Woolf
detected between time on the clock and time in the mind is, in this
filtering of evidence, most assuredly there.
But Macaulay and Adams do not only move through time: they
both begin their histories with a trip through space at a single point in
time that bears a striking resemblance to that of Orlando from his
or her oak tree. Macaulay’s famous third chapter on “The State of
England in 1685” views the entire country as no actual observer could
possibly have done.8 We see things from a distance, to be sure, as

t i m e a n d s pa c e


when he tells us that we might recognize “Snowdon and Windermere,
the Cheddar Cliffs and Beachy Head,” but these would be the exceptions, for
thousands of square miles, which are now rich corn land and
meadow, intersected by green hedge-rows, and dotted with villages
and pleasant country seats, would appear as moors overgrown with
furze, or fens abandoned to wild ducks. We should see straggling
huts built of wood and covered with thatch where we now see manufacturing towns and sea-ports renowned to the farthest ends of
the world. The capital itself would shrink to dimensions not much
exceeding those of its present suburb on the south of the Thames.

Macaulay then zooms in to give us precise details: we learn, for example, that the “litter of a farmyard gathered under the windows” of the
typical country gentleman of the era, and that “cabbages and gooseberry bushes grew close to his hall door.”9
Adams is just as ambitious, devoting six chapters to what could
almost be a satellite reconnaissance of the United States in the year
1800, and only then getting around to Jefferson’s inauguration. Like
Macaulay, he focuses on particularities, such as the fact that there
was then no road between Baltimore and Washington, only tracks that
“meandered through forests,” with stagecoach drivers choosing
whichever “seemed least dangerous.” But he also zooms out, as when
he makes the larger point that “five million Americans struggling with
the untamed continent seemed hardly more competent to their task
than the beavers and buffalo which had for countless generations
made bridges and roads of their own.”10
So here we have two eminently Victorian gentlemen who would
hardly have known what to make of Virginia Woolf—although she
would have known what to make of them—manipulating time and
space with just as much ease and aplomb as her hero/heroine Orlando
does, or as the most accomplished operator of a time machine in sci-


the landscape of history

ence fiction might do. And they only occasionally wrinkle their frock
coats along the way.


I expressed skepticism, in the first chapter, about the utility of time
machines in historical research. I especially advised against graduate
students relying on them, because of the limited perspective you tend
to get from being plunked down in some particular part of the past,
and the danger of not getting back in time for your orals.11 If you consider historical research itself as a kind of time machine, though,
you’ll immediately notice that its capabilities go well beyond what
such devices in science fiction normally accomplish. For as the examples of Macaulay and Adams illustrate, historians have the capacity for
selectivity, simultaneity, and the shifting of scale: they can select from
the cacophony of events what they think is really important; they can
be in several times and places at once; and they can zoom in and out
between macroscopic and microscopic levels of analysis. Let me
develop each of these points in greater detail.
Selectivity. To be transported, in a conventional time machine, to a
particular point in the past would be to have significances imposed on
you. Assuming your instruments were working properly, you could
choose the time and place you’d like to visit, but once there you’d
have little control: events would quickly overwhelm you, and you’d
just have to cope. We all know the plot from there: you’d spend the
rest of the novel dodging voracious velociraptors, or fending off the
Black Death, or trying to persuade the locals that you’re not really a
witch or a wizard and should therefore be spared the stake.
In the historian’s method of time travel, though, you impose significances on the past, not the other way around. By remaining in the
present as you explore the past, you retain the initiative: you can, like
Macaulay and Adams, defend Whiggery or discredit Jefferson. You can

t i m e a n d s pa c e


focus on kings and their courtiers, or on warfare and statecraft, or on
the great religious, intellectual, or ideological movements of the day.
Or you can follow Fernand Braudel’s example in The Mediterranean
and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II by bringing that
monarch on stage only after some nine hundred pages in which you’ve
discussed the geography, the weather, the crops, the animals, the
economy, and the institutions—everything, it seems, but the great
man himself, who was in his day at the center of things but in this history certainly is not.12
Who would have anticipated that we would today be studying the
Inquisition through the eyes of a sixteenth-century Italian miller, or
prerevolutionary France from the perspective of a recalcitrant Chinese
manservant, or the first years of American independence from the
experiences of a New England midwife? Works like Carlo Ginzburg’s
The Cheese and the Worms, Jonathan Spence’s The Question of Hu,
and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale result from the fortunate preservation of sources that open windows into another time.13
But it’s the historian here who selects what’s significant, no less than
would have been the case with a more traditional account of, say, the
Battle of Hastings, or the life of Louis XIV. Millions of people over
thousands of years have crossed the Rubicon, E. H. Carr pointed out
in What Is History? We decide which ones we want to write about.14
It’s an unsettling exercise to try to guess what historians two or
three hundred years hence will select as significant about our age.
One depressing possibility might be the defunct websites we leave
lying around in cyberspace. For if Robert Darnton can reconstruct
early eighteenth-century Parisian society on the basis of bookseller
reports, gossip-filled scandal sheets, and accounts of the trial, torturing, and execution of aristocrats’ cats, imagine what someone like him
might do with what will remain of us.15 All we can say for sure is that
we’ll only in part be remembered for what we consider significant
about ourselves, or from what we choose to leave behind in the documents and the artifacts that will survive us. Future historians will have


