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The early history of the term "historicism" (Historismus ) has not been sufficiently explored, as Erich Rothacker has pointed out. However, one clear case in which it was used in a sense closely allied to all of the senses which it has subsequently assumed is to be found in Carl Prantl's Die gegenwärtige Aufgabe der Philosophie (1852). Although the term was later employed as a means of characterizing the thought of Giambattista Vico, its first widespread use probably dates from methodological debates among German-speaking political economists. In these debates, Carl Menger criticized Gustav Schmoller and his school for making economic theory unduly dependent upon economic history; this he characterized as Historismus. Thus, the term took on a depreciatory sense; it suggested an inappropriate use of historical knowledge and a confusion regarding the sorts of questions that could be answered by means of such knowledge. One may conjecture that the extension of its use during the first decades of the twentieth century was fostered by the currency of its depreciatory analogue, "psychologism" (Psychologismus ): Both terms were used in reference to attempts to extend the methods and results of a particular discipline into provinces in which that discipline was claimed to lack legitimate authority.

It was not until the period immediately following World War I, however, that Historismus came to be widely used. The impact of the war and the consequences of the German defeat led to attempts to reappraise the cultural and political traditions of the past, and in this reappraisal a central issue was whether a purely historical approach to human culture provided an adequate basis for the judgment of cultural values. This was not, of course, a new problem for theologians or for philosophers; it was one which had been forced upon their attention by dominant strains in nineteenth-century thought (for example, by Hegelianism, the results of historical biblical criticism, and evolutionism). Nevertheless, for those in Germany who had been reared in the tradition of historical studies and who were encountering the violent upheaval of the times, the question of the relations of cultural standards to historical change took on great immediacy. It was at this point that Ernst Troeltsch attempted to characterize historicism in a nonpolemical way, to examine its origins, and to assess its merits and limitations.


In Der Historismus und Seine Probleme, Troeltsch used "historicism" to mean a tendency to view all knowledge and all forms of experience in a context of historical change. He regarded this tendency as one of the two fundamental discoveries of the modern mind: The other, with which he compared it, was the generalizing, quantitative approach to nature that he termed Naturalismus. Thus, like Wilhelm Dilthey, Wilhelm Windelband, Heinrich Rickert, and others, Troeltsch drew a distinction between the forms of understanding characteristic of the natural sciences and those which are appropriate to what one may perhaps best term the "historical sciences" (die Geisteswissenschaften ). What was of prime importance to him, however, was not the differences between the methodologies of the natural and the historical sciences, but the fact that each was a fundamentally different way of looking at the world, that is, each constituted a different Weltanschauung. Troeltsch documented the scope and the depth of historicism as a Weltanschauung by tracing its presence in the thought of a host of philosophers and sociologists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He himself accepted the view that all knowledge and all forms of human experience are caught up in a process of change; however, he believed that this view tended to lead to an unmitigated moral and intellectual skepticism. It was this that constituted the crisis of historicism, and it was this that he sought to overcome. Unlike Rickert and others among his contemporaries, he believed that the skeptical consequences of historicism could be overcome only through history itself and could not be avoided by any appeal to transhistorical values. His own positive, religiously based views, however, received only partial expression, for he died before he was able to complete the work that he had projected.


In 1924, almost immediately after the appearance of Troeltsch's work, Karl Mannheim wrote an essay, "Historismus," in which he too characterized historicism as a basic Weltanschauung. According to him, the static, theologically oriented conception of the world that characterized the Middle Ages had been retained in secularized form in the Enlightenment, because both cultures held to the doctrine of the atemporal character of the judgments of reason. According to Mannheim, this static conception had at last been abandoned, and all social and cultural reality was seen as being dominated by change. It was this radically temporalistic view of the world that he designated as historicism. Unlike Troeltsch, to whose work he devoted a portion of his essay, Mannheim did not recoil from the relativism of values that he saw that historicism entailed; rather, he was concerned to affirm it. However, on the basis of his own views regarding the intimate connections between theory and practice, he did not believe that either moral or intellectual skepticism was a necessary consequence of temporalistic relativism. Moral skepticism would not necessarily follow, since Mannheim believed that all values are rooted in the conditions of actual social existence and their discovery is not dependent upon our possession of some unchanging capacity for moral insight; furthermore, intellectual skepticism could be avoided through a recognition of the perspectival character of knowledge, and by means of the capacity of a sociology of knowledge to uncover the nature of divergent perspectives and reconcile them with one another. Thus, in Mannheim's use of "historicism," unlike Troeltsch's, there remained no vestige of the original depreciatory significance of the term.


