As a discipline, cultural history is a bit over two centuries old, but it has an extensive prehistory going back to Renaissance scholarship, especially in areas of the history of literature and the history of philosophy. In the Renaissance, cultus or cultura was commonly associated with the cultivation of literature, philosophy, eloquence, law, arts, and sciences, whose fruits were the human virtues necessary for civil society. In the seventeenth century the form "culture" (cultura ) was employed by Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, Samuel Pufendorf, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, Johannes F. Buddeus, Christian Thomasius, and others, who spoke of the cultivation of the soul, mind, intellect, or reason (cultura animi, mentis, intellectus, rationis ); and Leibniz, for one, rendered it into the vernacular as "Cultur," or "Kultur."
The terminology was shifted from an individual to a social level as a way of indicating levels of civilization and judging "which peoples may be judged to be barbaric and which cultivated," in the words of Pufendorf in 1663. "True culture" (vera cultura ), according to Buddeus, was an indication of morality, sociability, and emergence from an animal state; and the first question centered on the "origin of human culture and civility" and their emergence from a "primeval condition." In 1774 Jean–Bernard Mérian wrote of primitive savages as "a people of hunters, navigators, without culture, without laws, without arts." Thus "culture," together with its companion, "barbarism," represents the judgments passed by Europeans on their own and other societies, past and present.
"Cultural history" (Kulturgeschichte ) arose as a term and a concept in the later eighteenth century, as "culture" replaced earlier equivalents, including "spirit" (mens, esprit, Geist, etc.), which was extended from individual psychology to collective mentality (e.g., Volksgeist or Zeitgeist ), and literature, referring to all the written remains of human cultural achievement. The "history of the human spirit" (historia intellectus humani ; histoire de l'esprit humain ; Geschichte des menschlichen Geistes ) was a phrase often used by eighteenth–century historians of particular disciplines. "Literary history" (historia literaria ), was a major genre, treating (as the seventeenth–century polyhistor Gerhard Joannes Vossius wrote) "the lives and writings of learned men and the invention and progress of the arts." As Nicholas Wickenden has put it, "What Vossius called 'literary history' was really what would now be called cultural history."
Culture and Language
In 1781, the year when Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason marked a revolution in philosophy, Johann Adelung, in his Versuch einer Geschichte der Cultur des menschlichen Geschlechts, identified "the first beginnings of culture" with the origins of language, adding that thereafter, through the development of agriculture and private property, "language follows culture," and furthermore, "Since the language of every nation has the closest relationship with its culture, its history can never be understood without continual reference to the conditions and progress of culture." For Adelung "culture is the transition from a more instinctive and animal–like condition to the more complex relations of social life" so that "When culture ceases, so does true history." Deliberately or not, Adelung set a terminological and conceptual fashion that has figured prominently in modern historiography and the human sciences for two centuries.
The best–known convert to the new terminology was Johann Gottfried von Herder, whose Another Philosophy of History (1784) told the story of the development of the "human spirit" from its appearance in the state of nature to the emergence of the Volksgeist ; but a decade later, in his Ideas for the Philosophy of History of Mankind, he referred to the process or "chain of culture" in the sense of the cultivation of intellectual and linguistic attributes. To Kant's "critique of pure reason" he opposed a "metacritique," arguing that the object of criticism must be not pure but human reason, not transcendent and ahistorical spirit but concrete, temporal manifestations, beginning with language, without which "reason" could not express itself. For Herder, cultural history aspired not only to criticize but even to replace philosophy as the foundational discipline of human understanding. And other scholars followed Herder in associating cultural history with critical philosophy, including Christoph Meiners, Karl Franz von Irwing, K. H. L. Pölitz, Dietrich Hermann Hegewisch, and Johann Gottfried Eichhorn.
"Cultural history" had an extraordinary fortuna in the generations after Adelung and Herder. The quantity of published works was striking, and their topics were global and local, ancient and modern, general and special (including cultural histories of literature, medicine, commerce, etc.), and they were often designed for a general rather than merely a learned readership. The heyday of cultural history in this tradition was reached in the Victorian period with the voluminous publications of Wilhelm Wachsmuth, Gustav Klemm, Georg Friedrich Kolb, Gustav Freitag, Wilhelm Riehl, Friedrich Anton Heller von Hellwald, Otto Henne am Rhyn, Karl Grün, J. J. Honegger, and Julius Lippert. Klemm, who was the founder of an extraordinary ethnographic museum in Dresden, an early model for the Smithsonian Institution, asked such questions as "What were the oldest tools of the human race? and How did early man eat, drink, shelter and cloth himself?" His Allgemeine Cultur–Geschichte der Menschheit (1843), while paying homage to the old Herderian tradition, presented its subject from an entirely "new standpoint," according to which human thought and action were seen not primarily in a Biblical framework but in a prehistorical, evolutionary continuum that denied supernatural privilege to humanity and emphasized what, long before Fernand Braudel, was called "material culture" (materielle Kultur ).
