Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past
John Lewis Gaddis (Oxford 2004)

Limits of History
, by Constantin Fasolt (Chicago

During the eighteenth century history flourished as literature.
By the 1770s, however, a German school of “scientific
history” had begun to emerge in Göttingen, where
August Ludwig von Schlozer argued that history involved more
than the arrangement of facts and verification of dates.
Not a mere chronicle or a simple narrative, the study of
history, Schlozer declared, was instead a branch of philosophy
that identified causes and explained effects. Although “scientific
history” added a critical and analytical rigor to the
study of the past, the concept of history as science promised
more than it could deliver–much more. The historians
of the nineteenth century believed that application of the
scientific method would, in time, enable them to establish
an objective, indisputable, and irrefutable interpretation
of the past to which all rational persons could assent. Overwhelmed
by the prestige of the natural and social sciences, historians
in the twentieth century continued to find solace in the
illusion that they, too, employed complex methods and possessed
arcane knowledge inaccessible to the uninitiated. Even now,
at the outset of the twenty-first century, when post-modernist
thinkers have denied the objective reality of truth, some
historians cling to the diminishing hope that history will
one day become more scientific.

book cover imageJohn Lewis Gaddis and Constantin Fasolt do their utmost
to refute such misconceptions, though their alternate proposals
yield equally dubious and vexing results. Addressing himself
principally to social scientists and post-modernists, each
of whom after their fashion disavows the scientific character
of history, Gaddis asserts that the transformation of modern
science has effected a rapproachment with history. “The
connection . . . between science and history now seems quite
feasible,” Gaddis writes, “and in a way that
does violence to the work of neither scientists nor historians.” The
natural sciences, he acknowledges, have “changed dramatically
during the twentieth century,” and, as a consequence,
it turns out historians are physicists in disguise. “Metaphorically
at least,” Gaddis concludes, “historians have
been doing a kind of physics all along.”

Gaddis no longer expects the study of history to confirm
definite, unqualified, and absolute truth. His argument,
by contrast, rests on the observation that the indeterminacy
of twentieth-century physics, specifically of quantum theory,
approximates the indeterminacy of historical interpretation,
which, he suggests, is “the historians’ equivalent
of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.” Invoking
chaos and complexity theory, Gaddis insists that“the
old scientific perspective, in which one could assume the
absolute nature of time and space, objectivity in observation,
[and] predictable rates of change . . . was about as outdated
in the natural sciences as the Ptolemaic model of the universe
had been in Newton’s day.” Yet, Gaddis also proclaims
that chaos and complexity theory can show how “the
predictable becomes unpredictable, . . . orderly systems
can become disorderly, or the other way around, patterns
can still exist when there appear to be none, . . . and that
these patterns can emerge spontaneously, without anyone having
put them there.” Finally, by “visually representing
relationships between predictable and non-predictable phenomena,” chaos
and complexity theory provides “a new kind of literacy,
and hence a new set of terms for representing historical
processes” (italics in the original).

Although Gaddis is right to dismiss scientific objectivity
and certitude and to confirm that historians are not, and
have never been, capable of the definitive precision formerly
attributed to the natural sciences, he wrongly insinuates
that the association with science lends to history a cachet
and validity that it would not otherwise have. With the introduction
of such words and expressions as “con-silience,” which
he borrows from Edward O. Wilson, “particular generalization,” “contingent
causation,” “sensitive dependence on initial
conditions,” “phase transitions,” and “punctuated
equilibrium,” Gaddis alleges that science offers historians
something else that they do not need: a new vocabulary. As
Marc Bloch observed in The Historian’s Craft (1953),
history neither has nor requires a specialized, technical
language. Whenever historians have adopted and applied esoteric
language, they have too often been guilty of substituting
vocabulary for thought.

Even more troubling than Gaddis’s quest for a new
vocabulary is his reliance on the visual at the expense of
the verbal. In the central visual metaphor of his book, Caspar
David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818),
Gaddis imagines the historian elevated above the landscape
he surveys, abandoning “the normal” and “the
familiar” to attain “a new perception of what
was real.” Friedrich’s painting evinces for Gaddis “what
historical consciousness is all about,” representing
from a lofty perch the landscape of the past. To be fair,
Gaddis admits that, whether literally or metaphorically,
standing on the precipice of a great mountain brings not
only a sense of mastery but also of insignificance. Although
humility is among the cardinal virtues, Gaddis’s concession
is irrelevant, for he fails repeatedly and consistently throughout Mapping
the Past
to recognize the historicity of his own thought,
knowledge, and consciousness, and to accept the inevitable
limitations that such a recognition entails.