In 1936 Friedrich Meinecke published a historical study titled Die Entstehung des Historismus in which the term assumed a markedly different connotation. To be sure, Meinecke shared Troeltsch's view that historicism represented a break with those modes of thought which both characterized as naturalism. Furthermore, like Mannheim and others, he believed that there was a fundamental opposition between the modern historical sense and earlier political philosophies that had relied upon the conception of a universal and unchanging natural law as the basis for moral and political judgment. Thus Meinecke regarded historicism as opposed to a static view of the world, and in this he was in agreement with Troeltsch and Mannheim. However, he proceeded to characterize this new world view in terms of an interest in that which is concrete, unique, and individual; he found the clue to the new view expressed in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's use of the dictum "Individuum est ineffabile." This characterization of historicism was undoubtedly related to the fact that Troeltsch (among others) had viewed historical inquiry as concerned with the concrete, the unique, and the individual, and had contrasted this interest with the methods used in the natural sciences.

However, in translating this particular methodological doctrine into a worldview, Meinecke departed radically from the characterizations offered by Troeltsch and Mannheim. For them it was not the concept of individuality but the concepts of change and development that were fundamental to what they had termed "historicism." As a consequence of this difference in the meaning of the terms, some of the eighteenth-century historians who played dominant roles in Meinecke's account would not have been considered proponents of historicism by Troeltsch or by Mannheim. The difference emerges most strongly in the fact that Meinecke believed the culmination of modern historicism was to be found in the world views of Goethe and Leopold von Ranke, whereas one would expect such a high point to be identified with G. W. F. Hegel, with Karl Marx, or perhaps with later evolutionary thought, were one to take the term in the meaning ascribed to it by Troeltsch and Mannheim. As a consequence of this shift in the meaning of the term, Meinecke naturally did not regard historicism as a force that threatened human values or which could lead to a radical transvaluation of values; thus, for him there was no crisis of historicism as there had been for Troeltsch.


The view with which Meinecke's characterization of historicism can best be compared is that of Benedetto Croce, even though Croce criticized Meinecke's work for its failure to emphasize nineteenth-century thought, and in particular because of its failure to appreciate Hegel's importance. Croce's own philosophic views had grown out of a reaction against positivism and materialism, in favor of idealism: in particular, he concerned himself with combating positivist and materialist philosophies of history. What he rejected in these views was not the historicism that Troeltsch and Mannheim correctly discerned in them, but the fact that they attempted to interpret history naturalistically, that is; in ways similar to those used by the sciences in dealing with the nonhuman world. Like Vico and Hegel, with whose thought his own was directly affiliated, Croce regarded history as the self-development of the human spirit. Furthermore, since Croce, as an idealist, wished to deny that there was any realm of existence external to the human spirit, he interpreted the whole of reality as being encompassed within history: life and reality were nothing but the ever changing manifestations of the spirit.

It was primarily with reference to this radical metaphysical idealism, rather than with reference to any more general currents in Western intellectual history, that Croce used the term "historicism" (storicismo ). While Croce's own emphasis on the pervasiveness of change did in fact provide an example of what Troeltsch and Mannheim considered to be the basic feature of historicism, it was not with their thought, but with that of Meinecke, that his views had the greater affinity. Like Meinecke, Croce held that the means by which a naturalistic worldview seeks to envision and grasp reality are totally inadequate because of the uniqueness and individuality of that which is historical. He therefore heldas did Meineckethat genuine knowledge, as opposed to merely practical or pseudo-knowledge, comes only through an understanding of history. Croce endeavored to establish this antinaturalistic position throughout his philosophical writings; for Meinecke, the acceptance of this form of historicism was intimately connected with a religious sense of mystery.

England and the United States

The term "historicism" was adopted into the English language in the late 1930s and the 1940s both in the United States and in England. In neither country, however, was it used to refer primarily to a Weltanschauung ; rather, what was of concern were questions regarding principles of explanation and of evaluation. In the United States, attention was directed to these issues through works by Morris R. Cohen, Maurice Mandelbaum, and Morton White, among others. In England, fuller discussions were to be found in articles by F. A. Hayek and Karl Popper.

