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Historicism (German Historismus, French historisme, Italian storicismo ) is a term of Romantic origins associated first with the German Historical Schools and then more generally with historical method as applied to all the arts and sciences and to human life. "Historicism" appeared first in a fragment of Novalis, who contrasted it with other methods (chemical, mathematical, artistic, etc.) and associated it with "the system of confusion." Contemporaneously Friedrich Schlegel associated Historismus with the modern science of philology. The word was occasionally used in philosophical polemics, and again the usage seems pejorative since it was opposed to academic philosophy and, especially, unhistorical Kantian idealism. Felix Dahn argued that "historicism is above all a methodological moment, not a speculative principle ; its goal is [not philosophy but] life"; Christlieb Julius Braniss opposed it to the reductionist and deterministic philosophy of naturalism; and in 1879 Karl Werner applied the phrase "philosophical historicism" to the work of Giambattista Vico, a connection later endorsed by Benedetto Croce, Friedrich Meinecke, Erich Auerbach, and others. And in 1895 Lord Acton pointed to "that influence for which the depressing names historicism and historical-mindedness have been devised""all things," for him, including law, theology, science, and philosophy itself.

By the later nineteenth century historicism had acquired a largely pejorative meaning because of its associations with relativism and the threats posed to the assumptions and values of philosophy, theology, and economics, which represented three of the absolutes of Western culture, namely, reason, religion, and the free market. The attack began in the newly professionalized field of economics, especially in 1883 by Karl Menger's liberal assault on "the errors of historicism," that is, the irrational methods of Gustav Schmoller and other members of the so-called younger historical school of economics. In a sense this war of methods (Methodenstreit) recapitulated the struggles between the historical and philosophical schools in the nineteenth century, but now with the weaponry of modern positivism and quantitative techniques. Liberal rejection of historicism, indeed of historical method in any sense, has persisted in many areas of social sciences, as well as in the humanities, as in Russian formalism, structural linguistics, and the New Criticism.

The Errors of Historicism

In theology the errors of historicism were equally offensive. In the prewar years, religious controversies raged around the various forms of "modernism," which had been denounced in Pope Pius IX's "Syllabus of Errors" of 1864, accompanied by a whole list of other secularizing "-isms." Positivism, psychologism, and historicism all posed threats not only to traditional moral values but also to the validity of both reason and revelation. The historicizing of Christianity was the avowed aim of the historical school of religion (religionsgeschichtliche Schule) headed by Weber's friend Ernst Troeltsch, whose classic work, Die Soziallehren der christlichen Kitchen und Gruppen (1912; The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches ), marked the intersection of the socioeconomic and theological problematics of historicism; and it, too, was carried on with heavy anxiety about questions of traditional norms and the elimination of metaphysical and metahistorical absolutes.

Philosophers had worried about the threat of history since the later eighteenth century, and their anxieties resurfaced in the early twentieth century as a "crisis of historicism." In 1910 Edmund Husserl denounced historicism as the enemy of "philosophy as a rigorous science." Martin Heidegger, following Friedrich Nietzsche's famous critique of "the use and abuse of history," contrasted it with true historicity (Geschichtlichkeit) grounded in contemporary existence. Like Braniss, Troeltsch opposed "historicism" to "naturalism" and traced this war of methods back to the seventeenth century with special reference to Vico's attack on Cartesianism; and he celebrated historicism for removing the "dead hand" of dogma while at the same time fearing the threat it posed to philosophical and moral tradition. Following Troeltsch, Karl Heussi distinguished between "history for the sake of history" (l'histoire pour l'histoire), relativism, radical evolutionism, and speculative philosophy of history, and analyzed them all under the rubric "the crisis of historicism."

Historicism represented a problem for all the human sciences and, for Karl Mannheim, a complete Weltanschauung beyond the level of conscious reflection or ideology, so that history itself was caught in its net. It served the modern dynamic world as "timeless reason" had served a more static world. As a counterpart to the older faith in reason, now itself historicized, historicism also needed to be the object of critical theory. Yet it was not absolute but only bound to assumptions of spatial, temporal, and material conditions that had undercut universalist conceptions. The virtue of historicism for Mannheim was that it set dynamism at the center of its conceptualizations instead of relativizing it as in "the old static system," and so made it "the Archimedean lever" for the modern worldview and life experience, that is, made it in effect the condition of human, historical, and indeed philosophical understanding.

