New Historicism

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New Historicism is an approach to literary criticism and literary theory based on the premise that a literary work should be considered a product of the time, place, and historical circumstances of its composition rather than as an isolated work of art or text. It has its roots in a reaction to the "New Criticism" of formal analysis of works of literature, which was seen by a new generation of professional critics as ignoring the greater social and political consequences of the production of literary texts. New Historicism developed in the 1980s, primarily through the work of the critic Stephen Greenblatt, gaining widespread influence in the 1990s and beyond.

New Historicists aim simultaneously to understand the work through its historical context and to understand cultural as well as to investigate the intellectual history and cultural history through literature. The approach owes much of its impetus to the work of Michel Foucault, who based his approach both on his theory of the limits of collective cultural knowledge and on his technique of examining a broad array of documents in order to understand the episteme of a particular time. Using Foucault's work as a starting point, New Historicism aims at interpreting a literary text as an expression of or reaction to the power-structures of the surrounding society.

New Historicism attempted to reintroduce the concept of history into literary studies, in part as a corrective to the ahistorical and apolitical nature of much of Post-structuralism. However, in adopting the Foucauldian notion of epistemic rupture between ages and civilizations, which makes understanding the text in the terms in which it was produced impossible, New Historicism has been criticized for reducing the importance of literature as a work of art and turning it into just another historical artifact.


New Historicism arose in the late twentieth century as a result to the ahistorical hermeneutics of much of structuralism and post-structuralism. The label of "New Historicism" came from it adoption of a Historicist sensibility, much as had occurred within historical scholarship in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but coupled with the approach of the so-called "New History."


Historicism 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. Historicism appeared in Europe, primarily in Germany; it challenged the progressive view of history that interpreted history as a linear, uniform process that operated according to universal laws, a view widely held by thinkers from the Enlightenment era forward. 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 in modernity. Modern thinkers held that reason was 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; historicism is an explicit formulation of the historicity of knowledge. The earlier formulation of historicism was made by Vico (1668-1744) and Herder (1744–1803).

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 the 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, a leading advocate of Romanticism, 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.

Major nineteenth century historical theorists include Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886), Johann Gustav Droysen (1808–1884), and Friedrich Meinecke (1862–1954). They responded to the rise of Hegelianism as the final and most well-developed Idealist and speculative interpretation of history, the culmination of the Enlightenment view of history as the history of reason. 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 Kantian rationality, which enjoyed a pre-eminent position after the collapse of Hegelian speculation. 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.

New History

New Historicism differs from the old Historicism in large measure not based on the approach but rather on changes in historical methodology, the rise of the so-called New history. The term new history was indebted to the French term nouvelle histoire, itself associated particularly with the historian Jacques Le Goff and Pierre Nora, members of the third generation of the Annales School, which appeared in the 1970s. The movement can be associated with cultural history, history of representations, and histoire des mentalités. While there may be no precise definition, the new history is best understood in contrast with prior methods of writing history, resisting their focus on politics and "great men;" their insistence on composing historical narrative; their emphasis on administrative documents as key source materials; their concern with individuals' motivations and intentions as explanatory factors for historical events; and their willingness to accept the possibility of historians' objectivity.

Foucault and Lacan

Since the 1950s, when Jacques Lacan and Michel 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 in which they are raised, 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.

The study

New Historicist scholars begin their analysis of literary texts by attempting to look at other texts—both literary and non-literary—to which a literate public had access at the time of writing, and what the author of the original text himself might have read. The purpose of this research, however, is not to derive the direct sources of a text, as the New Critics did, but to understand the relationship between a text and the political, social, and economic circumstances in which it originated.

Since Stephen Greenblatt, a Renaissance Shakespeare scholar, played a pivotal role in the rise of New Historicism, the school developed largely in Shakespeare and English Renaissance Theatre studies. A major focus of those New Historicist critics led by Moskowitz and Stephen Orgel has been on understanding Shakespeare less as a genius than as a clue to the conjunction of the world of English Renaissance theatre and the complex social politics of the time. The focus of new historical analysis is to bring to the foreground the context and give it greater emphasis than previously recognized.

The movement establishes itself upon four main contentions. (l) Literature is historical, which means (in this exhibition) that a literary work is not primarily the record of one mind’s attempt to solve certain formal problems and the need to find something to say; it is a social and cultural construct shaped by more than one consciousness. The proper way to understand it, therefore, is through the culture and society that produced it. (2) Literature, then, is not a distinct category of human activity. It must be assimilated to history, which means a particular vision of history. (3) Like works of literature, man himself is a social construct, the sloppy composition of social and political forces—there is no such thing as a human nature that transcends history. Renaissance man belongs inescapably and irretrievably to the Renaissance. There is no continuity between him and us; history is a series of "ruptures" between ages and men. (4) As a consequence, the historian/ critic is trapped in his own "historicity." No one can rise above his own social formations, his own ideological upbringing, in order to understand the past on its terms. A modern reader can never experience a text as its contemporaries experienced it. Given this fact, the best a modern historicist approach to literature can hope to accomplish, according to Catherine Belsey, is "to use the text as a basis for the reconstruction of an ideology."[1]

Relationship to other ideas

New Historicism developed in part based on the frustration of some literary scholars with the ahistorical approach of New Criticism, and the formalist tendencies of the struturalist and post-structuralist approaches that came after New Criticism.