One may plausibly infer from Hayek's discussion of historicism that the sense in which he and Popper conceived the notion probably derived from Menger's original contrast between scientific theory-construction and a primarily historical approach to problems in the social sciences. However, the specific form of historicism that both Hayek and Popper especially attacked was the nineteenth-century doctrine that there are laws of development that characterize social wholes and that it is possible, on the basis of a knowledge of such laws, to make scientific predictions about the future. Thus, the notion of "holism," which had not previously been directly associated with the definition of historicism, was injected into the discussion, and the chief protagonists of historicism were identified as Hegel, Auguste Comte, and Marx. When taken in this sense, three theses were common to historicist doctrines: (1) a rejection of "methodological individualism" in favor of the view that there are social wholes which are not reducible to the activities of individuals; (2) the doctrine that there are laws of development of these wholes, considered as wholes; (3) the belief that such laws permit predictions as to the course which the future will take. While these three theses were intimately connected with some of the doctrines previously characterized as examples of historicism, there seems to be no necessity for identifying historicism with holistic thought and with a belief in the possibility of prediction, as Popper and Hayek tend to do.

Definition of "Historicism"

Considering the very great diversity in usage which we have now traced, one may ask whether there is any characterization of historicism which can serve to connect the various ways in which the term has been used and which at the same time can give it a relatively clear meaning. Without suggesting that all problems concerning the deviant meanings of historicism can be solved in this way, the following definition may be proposed as an approximation of that goal: Historicism is the belief that an adequate understanding of the nature of anything and an adequate assessment of its value are to be gained by considering it in terms of the place it occupied and the role it played within a process of development.

It will be noted that this definition does not characterize historicism as a particular Weltanschauung but as a methodological belief concerning explanation and evaluation. As Popper's discussion makes clear, in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, forms of what has been termed "naturalism" have closely resembled antinaturalistic theories, with respect to their presuppositions about the relation of historical change to the explanation and evaluation of events. Since it is misleading to regard positions as divergent as those of, say, Hegel, Comte, Marx, and Herbert Spencer as representative of one and the same Weltanschauung, it is preferable to conceive of historicism as a methodological principle.

Troeltsch and Mannheim were in agreement with Meinecke and Croce in holding that this new methodological principle was based upon the rise of a new concept of change and of history. Its original challenge to older modes of thought lay partly in its tendency to link evaluation with genetic explanation. It was this tendency that was fundamental to the so-called crisis of historicism, and it has also been against this tendency that Hayek and Popper, among others, subsequently rebelled. However, the most radical aspect of historicism as a methodological principle has been its conception of what is presupposed in all explanations and evaluations of past events: that each event is to be understood by viewing it in terms of a larger process of which it was a phase, or in which it played a part; and that only through understanding the nature of this process can one fully understand or evaluate concrete events. It is partly because of this emphasis upon relating each event to some larger developmental process that historicism has come to be identified with holism and a belief in historical prediction. Important as this connection has undoubtedly been, a definition in terms of it fails to stress the more fundamental fact that historicism involves a genetic model of explanation and an attempt to base all evaluation upon the nature of the historical process itself. Popper, in his characterization of the position, therefore tends to separate his own use of the term "historicism" from its other, more frequent uses. The definition suggested here constitutes an attempt to epitomize many of these uses and to connect them with one another even where they are found to diverge.

See also Cohen, Morris Raphael; Comte, Auguste; Croce, Benedetto; Dilthey, Wilhelm; Enlightenment; Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Hegelianism; Holism and Individualism in History and Social Science; Idealism; Mannheim, Karl; Marx, Karl; Meinecke, Friedrich; Moral Skepticism; Popper, Karl Raimund; Rickert, Heinrich; Troeltsch, Ernst; Vico, Giambattista; Windelband, Wilhelm.


The following bibliography is highly selective and deals only with those works in which historicism is the central topic of discussion and with works specifically mentioned in the article. The order is chronological, except that all works by the same author or concerned primarily with that author are placed together.

Prantl, Carl. Die gegenwärtige Aufgabe der Philosophie. Munich, 1852. A speech given before the (Bavarian) Akademie der Wissenschaften on March 27, 1852. In it, the term Historismus is used to designate a concrete, historically oriented method by means of which the impasses in the philosophy of the day could be avoided.

Menger, Carl. Untersuchungen über die Methode der Socialwissenschaften. Leipzig: Duncker and Humblot, 1883. Reprinted as Volume II (London, 1933) of the Collected Works. These four volumes constitute numbers 1720 of "Reprints of Scarce Tracts in Economics and Political Science," published by the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Menger, Carl. Die Irrthümer des Historismus in der deutschen Nationalökonomie. Vienna, 1884. Reprinted in Volume III (London, 1935) of the Collected Works, 4 vols. A polemic against Schmoller's methodological views. This and the preceding item represent the first influential introduction of the term "historicism" into the literature of the social sciences.