the landscape of history

to choose what to make of these: it’s they who will impose meanings,
just as it’s we who study the past, not those who lived through it, who
do so.16
Simultaneity. Even more striking than selectivity is the capacity
history gives you for simultaneity, for the ability to be at once in more
than a single place or time. To achieve this, in science fiction, would
no doubt require wormholes, beam splitters, and all kinds of other
complicated devices; moreover, the plot, we can assume, would
quickly lose its focus. Historians routinely frequent many places at
once, though: their investigations of the past can extend to multiple
subjects within the same period, as my examples from Macaulay and
Adams illustrate, or to multiple points in time within the same subject, as traditional narratives do, or to some combination of both.
Consider John Keegan’s classic accounts of Agincourt, Waterloo,
and the Somme in The Face of Battle. No one could have witnessed
those engagements in their entirety, nor could anyone have compared
them on the basis of direct experience. And yet Keegan is able to take
us there—in an Orlando-like extension of time horizons—to let us see
all three battles with appalling clarity, even though as he himself
acknowledges in the first line of the book: “I have not been in a battle;
nor near one, nor heard one from afar, nor seen the aftermath.”17
Or, for simultaneity in space at a particular time, there is Stephen
Kern’s remarkable but neglected book The Culture of Time and Space,
which brings together developments in diplomacy, technology, and the
arts in Europe and the United States on the eve of World War I to
document an acceleration in the pace of events and a departure from
traditional modes of representing them that could hardly have been
visible while it was happening. Even Virginia Woolf waited until 1924
to make her famous observation that “on or about December, 1910,
human character changed.”18
It’s only by standing apart from the events they describe, as Keegan and Kern do, that historians can understand and, more significantly, compare events. For surely understanding implies comparison:

t i m e a n d s pa c e


to comprehend something is to see it in relation to other entities of
the same class; but when these stretch over spans of time and space
that exceed the physical capabilities of the individual observer, our
only alternative is to be in several places at once.19 Only viewing the
past from the perspective of the present—the posture of Friedrich’s
wanderer on his mountaintop—allows you to do that.
Scale. A third way in which historians’ time machines exceed the
capability of those in science fiction is the ease with which they can
shift the scale from the macroscopic to the microscopic, and back
again. In one sense there’s nothing surprising here, for this is the basis
for a fundamental tool of narrative, the illustrative anecdote. Anytime
a historian uses a particular episode to make a general point, scale
shifting is taking place: the small, because it’s easily described, is used
to characterize the large, which may not be. In another sense, though,
the results of this procedure can be startling.
A good example appears in the work of William H. McNeill, who,
after completing his magisterial study The Rise of the West almost four
decades ago, began producing a series of books that start from microscopic insights into human nature but then expand them into macroscopic reinterpretations of an extended past. The first of these focused
quite literally on the microscopic: Plagues and Peoples, published in
1976, dealt with the effects of infectious diseases on world history.
What McNeill showed was that great macro-events—the decline of
Rome, the Mongol invasions, the European conquest of North and
South America—can’t be satisfactorily explained apart from the workings of micro-processes we’ve only come to understand in the last
hundred years. What’s known now about immunities or their absence
projects a new angle of vision back into the past. This particular form
of time travel only works, though, when the historian is prepared to
shift scales: to consider how phenomena so small that they totally
escaped notice at the time could shape phenomena so large that we’ve
always wondered why they occurred.20
McNeill then did something similar in The Pursuit of Power (1982),


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where he focused on the role of new military technologies in determining the location and extent of political power over the past thousand years, and more recently in Keeping Together in Time (1995),
which showed how so a simple matter as mass rhythmic movement—
dance, drill, exercise—could provide a basis for social cohesiveness
and hence for human organization.21 What these books have in common is travel across not only time and space but also scale: the ability
to select, to be in several places at once, to see processes at work that
are visible to us now but were not then.


Historians have no choice but to engage in these manipulations of
time, space, and scale—these departures from literal representation—
because a truly literal representation of any entity could only be the
entity itself, and that would be impractical. David Hackett Fischer,
whose list of historians’ fallacies has delighted several generations of
their students, provides a crisp explanation of why this is the case.
The holist fallacy, he writes, “is the mistaken idea that a historian
should select significant details from a sense of the whole thing.” The
problem with this approach is that “it would prevent a historian from
knowing anything until he knows everything, which is absurd and
impossible.” The historian’s evidence “is always incomplete, his perspective is always limited, and the thing itself is a vast expanding universe of particular events, about which an infinite number of facts or
true statements can be discovered.”22
What Fischer has described, one of my more mathematically
inclined students has pointed out to me, is a problem in set theory.
The easiest way to understand this is to take all whole numbers (1, 2,
3, 4, 5, and so on) and extract from the set all odd numbers (1, 3, 5, 7,
9, and so on): you wind up with just as many numbers as you started
out with. The subset has as many units—an infinite number—as the