Like E. H. Carr, whose work he admires, Gaddis cannot quite
detach himself from the language of objectivity or quite
surrender the conviction that history is a science. He quotes
with approbation Carr’s remark in What Is History? (1961)
that “it does not follow that, because a mountain appears
to take on different shapes from different angels of vision,
it has objectively no shape at all or an infinity of shapes.” (Gaddis
does not explore the significance of Carr’s objectivist
vision, but instead digresses to explain that the statement
implies “Carr instinctively understood the concept
of fractal geometry and saw its connection to history.” Gaddis
leaves to the imagination how and why he has reached this
conclusion.) Yet, the question of historical objectivity
lingers. Perhaps it is not too much to say that among twentieth-century
thinkers perspective became one of the essential and intrinsic
components of reality, making impossible the sort of objectivity
that Carr espoused. “A reality which would remain always
the same when seen from different points,” wrote the
Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset in The
Modern Theme
(1923), “is an absurdity.” The
more objective the image of the mountain, the more abstract
and thus the more incomprehensible and unreal the actual
mountain becomes. To demonstrate the limits of objectivity
and, indirectly, the importance of perspective and historicity,
the English philosopher Owen Barfield, coincidentally writing
of mountains in Saving the Appearances, advanced
a deeper and more cogent interpretation than Gaddis’s
or Carr’s objectivism can sustain:

The economic and social structure of Switzerland is noticeably
affected by its tourist industry, and that is due only
in part to increased facilities of travel. It is due not
less to the condition that . . . the mountains which
twentieth-century man sees are not the mountains which
eighteenth-century man saw.

Another of Gaddis’s visual metaphors elucidates, even
as it compounds, the problem. To illustrate the importance
of abstract representation to the study of the past, Gaddis
compares “two well-known artistic representations of
the same subject,” one, Jan van Eyck’s Marriage
of Giovanni Arnolfini
(1434), which he sees as specific
and literal, the other, Pablo Picasso’s Lovers (1904),
which he sees as abstract and general. Elaborate and detailed,
Van Eyck’s painting, Gaddis supposes, is “from
a particular time,” while Picasso’s sketch, austere
and elemental, is “for all time.” The eyes deceive
and the mind boggles. The subject of these two works is not
the same. Van Eyck depicted a formal betrothal; Picasso rendered
the act of copulation. Moreover, The Marriage of Giovanni
is far from the “photographic realism” that
Gaddis assumes it to be. The painting betokens more than
a marriage. It also signifies the legal and financial alliance
between two prominent commercial families. Giovanni’s
raised right hand symbolizes the solemnity of this binding
oath. His affianced, Giovanna Cenami, is pregnant. Was she,
or does her condition, along with the bed that appears in
the background, allude to the consummation, and thus the
fulfillment, of the union between the couple and their families?
Similarly, the oranges ripening on the table and the windowsill
are symbols of fertility. The pair of shoes, pictured to
Giovanni’s right, add a realistic element, but they
also denote that the couple, about to enter the bonds of
holy matrimony, stands on sacred ground. The little dog in
the foreground is another emblem of fidelity and devotion.
(In Latin, the words “dog” and “fidelity” share
a common origin with “betrothal:” fides).
Even this brief and superficial analysis of The Marriage
of Giovanni Arnolfini
indicates, contra Gaddis, that
the significance of van Eyck’s painting is not immediately
evident, but contains various, multiple, and nuanced levels
of meaning that are subject to analysis.

Gaddis’s comparison of van Eyck and Picasso is itself
historical, as much the product of a time and place as are
the works of art themselves. The Lovers may appeal
to, or at least may not offend, a twenty-first century academic,
but it would surely, though for different reasons, have outraged
the aesthetic and moral sensibilities of a seventeenth-century
Puritan or a nineteenth-century Victorian. The significance
of The Lovers is not “for all time,” and
it does not, as Gaddis avers, portray “the essence
of the matter,” whatever that may be.