Ritzel, Gerhard. Schmoller versus Menger: Eine Analyse des Methodenstreits im Hinblick auf den Historismus in der Nationalökonomie. Frankfurt am Main, 1950. A helpful doctoral dissertation concerned with the issues involved in the quarrel over method in political economy.

Troeltsch, Ernst. Der Historismus und seine Probleme. Tübingen: Mohr, 1922. Only the first volume of this work was completed. It takes its point of departure from the "crisis of historicism" in postwar German intellectual life and treats fundamental problems of both formal and material philosophies of history through detailed discussion of almost all important nineteenth- and twentieth-century figures in these fields. Unfortunately, the structure of the discussion is not clear, largely because Troeltsch used the concept of "value" in discussing both the formal problems of a philosophy of history and the problem of meaning in history. His own solution of the latter problem, which was to have been the theme of his second volume, is briefly adumbrated in posthumously published lectures that he was to have given at Oxford. They were originally published as Christian Thought, Its History and Application (London: University of London Press, 1923; reprinted, New York, 1957), but they have been better known under the title Der Historismus und seine Überwindung (Berlin: Teubner, 1924).

Troeltsch, Ernst. "Die Krisis des Historismus." Die Neue Rundschau 33 (1922): 572590. An excellent, brief, untechnical statement of the central theme of Troeltsch's classic work.

Hintze, Otto. "Troeltsch und die Probleme des Historismus." Historische Zeitschrift 135 (1927): 188239. Also to be found in Hintze's collected essays, Zur Theorie der Geschichte (Leipzig: Koehler and Amelang, 1942). A masterful analytical and critical exposition of Troeltsch's approach to historicism. It is also suggestive in the way in which it provides a rich historiographical background against which the work of Troeltsch and Meinecke can be viewed.

Mannheim, Karl. "Historismus." Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik 52 (1924), translated and edited by Paul Kecskemeti and reprinted in Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge (London: Routledge, 1952). An important treatment of historicism as the dominant Weltanschauung of the post-Enlightenment period, and an attempt to work out its cultural and philosophic implications.

Croce, Benedetto. "Antistoricismo." In Proceedings of the Seventh International Congress of Philosophy. London: H. Milford, 1931. Translated into German by K. Vossler, and published in Historische Zeitschrift 143 (1931): 457466. An attack upon what Croce regarded as two antihistorical tendencies in thought: "futurism" and the attempt to escape from historicity to fixed and absolute standards.

Croce, Benedetto. La storia come pensiero e come axione. Bari: Laterza, 1938. English translation by Sylvia Sprigge as History as the Story of Liberty (New York: Norton, 1941). A series of studies representing Croce's most mature reflections on history, historiography, and historicism.

Cohen, Morris R. "History versus Value." In Reason and Nature, 369385. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1931. This essay was originally published in Journal of Philosophy 11 (1914): 704716, but its influence on Morton White and others probably dates from its inclusion in this volume.

Heussi, Karl. Die Krisis des Historismus. Tübingen: Mohr, 1932. Contains a useful summary of early uses of the term and helpful references. Heussi's analysis of the concept should be consulted, but lacks an appreciation of the connection between the main currents of nineteenth-century thought and the ways in which the term was used in the twentieth century.

Meinecke, Friedrich. Die Entstehung des Historismus, 2 vols. Munich: Oldenbourg, 1936. The classic account of the development of historicism interpreted as a new view of life and of historical experience. Its course is traced by means of a series of individual essays from seventeenth-century forerunners through Goethe and Ranke.

Meinecke, Friedrich. Zur Theorie und Philosophie der Geschichte, Vol. 4 of Werke, 8 vols. Stuttgart: Koehler, 19571979. Collected essays and reviews, including discussions of Heussi and Troeltsch, and additional materials concerning the theme of his own book.

Hofer, Walther. Geschichtschreibung und Weltanschauung. Munich: Oldenbourg, 1950. A study of Meinecke's thought, with special reference to historicism.

Rothacker, Erich. "Historismus." Schmollers Jahrbuch 62 (1938): 388399. A noted theorist of the Geisteswissenschaften offers an interpretation of the characteristic nature of historicism. Rothacker's "Das Wort 'Historismus,'" Zeitschrift für Deutsche Wortforschung 16 (1960): 36, is a criticism of those who failed to trace early uses of the term.

Mandelbaum, Maurice. The Problem of Historical Knowledge. New York: Liveright, 1938. A brief discussion of historicism is included.

