Historicism is a position that holds that all knowledge and cognition are historically conditioned. It is also widely used in diverse disciplines to designate an approach from a historical perspective. The term is used both in the pejorative and neutral sense. Historicism in the most narrow sense signifies a philosophical position that appeared in Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, primarily in Germany, held by a number of thinkers in diverse disciplines, such as philosophy, history, law, and economics. Historicism challenged a progressive view of history that interpreted history as a linear, uniform process that operated according to universal laws, a view widely held by thinkers since the Enlightenment. Historicism stressed the unique diversity of historical contexts and stressed the importance of developing specific methods and theories appropriate to each unique historical context.
Historicism also often challenged the concept of truth and the notion of rationality of modernity. Modern thinkers held that reason is a universal faculty of the mind that is free of interpretation, that can grasp universal and unchanging truth. Historicism questioned this notion of rationality and truth, and argued for the historical context of knowledge and reason. Although individual theories vary as to how and to what extent knowledge is historically conditioned, historicism is an explicit formulation of the historicity of knowledge. The major question to historicism is its relativist implications. If all knowledge is conditioned by history, there is no objectivity or universality in knowledge. The earlier formulation of historicism was made by Vico (1668-1744) and Herder (1744–1803), and the historicity of knowledge is one of the central issues continually debated today.
Vico (1668–1744) and Herder (1744–1803) developed the archetypal models of historicism. Vico criticized the concept that truth transcends history and argued that truth is conditioned by human history. Herder rejected central ideas of the Enlightenment, such as a historical view of humanity, concept of universal rationality, and belief in the progress of human history according to the development of reason. These ideas of the Enlightenment were built upon the presuppositions that there was only one kind of rationality applicable to all people and cultures and that human history is a linear process of progress whose pattern of development was the same for all. Herder argued that each historical period and culture contains a unique value system, and he conceived history as the aggregate of diverse, unique histories. Herder stressed the importance of understanding the unique context of each historical period in order to make an authentic interpretation of the past.
In nineteenth century Europe, particularly in Germany, historicism flourished in various disciplinary areas. In the field of law, Friedrich Carl von Savigny (1779–1861) developed the German Historical School of Law in opposition to theorists of Natural law of the Enlightenment. He argued that laws, like language, reflect the unique history and customs of each region or race.
In economics, Friedrich List (1789-1846) criticized the idea of the universal economic laws of classical economics and argued that economic principles and policies had to be made according to unique historical contexts. List’s ideas influenced Gustav von Schmoller (1838–1917), a German economic theorist who also held a historicist perspective.
Major historical theorists include Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886), Johann Gustav Droysen (1808–1884), and Friedrich Meinecke (1862–1954). They opposed a progressive view of history, which interprets history as a process of uniform development based upon the progress of reason. They were also critical of the speculative interpretation of history as exemplified by Hegel. They argued that there were diverse and unique characteristics to each region and people, which were irreducible to abstract uniform patterns based upon abstract speculative ideas in philosophy. Ranke, for example, approached history based upon a critical examination of primary documents and sources as opposed to Hegel’s speculative approach.
Wilhelm Dilthey (1833–1911) attempted to establish a conceptual formulation of historicism in philosophy. Dilthey challenged the concept of reason as free of interpretation, neutral, and an a-historical faculty. This concept of rationality can be traced back to the ideals of the Enlightenment. Dilthey’s direct target was Kant, who held the same concept of rationality as those of the Enlightenment. In his unfinished work, “The Structure of the Historical World in the Human Sciences,” Dilthey tried to carry out the task of formulating a critique of historical reason, which he presented in contrast to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.
Dilthey argued that events in history are unique and cannot be repeated. To understand the event, one must leave one’s present context of understanding and view it from the historical context of that event. Hermeneutics is art of interpreting the historical contexts of events in human life.
For Dilthey, experience is essentially interpretive and rationality is also socially and historically contextualized and conditioned. Based upon this insight, Dilthey advanced the tradition of hermeneutics developed by Friedrich Schleiermacher. Hermeneuticity of rationality was carried on by Heidegger, and Gadamer. Although Husserl criticized Dilthey for being a proponent of historicism, other philosophers in the hermeneutic traditions do not generally fall into the category of historicism.
Among the Neo-Kantians, Wilhelm Windelband (1848–1915) and Heinrich John Rickert (1863–1936) tried to formulate methodological differences between historical science and natural science. Windelband characterized historical sciences as a type of discipline which describes unique individual characteristics of events and natural sciences as that which explains phenomena by laws. Rickert distinguished science into natural science and cultural science, and subsumed historical science under cultural science.
Ernst Troeltsch (1865–1923), a German Protestant theologian, in his Der Krisis des Historismus (The Crisis of Historicism) defined historicism in contrast to rationalism. He characterized rationalism as an attempt to find common universal laws by ignoring unique qualitative differences of diverse human experiences. Troeltsch argued that the ideas of natural law was running through European thoughts from Stoicism, Christianity, and modern positivism, which equally believed in the validity of a-temporal universal principles. Historicism, on the contrary, emphasizes the uniqueness, diversity, and differences in social historical phenomena. However, historicism risks falling into a form of relativism, and Troeltsch as well as Meinecke attempted to overcome this problem.
The problem of historicism is its risk of falling into relativism. Relativism undermines the concept of truth or universally valid knowledge. If all knowledge is conditioned by history, knowledge has to be relative to particular factors of the given era or time of history and there is no universally valid, eternally unchanging knowledge. Critics view historicism as a danger that undermines the foundation of truth or the idea of universally valid knowledge. Some also attempt to overcome relativism while maintaining the historicity of knowledge. (The general problem of relativism is as old as philosophy. One can find a prime example of the battle against relativism in Plato’s challenge of the relativist claims of the Sophists.)
Karl Popper used the term "historicism" in 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 a wide dispute as to whether Popper's description of "historicism" is an accurate description of Hegel’s thought, or more a reflection of his own philosophical antagonists, including Spengler’s theories, which predicted a future course of events based on an analysis of the past, and Marxist-Leninist thought, then widely held as posing a challenge to the philosophical basis of the Western World.
In The Open Society and Its Enemies, Popper attacks "historicism" and its proponents, among whom he identifies and singles out Hegel, 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 human being to make his or her own free contributions to the evolution of society, thus leading society to totalitarianism.
Since the 1950s, when Lacan and Foucault argued that each epoch has its own knowledge system within 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. They have also asserted that answers cannot be found by appealing to an external truth, but can only be found 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," also refers to a school of literary scholarship which interprets a poem, drama, etc. as an expression of social power-structures. Stephen Greenblatt is an example of someone that follows this school of thought.
Within the context of twentieth century philosophy, the conflict over whether a-historical and immanent methodologies such as positivism and linguistic analysis were sufficient 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 understanding historical context. This is 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 works of Benedetto Croce.
In Christian circles, the term historicism refers to the confessional Protestant form of prophetical interpretation. This theory holds that the fulfillment of biblical prophecy has taken place throughout history and continues to take place today, as opposed to other methods of interpretation that limit the time-frame of prophecy-fulfillment to the past or to the future. This method of historicism is what led reformers throughout Europe to criticize papacy. Examples of famous Christians and sects that declared the pope as the antichrist include the Waldensians, Albigenses, Lollards, Lutherans, Calvinists, Hussians, 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.
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