Material and Spiritual Culture
In the nineteenth century as today, the most important interdisciplinary connection of cultural history was the new field of anthropology. In the famous formula of Edward Tylor, father of modern anthropology, in his Primitive Culture (1881): "Culture or Civilization taken in its wide ethnographic sense is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society." Tylor referred in particular to Klemm's conception of "Culture–History," which he preferred to the more conventional terminology of "civilization." And the influence was mutual, reflecting back on German scholarship: "What is Culture?" asked the cultural historian J. J. Honegger in 1882 and, by way of answer, gave a paraphrase of the very definition given by Tylor in 1865.
Victorian scholars were poised, or torn, between two conceptions of culture. One was the material culture rooted in primitive life and the other the spiritual culture reflected in such human creations as art, literature, philosophy, and religion. "Culture and anarchy" was the famous formula of Matthew Arnold, who sought, in an idealized and progressivist culture, "the study of perfection" and perhaps "a great help out of our present difficulties." Opposed to the focus of scholars such as Klemm were the cultivated students of spiritual culture (geistige Kultur ), of whom Jacob Burckhardt was the most notable representative. While the first took the low road, the latter took the high road to the study of culture, although Burckhardt did not ignore popular culture, as shown by in the pages of his Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (Kulturgeschichte was his term) devoted to costume, etiquette, domestic life, festivals, and other topics rediscovered recently by the "new cultural history." Like Klemm, Burckhardt was a collector, drawn especially to art and literature, and he defined culture "as the sum total of those mental developments which take place spontaneously and lay no claim to universal of compulsive authority." Suspicious of modern power politics, he was also critical of the material progress of his age, which he regarded as a principal threat to his cultivated world. "We may all perish," he wrote, "but at least I want to discover the interest for which I am to perish, namely, the culture of old Europe" (Letters, p. 197).
By the end of the century, cultural history had achieved high public visibility and a significant academic base, with a large bibliography, several journals, and historiography of its own; and it became a subject of contention among historians. The battle of methods (Methodenstreit ) began in 1888 when Dietrich Schäfer gave a lecture denouncing the trivialities of cultural history and reasserting the primacy of politics. This manifesto was answered the next year by Eberhard Gothein, who defended cultural history against the charges of materialism and urged the value of other cultural forms—religion, art, law, and economics—in the effort to understand historical change. This was the view also taken by Karl Lamprecht, who for a generation occupied the storm center of the historical Methodenstreit heralded by this exchange and who became the leading figure in the theory and practice of cultural history before World War I.
In 1886 Lamprecht turned to his lifework, Deutsche Geschichte, which was a survey of the whole cultural history of Germany; he established at the University of Leipzig a "historical seminar" and then a more ambitious Institute for Cultural and Universal History. In his late years Lamprecht's public life was torn by controversy about the status, role, and value of cultural history in scholarship and teaching. Lamprecht's "new history," as it was pejoratively called, was based on advances in linguistics, archeology, art history, economics, and especially recent psychology (i.e., Völkerpsychologie, social psychology). Although few of his professional colleagues, aside from students, accepted his eccentric and aggressively argued views, and he died in some disrepute, the popularity of his work testified to the appeal of his arguments.
Lamprecht's "new history" had counterparts elsewhere in the West, especially France and the United States, which also emphasized the central role of culture. Henri Berr was already working out the agenda expressed in his concept of "synthetic history," which underlay the efforts of his younger colleagues leading to the formation of the Annales school of history. It was in the wake of such discussions that James Harvey Robinson of Columbia University, in 1912, proclaimed his own version of the "new history," which was likewise opposed to conventional political history. These views were echoed by other scholars, including Johann Huizinga, who delivered his manifesto on "the task of cultural history" in 1926. After World War I a kind of cultural history was continued in Germany in a debased form in the racialist Volksgeschichte, which reinforced the ideology and imperialist policies of the Third Reich.