Croce, following Vico and Hegel, thought that the Germans had not pushed historicism far enough. He rejected the claims of modern social science, such as those of Max Weber and Émile Durkheim, to universal status, regarding them all as open to contingency and subject to historical conditions. So were human values, and Croce had no fear that relativism was a major threat, since for him historicism was "a logical principle , the very category of logic." In Germany historicism was the reigning condition of contemporary thought and lifeand according to Croce's famous aphorism, "every true history is contemporary history." Indeed philosophy itself was "absolute historicism," so that historicism was not the source of the intellectual crisis of the twentieth century but rather its potential solution. Croce's views and prejudices were carried over into the Anglophone world by R. G. Collingwood, who translated his work and followed his interpretation of historiographical tradition and who turned back to the classical view of history as a form of "inquiry" into human behavior, proceeding through the interpretation of evidence and aiming ultimately at "human self-knowledge."

The best known interpretation was Friedrich Meinecke's Die Entstehung des Historismus (1936; Historicism: The Rise of a New Historical Outlook), which offered a comprehensive map of European historical thought since the seventeenth century and gave systematic form to the Rankean principles of individuality and development. He granted a place for cultural historyas in Vico, Voltaire, Wallace K. Ferguson, Johann Joachim Winckelmann, and Johann Gottfried von Herderand indeed he ended with a detailed assessment of Goethe, "Herder's pupil," down to the breakthrough of the fundamental ideas, though not to its "full evolution." Yet he also includes the arch-naturalist Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz in his curious canon and so tends to overlook the linguistic and literaryand indeed in many ways antiphilosophicalorientation of historicism as it emerged in the age of Romanticism, neglecting the contributions of the historical schools (Reinhold Niebuhr, J. G. Eichhorn, Friedrich von Savigny, Jakob Grimm, Wilhelm Roscher, et al.) and the scholarly tradition as a whole. By reducing historicism to a philosophical doctrine, Meinecke violates the original impulse; for in general historicism is not a concept but an attitude, not a theory but a scholarly practice, not a system of explanation but a mode of interpretation; and it was part of an effort not to make history into a philosophical doctrine but rather to transform it into a foundational discipline to which philosophy itself would be subject. In this sense historicism penetrated even into Russia.

The later semantic history of historicism has become increasingly muddled because of misappropriations of the word for philosophical or ideological but quite un-or even antihistorical purposes, beginning with Karl Popper's Poverty of Historicism (1957), which identifies historicism with naive biological determinism (precisely the opposite of the view of Braniss) and a total innocence of history, experience, and even common sense. Another instance is the book of Maurice Mandelbaum, who writes in History, Man, and Reason, "Historicism is a belief that an adequate understanding of the nature of any phenomenon and an adequate assessment of its value are to be gained through considering it in terms of the place which it occupied and the role which it played within a process of development," and Michael Gillespie, who thinks historians go "critically astray" in tracing the source of historicism to the attitudes associated with historical scholarship, especially that of early modern Europe. On the contrary, historicism was and is an alternative to conventional philosophy and scientific naturalism, and it flourished in the rich soil of literary and antiquarian learning and the teachings of the historical schools. In fact historicism is positioned in opposition to the scientisms that evade questions of point of view, perspective, cultural context, and the necessity of interpretation in posing questions about a past that is not only a "foreign country" but also largely inaccessible except through traces and testimonies that happen to have survived and that must be expressed in the language and conditions of the presenta present that is itself on its way soon to becoming a past.

The New Historicism

The so-called new historicism, popularized since 1980, goes back at least to 1942, when Croce wrote that "The New Historicism accepts, extends, and applies Vico's principle that men know only what they do." The newer New Historicism, though avoiding philosophical claims, likewise turns, as Vico had done, to cultural forms, especially literature and art, to reveal underlying interests and power structures and to penetrate to inarticulate levels and marginal groups of society. In general, this New Historicism was part of the linguistic and textualist turn taken by history and the human sciences, including philosophy, in the past generation; and so were the closely allied innovationist movements that call themselves "the new cultural history" and "a new philosophy of history." Despite attempts to deprecate the Old Historicism on ideological as well as methodological and terminological grounds, the New Historicism shared or inherited some of the same assumptions and goals and in a long perspective forms part of the same story.

See also Historiography ; History, Idea of .


Bambach, Charles R. Heidegger, Dilthey, and the Crisis of Historicism. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1995).

Croce, Benedetto. History as the Story of Liberty. Translated by Sylvia Sprigge. New York: W. W. Norton, 1941.

. History, Its Theory and Practice. Translated by Douglas Ainslie. New York, 1960.

Heussi, Karl. Die Krisis des Historismus. Tübingen: Mohr, 1932.

Iggers, Georg G. The German Conception of History: The National Tradition of Historical Thought from Herder to the Present. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1983.

Mannheim, Karl. "Historicism." In Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge. Translated by Paul Kecskemeti. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1952.

Meinecke, Friedrich. Historism: The Rise of a New Historical Outlook. Translated by J. E. Anderson. London: Herder and Herder, 1972.