Hayek, F. A. "Scientism and the Study of Society: The Historicism of the Scientistic Approach." In The Counter-revolution of Science. Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1952, Part I, Ch. 7. First published in Economica 10 (1943): 5063. The above study first appeared as a whole in Economica 9 (1942), 10 (1943), 11 (1944).

Popper, Karl R. The Poverty of Historicism. Boston: Beacon Press, 1957. First published in Economica 11 (1944), 12 (1945). (For remarks on its earlier composition, see Popper's "Historical Note" prefixed to the printed volume.) The exposition and attack upon historicism are intimately connected with Popper's theories concerning methodology in the social sciences. With respect to all of these topics, see also Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies (London: Routledge, 1945).

Engel-Janosi, Friedrich. "The Growth of German Historicism." Johns Hopkins University Studies in History and Political Science, series 62 (1944), no. 2. Offers a brief survey of a number of leading German-speaking historians, emphasizing the historicist elements in their work.

White, Morton G. "The Attack on Historical Method." Journal of Philosophy 42 (1945): 314331. A reply to some aspects of the attack on historicism.

White, Morton G. Social Thought in America: The Revolt against Formalism. New York: Viking, 1949. Includes a characterization of historicism and an estimate of its role in the thought of selected social theorists.

Lee, Dwight E., and Robert N. Beck. "The Meaning of 'Historicism.'" American Historical Review 59 (19531954): 568577. A compilation and critical classification of the various ways in which the term "historicism" has been used; it proposes a pair of definitions to cover the most widely established usages.

Antoni, Carlo. Lo storicismo. Rome, 1957. Adds some information to that supplied by Heussi on the early uses of the term; offers a brief survey of the development of historicism (in its broadest sense) from the eighteenth century to Croce.

White, Hayden V. "On History and Historicisms." In From History to Sociology, by Carlo Antoni; English translation by Hayden V. White. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1959. The translator's introduction is a brief, useful historical sketch of types of historicism.

Rand, Calvin G. "Two Meanings of Historicism in the Writings of Dilthey, Troeltsch, and Meinecke." Journal of the History of Ideas 25 (1964): 503518. A further attempt to elucidate the varied meanings of the term.

Maurice Mandelbaum (1967)


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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


views updated May 23 2018

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)


views updated Jun 11 2018


A tendency to accord a primacy to history in the explanation of facts, akin to the tendencies of logicism and scientism to give primacy to logic and science respectively. First used in 1879 to describe the thought of Giambattista vico (Cecil Currie), the term is currently used in two senses.

In the first sense, historicism may be defined as a pre-occupation with the individual, unique, ascertainable historical situation, without any attempt to judge the situation by any epistemological or theological presuppositions. Facts are considered in their multiplicity and totality, not as amenable to systematic interpretation, but as expressive of the endless variety of historical forms in constant transformation. All individual historical manifestations are in Leopold von ranke's phrase "immediate to God." Thought structures, institutions, and cultures themselves are to be judged, not in terms of an evolving meaningful plan of universal validity, but solely in terms of their relativistic value to a given time and place. Historicism in this sense is opposed in theory to any of the classical philosophies of history that would try to discern intelligible patterns in the historical process as a whole.

As opposed to this, Maurice Mandelbaum sees historicism as a philosophical effort to explain the fact of change. He distinguishes a historicity of values, i.e., a belief that cultural values are indigenous to the age that produces them, from a historicism of knowledge, which maintains that truth and falsity must be judged with reference to the time in which they are formulated. To Martin d'arcy, on the other hand, historicism is identical with the philosophy of historyany broad interpretative effort to assemble facts into a meaningful pattern. He considers three types of historicism: the first attempts to explain history in terms of physical laws (biological or economic); the second sees history as a meaningful drama with a beginning and end created by man's own efforts; the third sees history in terms of divine Providence.

Karl R. popper is perhaps the most articulate of recent critics of historicism in this latter sense of interpretative history. He questions both the logic and methodology of a historicism that would discover a key to history through laws of historical development.

See Also: history, philosophy of; history, theology of.

Bibliography: m. h. mandelbaum, The Problem of Historical Knowledge (New York 1938). m. c. d'arcy, The Meaning and Matter of History (New York 1959). d. e. lee and r. n. beck, "The Meaning of 'Historicism'," American Historical Review 59 (195354) 568577. n. petruzzellis, Enciclopedia filosofica, 4 v. (Venice-Rome 1957) 4:9971005. a. mirgeler, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 195765) 5:393394. h. g. gadamer, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3rd ed. Tübingen 195765) 3:369371.

[r. p. mohan]


views updated May 18 2018

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.


views updated Jun 08 2018

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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