t i m e a n d s pa c e


whole set. The part is as great as the whole.23 The physicist Stephen
Hawking makes a similar point when he begins his A Brief History of
Time with an anecdote about a lecturer explaining the workings of the
solar system. At the end of the presentation, a little old lady in the
back of the room gets up and announces firmly: “What you have told
us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of
a giant tortoise.” “What is the tortoise standing on?” the lecturer asks
patiently. She replies: “It’s tortoises all the way down.”24
The answer isn’t as flaky as you might think, because when it
comes to the dimensions of time and space with which historians
have to deal, it really is tortoises all the way down: time and space are
infinitely divisible. We’ve agreed, as a matter of convenience, to measure time by a series of arbitrary units called centuries, decades, years,
months, days, minutes, and seconds—historians don’t normally go
beyond these. But they could, for there are milliseconds, nanoseconds, and goodness knows what else at one end of the scale, just as
there are light years, parsecs, and such at the other end of it.
To try to capture everything that happened to an ordinary person
on an ordinary day in an ordinary place took James Joyce over seven
hundred pages in Ulysses. So imagine turning Joyce loose on an
account, say, of Napoleon at Waterloo. The level of detail would be
such that most readers would nod off before the great man
(Napoleon, I mean, not Joyce) had even got his underwear on. If
indeed he wore underwear, a point I’m content to leave to whoever
feels the need to divide history down to this level.25
This same principle of divisibility applies to space. Consider the
meteorologist Lewis Richardson’s famous question: how long is the
coastline of Britain? The answer is that there is no answer—it
depends. Are you measuring in miles, meters, or microns? The result
will differ in each instance, and not just as a consequence of converting from one unit of measurement to another. For the further down
you go in the scale of measurement, the more irregularities of coastline you’ll pick up, so that the length will expand or contract in rela-


the landscape of history

tion to the manner in which you’re measuring it. And yet, as an object
lodged in space, Britain is obviously a finite entity which does not
inflate or deflate according to how we look at it. It’s the modes with
which we measure it that do.26
So once again, as with Napoleon, we make an estimate and move
on. No one can know everything the emperor did on the disastrous
day. No one can know, if Richardson is right, how far it actually is
from London to Oxford. And yet people manage to find their way
between these points all the time, some of them even reading about
Napoleon at Waterloo as they do so.

Three views of the British coastline. The Bill of Portland, barely
visible in the first image, shows up
as a small peninsula in the second
and in detail in the third. Measurements based on each would
produce different results for the
coastline’s length, and yet all three
accurately represent the same
coastline (GlobeXplorer).

t i m e a n d s pa c e


If our methods of measurement render entities infinitely divisible
into other entities, as set theory suggests they do, then the only defense
against going bonkers in attempting to deal with this problem is to glide
grandly over it, rather in the manner of Virginia Woolf. We have no
choice but to sketch what we cannot precisely delineate, to generalize,
to abstract. What this means, though, is that our modes of representation determine whatever it is we’re representing. We’re back with the
historians’ equivalent of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle: the act of
observation alters what’s being observed. Which means that objectivity
as a consequence is hardly possible, and that there is, therefore, no
such thing as truth. Which in turn means that postmodernism, which
asserts all of these things, is confirmed.27 Q.E.D. Or so it might seem.


But before we accept that unsettling conclusion, we should probe a
little more deeply into the nature of time and space, as historians
understand them. Leibniz defined time elegantly as “the order of noncontemporaneous things.”28 This isn’t completely satisfactory, because
words like “order” and “contemporaneous” all themselves depend on a
conception of time, so that the word is defined in terms of itself. It’s
hard to see how we can do much better, though, for if truth be told we
define ourselves in just the same way: to say what we are is to reflect
what we’ve become. We cannot therefore stand apart from time: it is,
as Marc Bloch wrote, “the very plasma in which events are immersed,
and the field within which they become intelligible.”29
How, then, do we think and write about something of which we’re
a part? We do it first, I believe, by noting that although time itself is a
seamless continuum, it doesn’t look that way to those who exist within
it. Anyone with even a minimal level of consciousness would see time
as divided, like ancient Gaul, into three parts: what lies in the past,
what is yet to come in the future, and—most difficult of all to pin
down—that elusive entity we know as the present.


the landscape of history

St. Augustine doubted that the present even exists, describing it as
something that “flies with such speed from future to past, as not to be
lengthened out with the least stay.”30 But the historian R. G. Collingwood, writing some fifteen centuries later, took just the opposite view:
“The present alone is actual,” he insisted, using an Oxford illustration;
the past and future had no existence comparable to the way in which,
“when we are walking up the High past Queen’s, Magdalen and All
Souls exist.”31 So what’s the problem here?
It may be that neither Augustine nor Collingwood had heard of
singularities, those strange things that exist at the bottom of black
holes (if black holes have bottoms) which cannot be measured, but
which nonetheless transform all measurable objects that pass through
them.32 I prefer to think of the present as a singularity—or a funnel, if
you prefer a more mundane metaphor, or a wormhole, if you favor a
more exotic one—through which the future has got to pass in order to
become the past. The present achieves this transformation by locking
into place relationships between continuities and contingencies: on
the future side of the singularity, these are fluid, decoupled, and
therefore indeterminate; however, as they pass through it they fuse
and cannot then be separated. The effect is that of DNA strands combining, or of a zipper that zips up but not back down.
By continuities, I mean patterns that extend across time. These are
not laws, like gravity or entropy; they are not even theories, like relativity or natural selection. They are simply phenomena that recur with
sufficient regularity to make themselves apparent to us. Without such
patterns, we’d have no basis for generalizing about human experience:
we’d not know, for example, that birth rates tend to decline as economic development advances, or that empires tend to expand beyond
their means, or that democracies tend not to go to war with one
another. But because these patterns show up so frequently in the past,
we can reasonably expect them to continue to do so in the future.
Trends that have held up over several hundred years are not apt to
reverse themselves within the next several weeks.
By contingencies, I mean phenomena that do not form patterns.