Everything, whether the creations of painters or the judgments
of historians, has a history. Nothing in this world is unchanging,
complete, eternal, and perfect. Gaddis appreciates the correspondence
between science and history. This condition, however, reveals
that science has become more historical not that history
has become more scientific. All thought is dependent on the
limitations of the eye, the mind, and the nature of human
beings; all knowledge is inseparable from human observations,
perspectives, descriptions, and purposes. In Physics
and History
(1958), the German physicist Werner Heisenberg
clarified this situation, writing:

we cannot disregard the fact that science is formed by
men. Natural science does not simply describe and explain
nature; it is part of the interplay between nature and
ourselves; it describes nature as exposed to our method
of questioning. This was a possibility of which Descartes
could not have thought but it makes sharp separation between
the world and the I impossible.

More than thirty years before Heisenberg wrote, the Danish
physicist Niels Bohr commented that it was “wrong to
think that the task of physics is to find out how nature
is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature.” Just
so, history concerns what we can say about the past. The
validity of historical truth is not diminished by its fragmentary
and unscientific character.

book cover imageExhilarated or terrified, humble or proud, the historian
does not and cannot, as Gaddis would have it, scale the mountain
and stand over and above the welter of events. Fasolt’s
recognition of “the limits of history” thus presents
a welcome corrective to Gaddis’s misjudgment. Yet,
Fasolt regards history “as a dangerous form of knowledge” that
now holds the mind in thrall. He laments that history has
lost the revolutionary character whereby it formerly opposed
tradition and authority and championed liberty and progress,
and has instead become an intellectual cul-de-sac from which
men must retreat. “History allowed us to create a new
kind of humanity,” Fasolt writes, and “now we
cannot think of any other kind. The knowledge on which we
called in order to assert our freedom now limits our liberty.
We are possessed by history.” In Fasolt’s view,
the ascendancy of history has effected a cultural paralysis
or, as he puts it, “a kind of cultural auto-immune
disease,” to which he seeks the cure. (Elsewhere Fasolt
exchanges medical for mechanical imagery, determining that
the “historical machine” has become “so
unwieldy that merely to prevent its creaking gears from grinding
to a halt requires more energy than would be worth the effort
if we could do without.”) By whatever metaphor he proceeds,
Fasolt’s aim is to break the spell by which “history
keeps human beings in bondage to themselves.”

History so fascinates and beguiles, Fasolt reasons, because
a knowledge of history has become inseparable from the conduct
of politics; both express the will-to-order and the will-to-power.
The union of history and politics involves much more than
the political convictions or biases of historians. The deliberate,
conscientious study of the past, shorn of overt political
motives, is in itself a political act. “Nothing keeps
history more firmly in the grip of politics,” Fasolt
affirms, “than the self-discipline with which historians
devote themselves to the pursuit of historical truth.” Acceptance
of the historical perspective commits men to a particular
view of human beings as free, independent, and responsible
agents commanded neither “by divine providence nor
condemned to the thoughtless repetition of custom, much less
compelled to obey mere animal instinct or do battle with
the devil.” Throughtheir free choices and purposeful
actions men make history. “That,” resolves Fasolt, “is
the historian’s fundamental creed,” which establishes
the link between history and politics.

To identify and explain these past decisions and the actions
that followed from them, to write history as it actually
happened or as it actually was, is a political venture that
requires historians to invade, assail, violate, conquer,
occupy, and govern the past. The study of history, according
to Fasolt, is an exercise in imperialism no less vicious
than the subjugation of colonies. “Historians are just
as active in invading that foreign country [of the past],
conquering its inhabitants, subjecting them to their discipline,
and annexing their territories to the possessions of the
present as any imperialist who ever sought to impose his
power on colonies abroad. To call their activity a conquest
is no mere figure of speech. It is a perfectly accurate description
of history’s political effect.” Historical consciousness,
Fasolt adds, has also at times been the source of real violence
in the here-and-now. The Renaissance humanists were the first
to evince and articulate a historical perspective, and did
so to carry out the violent overthrow of medieval universalism.
They carved “the world into manageable pieces,” ordained “a
new periodization” that rent the past into ancient,
medieval, and modern eras, and placed “history at the
service of European princes and republics seeking to emancipate
themselves in fierce campaigns from the authority of pope
and emperor. . . . In the process they ruined the foundations
on which the medieval universe had rested, and they built
new ones for the inhabitants of modern, territorial, sovereign
states.” The humanists’ exaltation of human agency
and intelligence, along with their redefinition of the past,
destroyed the medieval synthesis and completed the violent
transformation of the West. From these events, Fasolt speculates
that “the study of history is bound to violent upheavals
by more than sheer coincidence. . . . There exists some subterranean
connection between great contributions to history, imperial
expansion, revolt, and civil war.”