Popper, Karl. The Poverty of Historicism. Boston: Beacon Press, 1957.

Roberts, David. Benedetto Croce and the Uses of Historicism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Thaden, Edward C. The Rise of Historicism in Russia. New York: Peter Lang, 1999.

Thomas, Brook. The New Historicism and Other Old-Fashioned Topics. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Troeltsch, Ernst. Historismus und seine Probleme. Tübingen, 1922.

. The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches. Translated by Olive Wyon. New York: Harper, 1960.

Donald R. Kelley

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historicism According to Karl Popper, historicism is ‘an approach to the social sciences which assumes that historical prediction is their principal 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’ (The Poverty of Historicism, 1957). Historicism is therefore the belief in laws of history, of social development, or of progress. Political ideologies such as fascism and communism are often said to be erected upon historicist foundations.

Popper's critique of historicism has several aspects. He accuses those guilty of it of making predictions about the future course of history in the form of unconditional prophecies, whereas scientific predictions can only be conditional in character. In an independent argument. Popper claims that human history is also radically unpredictable, because of its dependence upon knowledge. New knowledge cannot be predicted because to do so would be to be already in possession of it. Marxism is rejected because of its determinism and historicism, but also because its predictions have turned out to be false. It is at best a former scientific conjecture which has been subsequently falsified. To continue one's adherence to Marxism in the face of its empirical refutation is, in Popper's view, to abandon science in favour of metaphysical or quasi-religious faith.

The debate about historicism seems to revolve around the question of human agency and class agency. As regards the former, critics such as Popper challenge the structural determinism contained in various political philosophies and social theories, and assert the essential unpredictability of history and appropriateness of the methods of piecemeal social engineering. But related to this is a critique of historicist arguments concerning the role of the working class in history. Marxists who have ascribed a revolutionary role to this class are coustantly seen to be baulked by historical reality and therefore modifying their predictions in the face of historical contingency. Among Marxists, capitalist hegemony is generally presented as the reason for the incorporation of the working class into society, although critics argue that this reasoning (and indeed Marxist interpretations of working-class culture generally) are the result more of what John H. Goldthorpe describes as ‘wishful rather than critical thinking’ (see ‘Intellectuals and the Working Class in Modern Britain’, in D. Rose ( ed.) , Social Stratification and Economic Change, 1988)
. It should be noted, however, that Goldthorpe is no less critical of liberal theories of industrial society (as represented by the work of Daniel Bell, Clark Kerr, and others). In both cases he objects to what he calls the ‘halfhearted and covert historicism’ of the theories of social change advanced by these authors.

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1. Architecture strongly influenced by the past, especially Revivalist architecture (Greek, Gothic, Early Christian, Romanesque, Italianate, Renaissance, the various Henri and Louis styles, Rundbogenstil, Elizabethan, Jacobethan, Tudor, and other Revivals).

2. Term used to describe a tendency among some architects to insist their work was part of a continuous process of cultural evolution that was capable of historical analysis. Revivals were facilitated by the many lavish and scholarly publications, notably those based on archaeology and meticulous measured drawings that were such a feature of the late C18 and C19, collections of architectural casts and details, and the desire to enter into the essence of a style or styles. Virtually all the way through C19, concerns to find a style appropriate to the time (and for the many new and unprecedented building-types) were voiced (notably by Hübsch), and by the time Shaw, Webb, and others were working in the 1870s a theory evolved that, by mixing styles in a free, eclectic way, some kind of new style would emerge from the mélange. Although conventional wisdom holds that the so-called Queen Anne and Free styles were relatively free from Historicism, such a view is demonstrably false, while Art Nouveau, supposedly a reaction against historical revivals, was too firmly embedded in late Gothic and Celtic Revivals, and even (obviously) in Rococo, to be regarded as such, in spite of the claims of its protagonists and its later apologists. The International Modernists' rejection of all history (and, supposedly, of all styles (save their own) ) in turn created in C20 reactions, where certain architects, perceiving that a serious disruption had taken place, attempted to consider the nature of their own relationship with history, and to rebuild bridges to a great cultural past that had been dismissed as irrelevant.


AHR, lix (1954), 568–77; (1987);
Crook (1987);
Döhmer (1976);
Herrmann (1992);
Pevsner (1960, 1968);
Streich (1984);
Jane Turner (1996);
D. Watkin (1977)

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his·tor·i·cism / hiˈstôrəˌsizəm; -ˈstär-/ • n. 1. the theory that social and cultural phenomena are determined by history. ∎  the belief that historical events are governed by laws. 2. the tendency to regard historical development as the most basic aspect of human existence. 3. chiefly derog. (in artistic and architectural contexts) excessive regard for past styles. DERIVATIVES: his·tor·i·cist n.

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