t i m e a n d s pa c e


These may include the actions individuals take for reasons known
only to themselves: a Hitler on a grandiose scale, for example, or a Lee
Harvey Oswald on a very particular one. They can involve what the
chaos theorists call “sensitive dependence on initial conditions,” situations where an imperceptible shift at the beginning of a process can
produce enormous changes at the end of it.33 They may result from
the intersection of two or more continuities: students of accidents
know that when predictable processes come together in unprecedented ways, unpredictable consequences can follow.34 What all of
these phenomena have in common is that they don’t fall within the
realm of repeated and therefore familiar experience: we generally
learn about them only after they’ve happened.
We might define the future, then, as the zone within which contingencies and continuities coexist independently of one another; the
past as the place where their relationship is inextricably fixed; and the
present as the singularity that brings the two together, so that continuities intersect contingencies, contingencies encounter continuities,
and through this process history is made.35 And even though time
itself isn’t structured this way, for anyone who’s stuck within time—
and who isn’t?—this distinction between past, present, and future is
close to universal. We perceive time in a manner relevant to ourselves:
as Woolf pointed out, though, there’s a difference between what it
actually is and the way in which we represent it.


So much for time; what about space? For our purposes, let us define it
simply as the location in which events occur, with the understanding
that “events” are those passages from the future through the present
into the past.36 There is, at first glance, no comparably universal perception of space divided into distinct parts, as there is with time. The
familiar dimensions of height, width, and depth are conventions we
rely upon to measure space, much as we use hours, minutes, and sec-


the landscape of history

onds to measure time. They aren’t conceptions of space, though, analogous to our divisions of time into past, present, and future.
If there is such a division for space, I suspect it lies in the distinction between the actual and the cartographic. The making of maps
must be as ancient and ubiquitous a practice as is our three-part conception of time. Both reduce the infinitely complex to a finite, manageable, frame of reference.37 Both involve the imposition of artificial
grids—hours and days, longitude and latitude—on temporal and spatial landscapes, or perhaps I should say on timescapes and landscapes. Both provide a way of reversing divisibility, of retrieving unity,
of recapturing a sense of the whole, even though it can never be the
For to try to represent everything that’s in a particular landscape
would be as absurd as to attempt to recount everything that actually
happened, whether at Waterloo or anywhere else. Such a map, like such
an account, would have to become what it represented, a circumstance
imagined only by such connoisseurs of the ridiculous as Lewis Carroll
or Jorge Luis Borges. Borges writes, for example, of an empire in which:
the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that . . . . the Cartographers Guilds struck a map of the Empire whose size was that
of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography . . . , saw that that vast Map was Useless, and . . . they
delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the
Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that
Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars.38

We avoid the literal in making maps because to do otherwise would
not be to represent at all but rather to replicate. We’d find ourselves
drowning in detail: the distillation that’s required for the comprehension and transmission of vicarious experience would be lost.
Maps do exactly that: they distill the experiences of others for the

t i m e a n d s pa c e


purpose of helping you get from where you are to where you want to
go. Think how much time we’d waste if everyone going from Oxford to
London had to find their own way, like molecules bouncing around in
a beaker or monkeys poised before computer keyboards. Think how
risky it would be to send ships to sea without any means of knowing
the locations of rocks and shoals. Think how perilous air travel would
become without the radios, radar, and now satellite guidance systems
that create virtual pathways through a featureless sky. Whether they
take the form of crude markings in the sand or of the most sophisticated computer graphics, maps have in common, as do the works of
historians, a packaging of vicarious experience.
But despite their obvious utility, there’s no such thing as a single
correct map.39 The form of the map reflects its purpose. A highway
map will exaggerate certain features of the landscape and neglect others: you need to be able to see the routes, their numbers, and the
cities they run between. You don’t need to know the nature of the soil,
or the vegetation, or (except maybe in certain parts of California) the
geologic fault lines to be found along the way. Much the same is true
of scale: you’d not plot an automobile trip on a globe, but you might
very well an intercontinental airplane route. No map tells you everything it’s possible to know. They do generally tell you enough, though,
to get you from here to there, and that’s generally sufficient.