Yet, it also owes a debt to post-structuralism as well. It is distinct from the older Historicism in large part because, "the movement follows poststructuralism in its assurance that literary works mean any number of things to any number of readers (the doctrine of the plurality of meaning), freeing New Historicists to find the warrant for their interpretations not in the author’s intentions for his work but in the ideology of his age. Similarly, the New Historicist effort to assimilate the literary text to history is guaranteed by the poststructuralist doctrine of textuality, which states that the text is not aloof from the surrounding context, that there is a contiguity, an ebb and flow, between text and whatever might once have been seen as "outside" it."[2]

In its tendency to see society as consisting of texts relating to other texts, with no "fixed" literary value above and beyond the way specific societies read them in specific situations, New Historicism also owes something to postmodernism. However, New Historicists tend to exhibit less skepticism than postmodernists, and show something in common with the "traditional" tasks of literary criticism: That is, explaining the text in its context, and trying to show what it "meant" to its first readers, but they have been influenced by Postmodernism in this sense: They reject the notion that there is any recoverable meaning that extends across the "epistemic" break between time and civilizations. The modern reader of Shakespeare does not understand the text the way contemporaries did. So, the New Historicist critic uses the text as part of a series of facts from the era in an attempt to reconstruct the prevailing ideology.


Among literary critics, New historicism has something in common with the historical criticism of Hippolyte Taine, who argued that a literary work is less the product of its author's imaginations than the social circumstances of its creation, the three main aspects of which Taine called race, milieu, and moment. It is also a response to an earlier historicism, practiced by early twentieth century critics such as John Livingston Lowes, which sought to de-mythologize the creative process by reexamining the lives and times of canonical writers. But New Historicism differs from both of these trends in its emphasis on ideology: The political disposition, unknown to an author himself, that governs his work.

Clearly, in its historicism and in its political interpretations, New Historicism has some affinity with Marxism. But whereas Marxism (at least in its cruder forms) tends to see literature as part of a "superstructure" in which the economic "base" (that is, material relations of production) manifests itself, New Historicist thinkers tend to take a more nuanced Foucauldian view of power, seeing it not exclusively as class-related but extending throughout society.

New Historicism also shares many of the same theories as with what is often called Cultural Studies, but cultural critics are even more likely to put emphasis on the present implications of their study and to position themselves in disagreement to current power structures, working to give power to traditionally disadvantaged groups. Cultural critics also downplay the distinction between "high" and "low" culture and often focus predominantly on the productions of "popular culture."

This shift of focus mirrors a trend in critical assessment of the decorative arts. Unlike fine arts, which had been discussed in purely formal terms under the influences of Bernard Berenson and Ernst Gombrich, nuanced discussion of the arts of design since the 1970s have been set within social and intellectual contexts, taking account of fluctuations in luxury trades, the availability of design prototypes to local craftsmen, the cultural horizons of the patron, and economic considerations—"the limits of the possible" in economic historian Fernand Braudel's famous phrase.[3]


New historicism has come into conflict with some of the anti-historical tendencies of postmodernism. New historicism denies the claim that society has entered a "post-modern" or "post-historical" phase and allegedly ignited the "culture wars" of the 1980s.[4] The main points of this argument are that new historicism, unlike post-modernism, acknowledges that almost all historic views, accounts, and facts they use contain biases which derive from the position of that view. As Carl Rapp states: "[The new historicists] often appear to be saying, 'We are the only ones who are willing to admit that all knowledge is contaminated, including even our own.'"[5]

Some complaints sometimes made about New Historicism are that in seems to lessen literature to a footnote of history. It has also been said that it does not pay attention to the antiquate details involved with analyzing literature. New Historicism simply states historical issues that literature may make connections with without explain why it has done this, lacking in-depth knowledge to literature and its structures.

Further reading


  1. Catherine Belsey, Critical Practice (London: Methuen, 1980), 144.
  2. D.G. Myers, The New Historicism in Literary Study (1989).
  3. Peter Thornton, Seventeenth-Century Interior Decoration in England, France and Holland (1978).
  4. Seaton, 2000.
  5. D.G. Myers, 1989.

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