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Historicism.. is a term which applies to a number of theories of culture or historical development which place the greatest weight on two factors:

  1. that there is an organic succession of developments,
  2. that local conditions and peculiarities influence the results in a decisive way

It can be contrasted with reductionist theories which suppose that all developments are individual and ad hoc.

The Biblical use of the word denotes Bible prophecy which is interpreted as being related to church history, as opposed to any type of interpretation.

The term has developed different and divergent, though loosely related, meanings. Elements of historicism appear in the writings of G.W.F. Hegel, an influential philosopher in 19th-century Europe, as well as in those of a philosopher he is said to have influenced heavily, Karl Marx. The term is also associated with the empirical social sciences and the work of Franz Boas.

The Austrian/English philosopher Karl Popper attacked what he saw as "historicism" along with the determinism which he argued was at its root.

Post-structuralism uses the term New Historicism, which has some connections to both anthropology and Hegelianism.

Variants of historicism

Hegelian historicism

The historicist position proposed by Hegel suggests that any human society and all human activities such as science, art, or philosophy, are defined by their history, so that their essence can be sought only through understanding that history. The history of any such human endeavor, moreover, not only builds upon but also reacts against what has gone before; this is the source of Hegel's famous dialectic teaching usually summed up by the slogan "thesis, antithesis, and synthesis." (Hegel did not use these terms, although Fichte did.) Hegel's famous aphorism, "Philosophy is the history of philosophy," describes it bluntly.

Hegel's position is perhaps best illuminated when contrasted against the atomistic and reductionist view of human societies and social activities self-defining on an ad hoc basis through the sum of dozens of interactions. Yet another contrasting model is the persistent metaphor of a social contract. Hegel sees the relationship between individuals and societies as organic, not atomic: even their social discourse is mediated by language, and language is rooted in etymology and unique character. It thus preserves the culture of the past in thousands of half-forgotten frozen metaphors. To understand why a person is the way he is, you must put that person in a society: and to understand that society, you must understand its history, and the forces that shaped it. The Zeitgeist, the "Spirit of the Age," is the concrete embodiment of the most important factors that are acting in human history at any given time. This contrasts with teleological theories of activity, which suppose that the end is the determining factor of activity, as well as those which believe in a tabula rasa, or blank slate, view, where individuals are defined by their interactions.

These ideas can be taken in several directions. The Right Hegelians, working from Hegel's opinions about the organicism and historically determined nature of human societies, took Hegel's historicism as a justification of the unique destiny of national groups and the importance of stability and institutions. Hegel's conception of human societies as entities greater than the individuals who constitute them influenced nineteenth century romantic nationalism and its twentieth century excesses. The Young Hegelians, by contrast, took Hegel's thoughts on societies shaped by the forces of social conflict for a doctrine of progress, and attempted to chart a course that would manipulate these forces to lead to various improved outcomes. Karl Marx's doctrine of "historical inevitabilities" and historical materialism is one of the more influential reactions to this side of Hegel's thought. Significantly, Marx's theory of alienation comes full circle to the thought of the Hegelian right, arguing among other things that capitalism disrupts the rooted nature of traditional relationships between workers and their work.

Hegelian historicism is related to his ideas on the means by which human societies progress, specifically the dialectic and his conception of logic as reflecting the inner essential nature of reality. Hegel attributes the change to the "modern" need to interact with the world, where as ancient philosophers were self-contained, and medieval philosophers were monks. In his History of Philosophy Hegel writes:

"In modern times things are very different; now we no longer see philosophic individuals who constitute a class by themselves. With the present day all difference has disappeared; philosophers are not monks, for we find them generally in connection with the world, participating with others in some common work or calling. They live, not independently, but in the relation of citizens, or they occupy public offices and take part in the life of the state. Certainly they may be private persons, but if so, their position as such does not in any way isolate them from their other relationship. They are involved in present conditions, in the world and its work and progress. Thus their philosophy is only by the way, a sort of luxury and superfluity. This difference is really to be found in the manner in which outward conditions have taken shape after the building up of the inward world of religion. In modern times, namely, on account of the reconciliation of the worldly principle with itself, the external world is at rest, is brought into order - worldly relationships, conditions, modes of life, have become constituted and organized in a manner which is conformable to nature and rational. We see a universal, comprehensible connection, and with that individuality likewise attains another character and nature, for it is no longer the plastic individuality of the ancients. This connection is of such power that every individuality is under its dominion, and yet at the same time can construct for itself an inward world." [How to reference and link to summary or text]

This view that entanglement in society creates an indissoluble bond with expression, would be an influential question in philosophy going forward, namely, the requirements for individuality. It would be taken up by Nietzsche, John Dewey and Michel Foucault directly, as well as in the work of numerous artists and authors. There have been various responses to Hegel's challenge. The Romantic period focused on the ability of individual genius to transcend time and place, and use the materials from their heritage to fashion works which were beyond determination. The modern would advance versions of John Locke's infinite malleability of the human animal. Post-structuralism would argue that since history is not present, but only the image of history, that while an individual era or power structure might focus on a particular history, that the contradictions within the story would hinder the very purposes that the history was constructed to advance.