So what if we were to think of history as a kind of mapping? If, as I
suggested earlier, the past is a landscape and history is the way we
represent it, then this might make sense. It would establish the linkage between pattern recognition as the primary form of human perception and the fact that all history—even the most simple
narrative—draws upon the recognition of such patterns. It would permit varying levels of detail, not just as a reflection of scale but also of


the landscape of history

the information available at any given time about a particular landscape, geographical or historical. But, most important, this metaphor
would allow us to get closer to the way historians know when they’ve
got it right.
For verification in cartography takes place by fitting representations to reality. You have the physical landscape, but you wouldn’t
want to try to replicate it. You have, in your mind, reasons for representing the landscape: you want to find your way through it without
having to rely on your own immediate senses; hence you draw on the
generalized experience of others. And you have the map itself, which
results from fitting together what is actually there with what the user
of the map needs to know about what is there.
The fit becomes more precise the more the landscape is investigated. The first maps of newly discovered territories are usually crude
sketches of a coastline, with lots of blank spaces and perhaps a few
sea monsters or dragons occupying them. As exploration proceeds, the
map’s features become more specific and the beasts tend to disappear.
In time, there’ll be multiple maps of the same territory prepared for
different purposes, whether to show roads, towns, rivers, mountains,
resources, topography, geology, population, weather, or even the volume of traffic—and hence the probability of traffic jams—along the
routes marked out on other maps.
Cartographic verification is, therefore, entirely relative: it depends
upon how well the mapmaker achieves a fit between the landscape
that’s being mapped and the requirements of those for whom the map
is being made. And yet, despite this indeterminacy, I know of no postmodernist who would deny the existence of landscapes, or that it’s
useful to represent them. It would be most unwise for sailors to conclude, simply because we cannot specify the length of the British
coastline, that it isn’t there and that they can sail self-confidently
through it. So too it would be imprudent for historians to decide, from
the fact that we have no absolute basis for measuring time and space,
that they can’t know anything about what happened within them.

Chapter Three


H i s t o r i c a l l a n d s c a p e s d i f f e r from cartographic landscapes,
however, in one important respect: they are physically inaccessible to
us. Anyone mapping even the most remote regions of the earth’s surface can visit or at least photograph the terrain in question. Historians
can’t do that. “No Egyptologist has ever seen Ramses,” Marc Bloch
points out in The Historian’s Craft. “No expert on the Napoleonic
Wars has ever heard the sound of the cannon at Austerlitz.” Historians
“are in the predicament of a police magistrate who strives to reconstruct a crime he has not seen; of a physicist who, confined to his bed
with the grippe, hears the results of his experiments only through the
reports of his laboratory technician.” As a consequence, the historian
“never arrives until after the experiment has been concluded. But,
under favorable circumstances, the experiment leaves behind certain
residues which he can see with his own eyes.”1
If time and space provide the field in which history happens, then,
structure and process provide the mechanism. For it is from structures
that survive into the present—the “certain residues” of which Bloch
wrote—that we reconstruct processes inaccessible to us because they
took place in the past. “A historical fact is an inference from the


the landscape of history

relics,” the sociologist John Goldthorpe has observed.2 These may
include bones and excrement, tools and weapons, great ideas and
works of art, or documents that get deposited in archives; but in each
case processes produced them. We can know these only from the
structures they leave behind.
A good way to visualize this is to consider the humble roadcut.
Geologists love them because they expose tilts, folds, and uncomformities in strata, structures from which one can derive processes
extending back millions and even billions of years. They are, as John
McPhee has put it, “windows into the world as it was in other times.”3
Roadcuts wouldn’t exist, though, were it not for decisions made, so
recently as to remain within the geologic present, to construct the
canals, railways, and highways that required them.4 For geologists,
then, the distinction between structure and process corresponds to

The Sideling Hill roadcut, I-68, in western Maryland
(courtesy of the Maryland Geological Survey; photo by Paul Breeding).

structure and process


the one between the present, where structures exist, and the past,
where processes produced them. Does it also for historians? That’s the
question I want to explore here, and the best place to start is with the
old debate over whether history is, or isn’t, a science.


“When I was very young,” E. H. Carr commented in his 1961
Trevelyan lectures at Cambridge, “I was suitably impressed to learn
that, appearances notwithstanding, the whale is not a fish. Nowadays
these questions of classification move me less; and it does not worry
me unduly when I am assured that history is not a science.”5 If you
were to deconstruct that statement, you could give it several possible
meanings. One is that history is indeed a science. The second is that
it isn’t. The third is that Carr had the habit of sweeping away ambiguities, rather in the way that Oxford and Cambridge college waiters, at
high table, sweep away crumbs.6
I’m inclined to think, though—and Carr’s own lectures suggest
this—that the question can’t be dismissed quite so easily. For science
has one quality that privileges it above all other modes of inquiry: it
has shown itself more capable than any of the others at eliciting agreement on the validity of results across cultures, in different languages,
and among highly dissimilar observers. The structure of the DNA
molecule looks much the same to researchers in Switzerland, Singapore, and Sri Lanka. Aircraft wings bear stress similarly whether the
airlines that rely on them operate as subsidized state monopolies or
adventurous entrepreneurial enterprises. Astronomers of Christian,
Muslim, and Buddhist persuasions have little difficulty reaching a
consensus on what causes eclipses, or how galaxies move.
There are of course other ways to resolve issues like these. You
could, for example, probe the entrails of animals, read tea leaves, consult a horoscope, seek divine guidance, or make inquiries in an Inter-