The Enlightenment bred peace among the victors in, and the
beneficiaries of, the “historical revolt,” enabling
the professional historians of the nineteenth and twentieth
centuries to ignore or deny the violent nature of their enterprise.
They professed impartiality in surveying the evidence and
detachment from whatever conclusions their investigations
might support, acknowledging only the wish to gather information
and pursue truth. Earnest and unimpeachable in their declarations
of objectivity, historians nonetheless exhibited a “subliminal
dishonesty” that prevented them from realizing their
labors were not as innocent as they seemed. Historians, Fasolt
admonishes, must now take responsibility for their actions
and make recompense“for whatever exercise of force
their work may entail.” For history is “a weapon
. . . invented on a battlefield” that has wounded “both
its subjects and its practitioners.” It suffers from
a ”congenital deficiency tainting its very core.” Ambitious
beyond its competence, history perpetually goes too far.
Rather than being a guiltless means of understanding reality,
history is a belligerent “form of self-assertion” that
conceals the effort to rule the past and make it serve the
present. Fasolt counters this onslaught against the past
by exposing the limits of historical knowledge and, in the
process, by revealing the violence that has accompanied the
rise of historical consciousness.

The damage that history has caused originates in the fundamental
distinction that history imposes between past and present—a
distinction that sets “aside a piece of reality for
historical inspection” and “assigns specific
characteristics” to it. Whatever their quarrels, historians
without exception agree that the past is absent and immutable.
The present, by contrast, exists and changes, though no taint
of the present must ever contaminate the past. Historians,
therefore, refrain from indulging in anachronism. “Thou
shalt place everything in the context of time,” Fasolt
writes, for to commit anachronism is to “sin against
the holy spirit of history.” However implausible, however
much it may distort reality, the absolute separation of past
and present, Fasolt contends, serves an indispensable purpose.
It verifies and reinforces the existence in the present of
autonomous, sovereign individuals who are not bound to the
past and who are thus the masters of destiny in the present
and the future. “Freedom and progress,” Fasolt
avows, “depend on the distinction between past and
present: The founding principle of history is . . . also
a founding principle of politics. . . . The individual subject,” he

with his presence, his autonomy, his freedom from all
laws except laws of conscience, laws of nature, and positive
laws sanctioned by the unconstrained expression of his
own free will, with his ability to transcend all circumstantial
limitations and to escape from time itself in order to
claim a ticket of direct admission (as it were) to eternal
life–this subject is the cause that history serves.

History thus gives to the present an integrity, coherence,
stability, and order that it does not, in actuality, possess,
and bestows upon the independent, imperial selves who occupy
the present the power to know, to shape, and to alter the
world that they could acquire in no other way and exercise
by no other means.

The imperative that history must accomplish, the very reason
that history exists, is to establish and preserve the distinction
between past and present, which “does not existapart
from [human] activity” and which enables men “to
have done with the past and to be rid of things that cannot
be forgotten.” It ought by now to be apparent that
Fasolt’s “guided tour to the limits of history” has
veered into strange territory. Had he used the road maps
that other thinkers provided, his journey (and ours) might
have been less arduous, taken fewer wrong turns, and reached
a more satisfactory destination.

Deluded by their “unacknowledged goal” of keeping
the present forever isolated from the past, historians, Fasolt
suspects, mistake the evidence of the past for the reality.
They believe that the past is unchanging when, in fact, “only
the information that was recorded in the evidence is immutable.” Captured,
tamed, organized, and written down, the evidence of the past
has “a significance that will remain the same until
the end of time.” Can Fasolt be serious? Never mind
that the past remains alive in the present and that history
cannot be restricted to the archives. Does he presume that
records have a universal and eternal meaning independent
of the eyes that read them and the minds that contemplate
them? If that were so, documents would require no interpretation
or ever be subject to reinterpretation, and historians could
then produce that heretofore elusive transcript of the past
in the accuracy of which all would readily concur. For all
their differences and disagreements, Gaddis and Fasolt commit
similar errors by adopting the very objectivity that they
elsewhere malign and reject.