Anthropological Historicism

Within anthropology and other sciences which study the past, historicism has a different meaning. It is associated with the work of Franz Boas. His theory took the diffusionist concept that there were a few "cradles of civilization" which grew outwards in circles, and merged it with the idea that societies would adapt to their circumstances, which is called historical particularism. The school of historicism grew up in response to unilinear theories that social development reflected adaptive fitness, and therefore existed on a spectrum. While these theories were espoused by Charles Darwin and many of his students, historicism was neither anti-selection, nor anti-evolution. However, it attacked the notion that there was one normative spectrum of development, instead focusing on how local conditions would create adaptations to the local environment. What was adaptive for one region might not be so for another.

The primary method of historicism was emprical, namely that there were so many requisite inputs into a society or event, that only by focusing on the data available could a theory of the source be determined. In this view, grand theories are unprovable, and instead intensive field work would determine the most likely explanation and history of a culture. Hence, historicism. Boas would later teach at Columbia University and this would produce a school of thought based on his ideas.

This view would produce a wide range of definition of what, exactly, constituted culture and history, but in each case the only means of explaining it was in terms of the historical particulars of the culture itself.

Popper's attack on historicism

Karl Popper used the term historicism in his influential books The Poverty of Historicism and The Open Society and Its Enemies, to mean: "an approach to the social sciences which assumes that historical prediction is their primary aim, and which assumes that this aim is attainable by discovering the 'rhythms' or the 'patterns', the 'laws' or the 'trends' that underlie the evolution of history" (p. 3 of The Poverty of Historicism, italics in original). Karl Popper wrote with reference to Hegel's theory of history, which he criticized extensively. However, there is wide dispute whether Popper's description of "historicism" is an accurate description of Hegel, or more a reflection of his own philosophical antagonists, including Marxist-Leninist thought, then widely held as posing a challenge to the philosophical basis of the West, as well as theories such as Spengler's which drew predictions about the future course of events from the past.

In The Open Society and Its Enemies, Popper attacks "historicism" and its proponents, among whom as well as Hegel he identifies and singles out Plato and Marx — calling them all "enemies of the open society". The objection he makes is that historicist positions, by claiming that there is an inevitable and deterministic pattern to history, abrogate the democratic responsibility of each one of us to make our own free contributions to the evolution of society, and hence lead to totalitarianism.

New Historicism

Since the 1950's, when Lacan and Foucault argued that each epoch has its own knowledge system, which individuals are inexorably entangled with, many post-structuralists have used historicism to describe the view that all questions must be settled within the cultural and social context that they are raised in, answers cannot be found by appeal to an external truth, but only within the confines of the norms and forms that phrase the question. This version of historicism holds that there are only the raw texts, markings and artifacts that exist in the present, and the conventions used to decode them. This school of thought sometimes goes by the name of New Historicism.

The same label, new historicism is also employed for a school of literary scholarship which interprets a poem, drama, etc. as an expression of the power-structures of the surrounding society. Stephen Greenblatt is an example of this school.

Modern historicism

Within the context of 20th century philosophy, the conflict over whether ahistorical and immanent methodologies were sufficient to understand meaning — that is to say, what you see is what you get positivism — or whether context, background and culture are important beyond the mere need to decode words, phrases and references. While post-structural historicism is relativist in its orientation, that is, it sees each culture as its own frame of reference, a large number of thinkers have embraced the need for historical context, not because culture is self-referential, but because there is no more compressed means of conveying all of the relevant information except through history. This view is often seen as being rooted in the work of Bennedetto Croce. Recent philosophers in this tradition include Thomas Kuhn.

Biblical historicism

In Christian circles, the term historicism refers to the confessional Protestant form of prophetical interpretation which holds that the fulfilment of biblical prophecy has taken place throughout history and continues to take place today; as opposed to other methods which limit the time-frame of prophecy-fulfillment to the past or to the future. The historicist method is what led reformers throughout Europe to declare that the pope was the man of sin sitting on the seven hills of Rome. Examples of famous Christians and sects declaring the pope to be the antichrist include the Waldensians, Albigenses, Lollards, Lutherans, Calvinists, Hussians, and a host of individuals, including the father of the modern English Bible William Tyndale and even articles of faith such as the Westminster Confession of Faith. Protestant sites that continue to declare the pope as the antichrist using the historicist method include those listed below under the External links.

See also


  • Gadamer Truth and Method
  • Ronald J. Pestritto Woodrow Wilson and the roots of modern liberalism 2005
  • Popper, Karl. 1945. The Open Society and Its Enemies (in 2 volumes). (ISBN 0691019681) Routledge.
  • Popper, Karl. 1993. The Poverty of Historicism. (ISBN 0415065690) Routledge.
  • G.W.F Hegel Philosophy of History
  • Franz Boas The Mind of Primitive Man 1911

External links




New Historicism

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