the landscape of history

net chat room. You’d certainly get results, but you’d not get very many
other people to agree on the accuracy of the results. The advantage of
science, John Ziman has pointed out, is that it provides “a consensus
of rational opinion over the widest possible field.”7
To be sure, we can’t expect the methods of science to work with
equal precision, or to command comparably broad assent, when it
comes to the study of human affairs. The reason is obvious: consciousness—perhaps I should say willfulness—can override the kinds
of laws that govern the behavior of molecules, or air flows, or celestial
objects. People, the political scientist Stanley Hoffmann once
reminded his colleagues, are not “gases or pistons.”8 I see no reason,
however, why this difficulty should invalidate Ziman’s standard as one
historians ought to try to reach—a consensus of rational opinion over
the widest possible field—even if they never actually get there.
You don’t have to read very far in Carr to discover that, despite his
pronouncement on whales and fishes, he thought so too. So did Marc
Bloch. They both saw science as a model for historians, but not
because they thought historians were becoming, or ought to become,
more scientific. It was rather because they saw scientists as becoming
more historical. With the nineteenth-century achievements of Charles
Lyell in geology and Charles Darwin in biology, Carr noted, “[s]cience
was concerned no longer with something static and timeless, but with
a process of change and development.”9 Bloch argued similarly, focusing on twentieth-century developments:
The kinetic theory of gases, Einstein’s mechanics, and the quantum
theory have profoundly altered that concept of science which, only
yesterday, was unanimously accepted. . . . For certainty, they have
often substituted the infinitely probable; for the strictly measurable,
the notion of the eternal relativity of measurement. . . . Hence, we
are much better prepared to admit that a scholarly discipline may
pretend to the dignity of a science without insisting upon Euclidian
demonstrations or immutable laws of repetition. . . . We no longer

structure and process


feel obliged to impose upon every subject of knowledge a uniform
intellectual pattern, borrowed from natural science, since even
there, that pattern has ceased to be entirely applicable.10

By discovering that what exists in the present has not always done so
in the past, that objects and organisms evolve through time instead of
remaining the same for all time, scientists had begun to derive structures from processes: they had, in short, brought history into science.
As a consequence of this shift from a static to an evolutionary view,
Carr concluded, “the historian has some excuse for feeling himself
more at home in the world of science today than he could have done a
hundred years ago.”11
Carr wrote those words four decades ago. Do they still make sense
today? I think they do, provided you specify the kind of science you
have in mind.


The key to consensus, in science, is reproducibility: observations
made under equivalent conditions, no matter who makes them, are
expected to produce closely corresponding results.12 Mathematicians
recalculate pi to billions of decimal places with absolute confidence
that its value will remain what it has been for thousands of years.13
Physics and chemistry are only slightly less reliable, for although
investigators can’t always be sure of what’s happening at subatomic
levels, they do tend to get similar results when they perform laboratory
experiments under similar conditions, and they probably always will.
Verification, within these disciplines, takes place by repeating actual
processes. Time and space are compressed and manipulated; history
itself is in effect rerun. In that sense, obviously, the historical method
can never approximate the scientific method.
But not all sciences work this way. In fields like astronomy, geology,


the landscape of history

paleontology, or evolutionary biology, phenomena rarely fit within laboratories, and the time required to see results can exceed the life
spans of those who seek them.14 These disciplines instead depend
upon thought experiments: practitioners rerun in their minds—or perhaps now in their computer simulations—what their test tubes, centrifuges, and electron microscopes can’t manage. They then look for
evidence suggesting which of these mental exercises comes closest to
explaining their physical observations. Reproducibility means building
a consensus that such correspondences seem plausible. The only way
these scientists can rerun history is to imagine it, but they must do so
within the limits of logic. They can’t attribute the inexplicable to pixies, wizards, or extraterrestrial visitors and still expect to persuade
their peers that their findings are valid.15
How, apart from such thought experiments, could geologists
account for the fact that strata that can only have been laid down horizontally nevertheless often wind up tilted, or even vertical? Or for granite that intrudes itself into limestone? Or for seashells that show up
thousands of feet above, and hundreds of miles away from, the nearest
sea?16 How else could biologists make sense of organs with no apparent function: the whale’s vestigial legs, for example, or the panda’s
thumb, or the human tail bone?17 Why do human genes differ so little
from those of fleas, worms, flies, monkeys, and mice?18 How, for that
matter, can astrophysicists explain the origins of the universe? In each
of these instances, structures have survived that only past processes
can explain: the geological uplift and collapse driven by plate tectonics,
for example, or the evolution of species that results from natural selection, or the residual radiation left over from the Big Bang.
Laboratory experiments would hardly suffice to test such explanations. Darwin’s required a time scale extending over hundreds of millions of years. Alfred Wegener visualized an entire earth on which
continents could come together and drift apart. Albert Einstein’s
imagined experiments exceeded the size not just of his laboratory but
of his galaxy. All of these scientific revolutionaries coupled imagina-