Fasolt seems unaware that, writing in the 1930s, the Dutch
historian Johan Huizinga, to cite but one example, already
appreciated the limits of history, which, he perceived, could
neither overcome ambiguity and doubt norimpart clarity and
precision. Although Huizinga still viewed history as “an
inexact science,” his description hints that it is
no science at all. History, as Giambattista Vico was the
first to observe, comprises man’s knowledge of man–a
knowledge that is always incomplete and imperfect. The complex
tangle of human life does not lend itself easily to the application
of laws, formulas, or theorems that afford transparent intelligibility.
Locating the boundaries and confines of history, reciting
all that we do not know, has long been part of historians’ discerning
but subtle wisdom. Instead of directing violent campaigns
to subdue, occupy, and exploit the past, sensible historians
might well recoil at the difficulty of the task before them
and surrender any hope of understanding the past at all.

This same confusion about the relation of past to present
induces historians to associate the present with the future
and join both to the expansion of human freedom. (Fasolt’s
point of reference appears to be Ranke.) The past is dead
and gone. The present, meanwhile, “opens onto the future” and
together present and future unite “in oppositionto
the past.” The present may “open onto the future,” but
the present also becomes the past. It may be that the line
dividing the past (what was) from the present (what is) is
less distinct that the line dividing the present from the
future, which is unknown and unknowable and is, indeed, mere
conjecture. Man, at least modern man, is by nature a historical
being. To know himself means to know his history. He cannot
escape himself, as Fasolt dreams, by relinquishing his historical
consciousness. To do so would be his doom. Fasol would demure,
since it is precisely the authority of history against which
he rebels. He deems history a burden and a curse that must
be lifted if men are ever again to be free.

As with all aspiring revolutionaries and iconoclasts, Fasolt
disparages custom and convention. Such audacity is not inherently
bad. He does well to criticize the offenses of professional
historians, especially those who embrace a lingering positivism,
though theirs would seem more to be the vices of timid bureaucrats
seeking the rewards of office than the crimes of bloodthirsty
warriors plundering the spoils of conquest. He is equally
astute in pointing out that the study of history is not an
impartial and objective undertaking that produces definitive
truth. In his zeal to discredit the fallacy of scientific
positivism and the unquestioned faith in history, however,
Fasolt postulates that history has become a religion that
compels absolute obedience to an established system of law
and belief, tolerating no dissent. He intends to confront,
even if he cannot resolve, the impasse that this entrenched
orthodoxy has created. All possibilities seem to him foreclosed,
all opportunities exhausted, all effort wasted, all freedom
circumscribed, all progress halted. “Now history teaches
human beings in a school whose doors are shut,” Faslot
complains. “No one can seem to think of any way to
open them again. . . . Outside, the world is surging. Inside,
history demands attention while liberty and progress sit
well-behaved on benches and study rules and ponder theory
and gather information.” History is beyond reform and
so must be eliminated; it does its worst when it works exactly
according to its design and for its purpose.

Fasolt’s commentary both reflects and intensifies
the dissolution of the West. Historical consciousness, arguably
the most distinctive and important form of thought to emerge
from Western civilization during the last 500 years, is not
the reason for the prevailing cultural disarray. The historical
perspective, on the contrary, makes us aware that a crisis
exists and enjoins us to face ourselves while also affording
us the most refined standards of judgment at our disposal
to measure our accomplishments and our failures, our glories
and our sorrows. It matters not at all that of its own accord
the practice of “history cannot . . . validate historical
thought.” That expectation has been fanciful since
the twelfth century when Joachim of Fiore conceived the hope
that the insecurities and predicaments of human existence
could be transcended within history itself. Nor is recognition
of the insurmountable limits of history a cause for frustration,
anger, and despair. Rather, it indicates the emergence of
a more mature understanding and a more contrite acceptance
of the intransigence of reality, the mystery of life, and
the impossibility of eluding the self.

Mark G. Malvasi is
a professor of history at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland,
Virginia and is, most recently, the co-editor with Jeffrey
O. Nelson of a reader titled Remembered Past: John
Lukacs on History, Historians, and Historical Knowledge