In the French and Anglophone world the semantic rival of "culture" was "civilization" (replacing "civility"), which was also a neologism of the eighteenth century, associated with Voltaire and what Carl Becker called the "new history" of the Enlightenment and which was also contrasted with "barbarism" and intended to designate the highest stage of human development. The classic history of the rise of "civilization" in the West was that of François Guizot, for whom "civilization is a fact like any other," and indeed "the fact par excellence," which in his famous lectures, given before the Revolution of 1830 drew him into politics, he traced from classical antiquity down to the French monarchy, which was the highest expression of this fact. Guizot set the line of argument for several generations of cultural history in France. In England Henry Thomas Buckle's History of Civilization in England was hardly less influential, although its doctrinaire scientism and materialism eventually rendered it unfashionable and indeed obsolete.
The writing of cultural history expanded further in the twentieth century as textbooks and popular works presented the results of generations of research and interpretation. Notable examples were the one hundred volumes of Henri Berr's series Evolution of Humanity (begun in 1920); Egon Friedell's A Cultural History of the Modern Age (1931), which, dedicated to Bernard Shaw and glorying in its journalistic style, carried the story from the Renaissance to psychoanalysis and the "collapse of reality"; Preserved Smith's History of Modern Culture (1934), which, in the spirit of Robinson's new history, surveyed early modern sciences, humanities, social control, and "spirit of the times"; and European Civilization: Its Origin and Development, edited by Edward Eyre (7 vols., 1934–1939), which included also global frontiers beyond the West. In such works the whole world, private and public, real and imagined, natural and social, becomes a field of anthropological inquiry, interpretation, and speculation.
From the beginning the defining feature of cultural history, shared with anthropology, has been an inclination to holism—the effort to grasp "the history of everything," in Berr's famous phrase, or as Harry Elmer Barnes wrote of the new history, "the recording of everything which has happened in the past"—but of course "in the light of twentieth–century knowledge and methods." Yet cultural history was turned to analysis as well as synthesis, and so in 1940 in the United States, for example, there appeared a volume, The Cultural Approach to History ("edited for the American Historical Association"), which explored a wide range of techniques of cultural analysis, means of analyzing social groups, nationality, institutions, and ideas as sources of cultural history.
In this generation little has changed save the rhetorical claims in the "new cultural history," so–called since the publication of the volume by the same name by Lynn Hunt in 1989, supplemented also by the "new historicism," which has made its own contributions to cultural history, and by the study of mentalities and cultural practices carried on from the Annales school by Roger Chartier. In general, recent cultural history has come to embrace a wide and miscellaneous range of topics, such as crime, madness, childhood, old age, gesture, humor, smells, space, and other items (appearing on the world wide web) from addiction to unbelief. In terms of theory this self–proclaimed "new cultural history" has arisen out of the wreckage of scientific and Marxist history, which sought the concealed mechanisms of social change beneath the surface of collective behavior. This is true in the sense not only that many new cultural historians such as Natalie Davis and Lynn Hunt have emerged from the materialist assumptions of socioeconomic historical practice and/or Marxist theory, but also that cultural history has always contained a powerful critique of such methods.
In general, cultural history rejects economic and political reductionism, gives up the noble dream of objectivity, recognizes the role of imagination in historical reconstruction, and, no longer aspiring to rigorous explanation, turns instead to what has been called "interpretive social science." As represented by Clifford Geertz and Charles Taylor, interpretive social science places understanding (Verstehen ) above explanation and so hermeneutics above causal analysis as the principal access to a knowledge of the human condition, past and present. Explanation requires some sort of reduction of experience, or evidence, to crucial factors at the expense of excluding other experience, or evidence, which not only lends color or, as Geertz says, thickness to description but also qualifies simplistic and naturalistic notions of causation.
The new cultural history may entail a sort of relativism distasteful to historians of the older schools, but the positive aspect is a more critical awareness of the meaning of the historian's craft. Not only the objects of history but the works of historians are themselves subject to the conditions of their cultural environment, and so (in contemporary parlance) "culturally constructed." Yet the premise of the new cultural history that, as Hunt writes, "the representations of the social world themselves are the constituents of social reality," is an insight not unfamiliar to earlier cultural historians; for as Huizinga reminded us, "The historical discipline is a cultural process." And like culture it is still changing and renewing itself, though not always with much appreciation for its own history.
See also Cultural Studies ; Historiography ; Ideas, History of .
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"Cultural History." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 19, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/cultural-history
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