structure and process


tion with logic to derive past processes from present structures. Nor
were they in any way exceptional in this, for the same thing happens
every day in natural history museums before critical audiences of
small children. What’s the reconstruction of dinosaurs and other
ancient creatures from fossils, after all, if not a fitting of imagined
flesh to surviving bones, or at least to impressions of them?19 And the
kids are, most of the time at least, suitably impressed.
It’s here that the methods of historians and scientists—at least
those scientists for whom reproducibility cannot take place in the laboratory—roughly coincide. For historians too start with surviving
structures, whether they be archives, artifacts, or even memories.
They then deduce the processes that produced them. Like geologists
and paleontologists, they must allow for the fact that most sources
from the past don’t survive, and that most daily events don’t even generate a survivable record in the first place. Like biologists and astrophysicists, they must deal with ambiguous or even contradictory
evidence. And like all scientists who work outside of laboratories, historians must use logic and imagination to overcome the resulting difficulties, their own equivalent of thought experiments, if you will.
It’s in this sense, I think, that R. G. Collingwood was correct when
he insisted on the inseparability of the past from the historian’s present: the present is where the thought experiments take place.20 This
doesn’t mean, though, that the past didn’t exist, for without it there’d
be nothing to experiment upon. To illustrate this point, let me cite two
very different examples of how historians use the laboratory that’s in
their mind to reconstruct past processes from surviving structures.
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale recounts the life of
Martha Ballard, a woman hardly anyone beyond her late eighteenthcentury Maine village could have known about at the time, on the
basis of a single surviving source: the laconic diary she kept, not for
posterity, but for the purpose of recording payments for services rendered. Ulrich fleshes out this archival fossil—neglected by several
generations of male historians—in several ways: by drawing on what’s


the landscape of history

known from other sources about the time and place in which Ballard
lived; by imagining how Ballard herself must have understood
and sought to manage her situation; and by using contemporary gender and family relationships to compare it with what women experience today. The book is an exercise in historical paleontology, and it
succeeds brilliantly.21
Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, conversely, works from a
contemporary circumstance—the persistence of inequality throughout the world—to try to determine how it came about. He examines
several cultures, some advanced, some not, that have survived into the
present. He traces them back to their prehistoric roots when all societies were roughly equal, and then employs thought experiments to
explain what happened to them along the way. His conclusions are
striking: an east-west axis, as in Eurasia, allowed movement along
more or less the same latitude and hence facilitated the interchange
of people, economies, ideas, and—not least in importance—the germs
that could build up immunities. A north-south axis, as in Africa and
North and South America, impeded such movement. As a result in
large part of plate tectonics, the Eurasians came to rule the world.22
It would be difficult to think of two more dissimilar works of history in terms of their scope and scale. And yet, in method they’re
much the same: each starts with a surviving structure—Ballard’s diary
in Ulrich’s case, global inequality in Diamond’s; each seeks, through
thought experiments, to derive the processes that gave rise to that
structure; each does so with an eye to the contemporary significance
of those findings. They each combine logic with imagination. And
they both won the Pulitzer Prize.
But don’t novelists, poets, and playwrights also combine logic with
imagination? They do, of course, although in a different way. Artists
can, if they wish, conjure up their subjects out of thin air. Historians
can’t do this: their subjects must really have existed. Artists can coexist in time with their subjects, altering them as they please. Historians
can never do this: they can alter their representations of a subject, but

structure and process


not the subject itself. The historian’s imagination must be “sufficiently
powerful to make his narrative affecting,” Macaulay once wrote. “Yet
he must control it so absolutely as to content himself with the materials which he finds, and to refrain from supplying deficiencies by additions of his own.”23 Imagination in history then, as in science, must be
tethered to and disciplined by sources: that’s what distinguishes it
from the arts and all other methods of representing reality.
So is history a science? I put the question to a group of Yale seniors
recently, and the answer one of them came up with made perfect sense
to me: it was that we should instead concentrate on determining which
sciences are historical.24 The distinction would lie along the line separating actual replicability as the standard for verification—the rerunning of experiments in a laboratory—from the virtual replicability that’s
associated with thought experiments. And it would be the accessibility
versus the inaccessibility of processes that would make the difference.


No geologist has ever penetrated the surface of the earth beyond a few
miles, and yet they self-confidently tell us how what happens down
there causes continents to drift and earthquakes to occur up here. No
paleontologist has ever actually seen a dinosaur, and yet they reconstruct the lives and deaths of these creatures in ways that convince
their colleagues—to say nothing of small children—that they know
what they’re talking about. No astronomer has ever been beyond the
earth’s orbit, and yet from this very limited vantage point they map the
universe. With the exception of a few biologists who’ve tracked the
changing shapes of finches’ beaks in the Galapagos, no one has ever
witnessed the process of natural selection beyond the microscopic
level, and yet an entire discipline is based on it.25 And if all of this
sounds like Marc Bloch on the absence of living witnesses to the Battle of Austerlitz, there’s a good reason for that.


the landscape of history

It is that both history and the evolutionary sciences practice the
remote sensing of phenomena with which they can never directly
interact. They are, metaphorically, in the position of Friedrich’s wanderer on his mountaintop. They can’t simply view the fog and mist,
though: they must find ways to determine what lies beneath it, and to
represent whatever they find in such a way as to persuade those for
whom the representation is intended that it’s reasonably accurate.
Logic and imagination can certainly help; but there’s also, I think, a
particular sequence of procedures to be followed in accomplishing this
task. Two quite different examples of remote sensing, one drawn from
recent history, the other from prehistory, suggest what it is.
The first is arguably the most famous historical case of remote
sensing, the discovery of Soviet medium- and intermediate-range missiles in Cuba in October 1962. The story begins with the discovery, by
means of U-2 spy plane photoreconnaissance, of the missiles themselves, which Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and his advisers apparently thought could be deployed secretly on the island because they’d
be indistinguishable from its palm trees.26 This was an unexpected
development, because hardly anyone in Washington had anticipated
that the Kremlin leadership would behave in such a risky manner, or
that its intelligence estimates—not least about the nature of palm
trees—would be so bad. Other less provocative forms of military assistance had been expected, though, which is why the U-2s were flying
over Cuba in the first place. When one of them detected structures
resembling missile sites in the Soviet Union—known from earlier U-2
flights over that country—the photo-analysts realized instantly what
they were seeing, even though they’d not been looking for it. By citing
this comparison, they convinced President Kennedy that their conclusions made sense, a judgment then confirmed by subsequent U-2 missions.27 You can break this episode down, therefore, into three stages:
the reality on the ground, what the experts made of that reality, and
what they could persuade their superiors to accept.
My second case comes from paleontologists, who also practice a

structure and process


kind of remote sensing based on the analysis of bones, shells, and fossils. Representing the creatures that left these behind requires linking
precise observation and description of what’s survived with the ability
to imagine what life must have been like hundreds of millions of years
ago. As in the Cuban missile crisis, newly discovered evidence has to
be compared with what’s already known. More is involved than just
taxonomy, though, for paleontologists must also persuade their colleagues that their conclusions are plausible. They can’t simply assert
that the allosaurus nurtured its young, or that the archaeopteryx is the
ancestor of today’s birds; they must also convince. This too requires
fitting together three things: what remains from original sources; what
the paleontologists themselves make of what remains; and what they
can bring their fellow professionals to accept.28
In both of these cases, the discovery of structures led to the derivation of processes. The Cuba photographs forced Washington officials into a desperate scramble to try to determine why Khrushchev
had placed the missiles there—an important thing to know before
deciding on what should be done to get them out. Fossils suggesting
dinosaur nests and even feathers have forced paleontologists to reconsider what they thought they knew about where birds may have come
from. I don’t want to push this comparison too far: it’s a stretch, of
course, to link such dissimilar examples of remote sensing. It’s precisely their dissimilarities in all other respects, though, that cause me
to think their procedural similarities significant.
Now return, if you will, to my cartographic metaphor from the previous chapter. Mapmakers also go through a three-stage process of
connecting reality, representation, and persuasion. They represent
realities they can’t replicate and wouldn’t want to: a truly accurate
map of Oxford would be an exact clone of Oxford and wouldn’t easily
fit within backpacks or briefcases. Maps vary scale and content
according to need. A world map has a different purpose from one
intended to identify bicycle paths or garbage dumps. Nor are maps
free from preconceptions. There’s always some prior reason for what’s


the landscape of history

shown, and not shown.29 We evaluate maps according to their usefulness: is the layout legible? Is the representation credible? Does the
map extend our perceptions beyond what we ourselves can manage,
so that it performs the practical task of getting us from here to there?
As with the reconstruction of dinosaurs and the construction of history, there is again the reality to be represented, the representation
itself, and its reception by those who use it.
“To construct a good . . . map,” Jane Azevedo, one of the most
interesting theorists of map-making, has pointed out,
requires more than just a set of data and a simple truth-preserving
mechanism by which to represent it. Given the purposes for which
the map is to be used, there must be a theory of what relationships
an appropriate map for that purpose is required to represent, to
what degree of accuracy, and in what form. Where there are multiple interests, judgments must be made as to which is of prior
importance, as they may not all be able to be represented with
equal accuracy.

This relationship between data, modes of representation, and interests
to be served in presenting the representation is not, however, a hierarchical one: it’s rather, as she demonstrates, “a reiteration loop.”
The map is a function of both the data and the theory. The data
selected is a function of the theory. Both the map and the theory
may have to be modified in the light of the data. Finally, the map
may itself bring about change in the theory. All levels of the hierarchy are subject to modification in interaction with the other levels.30

I like this notion of a “reiteration loop” because it privileges neither
inductive or deductive modes of inquiry.31 The remote sensing of
processes by way of surviving structures—whether in history or science—functions similarly. For to begin with such a structure, as all his-

structure and process


torians and evolutionary scientists must, is a deductive act: the task is
to deduce the processes that produced it. You can hardly perform that
task, though, without repeated acts of induction: you have to survey
the evidence, sense what’s there, and find ways to represent it. Finding
those ways, though, gets you back to the deductive level, for you must
deduce them from the interests of those for whom the representation
is being made. It makes little sense, then, to try to align structure and
process neatly with deduction and induction. What’s required instead
is to apply both techniques to the objects of your inquiry, fitting each to
the other as seems most appropriate to the task at hand.32
An easier way to think about this is to imagine yourself as a tailor.
Clothes make it possible for people to appear in public: tailors are the
intermediaries between society and naked bodies.33 But unless you
were working for, say, Mao Zedong, you wouldn’t want to dress all your
customers in exactly the same way. You’d want to allow for their varying shapes and sizes. You’d probably want to reflect their preferences
as to fabric, style, and ornamentation. You would, in this sense, be representing them to a world in which they wouldn’t want to be seen as
they really are. But since you’d have a professional reputation to
uphold, you’d also be representing yourself: you wouldn’t want to deck
your clients out, these days, in bell-bottom trousers or polyester
leisure suits. You might even want to try to shift current fashions a bit
by coming up with a style others might emulate. Once again, though,
the “fit” would have to extend across three levels: the body to be
clothed, the design of the clothing, and the world of fashion that
would either embrace, reject, or ignore what results.
I find these metaphors useful in explaining how historians work,
for like paleontologists, cartographers, and ta