What Is Historicalism?

Historicalism is somewhat obscure as a term, but one does occasionally come across it in philosophy, especially when discussing theories of history and its nature. What is called 19th-century historicalism is, often, actually a brand of positivism applied to the study of history. Informed by historicalism, historical practices during the nineteenth century were clearly political, serving what could be seen as a progressive, humanistic, social philosophy. According to historian Hayden White, the nineteenth century represented the golden age of historicalism, in which the sciences of the humanities, from the arts to philosophy, combined in seeking to understand how societies, and individuals within them, changed over time.

For historian Hayden White, the effect of the old historicalism was political; nineteenth-century historicalists, including philosophers, historians, and novelists, spread the historicist consciousness which nineteenth-century historicalists hoped would bring about social progress. Most historicalists were not positivists–they did not believe, as did Karl Marx, that history could be understood as mechanism, that it was subjected to deterministic laws, or that reason might raise itself by its own bootstraps (to quote Hayek) in order to gain extra-historical perspectives–and certainly were not socialists, for historicalism began as a conservative political doctrine. Although such theories were held by Charles Darwin and many of his students, historicalism was not anti-selection, nor was it anti-evolution. The perspective was resurrected in the late 18th century and early 19th century by Johann Herder, G. W. F. Hegel, and Leopold von Ranke, became a foundation for German historical scholarship for centuries, even sometimes producing philosophers like Wilhelm Dilthey and Karl Marx.

A main strain within historicalism was that which Karl Popper and Friedrich Hayek attacked in their anti-historicist works in the 1940s and 50s. In The Open Society and its Enemies, Austrian/English philosopher Karl Popper attacked historicism and its supporters, including, along with Hegel, identifying and singling out Plato and Marx–calling its supporters the enemies of the open society. The objection made by The Austrian/English philosopher Karl Popper is that historicalist positions, in asserting there is an unavoidable, deterministic model to history, abrogate the democratic duty of each one of us to contribute freely of our own to society’s evolution, and thus leads to totalitarianism.

Another target of Karl Poppers is what he calls moral historicism, an attempt to deduce moral values from the flow of history; that, to use Hegels phrase, history is a worldwide court of justice. Hegelian historicalism is related to Hegels ideas about the means of progress of human societies, particularly the dialectic, and to his concept of logic as reflecting an intrinsically substantive character of reality. Hegelian historicism also suggests that every human society, and every human endeavor, such as science, art, or philosophy, is defined by its history.

In plain terms, Hegels historicalism gives us the idea that the history of humanity is the driving force which sets it on its own trajectory. In New Historicism, there is no such thing as a universal human essence (which is Universal Reason in Hegel, and Economic Determinism in Marx) which guides the historical trajectory of human affairs within a society. Nor is historicalism necessarily the claim that it has discovered the final meaning of history, or to have found a single correct method of studying it, or the wish that we should understand the past as we understand ourselves, or the conviction that all perspectives are historically contingent, and thus only temporary.

Historicalism is the approach of explaining the existence of phenomena, particularly social and cultural practices (including ideas and beliefs), by studying the phenomena’s history, i.e., studying the processes through which they came into being. To understand anti-historicism and new historicism, first of all, one needs to fully understand what is meant by historicalism, of which Hegel and Marx are the most famous theorists. For many theorists, historical fiction in its classical form–as practiced by Sir Walter Scott or Alessandro Manzoni–developed during the nineteenth century to become historicalism’s most significant aesthetic component.

The main approach to historical science is epistemological, that is, that so many necessary inputs are present to society or events, that it is possible to define the source theory by only paying attention to what data is available. In his groundbreaking work The Poverty of Historicism (hereinafter, PH), Sir Karl Popper deployed a series of arguments to puncture the pretenses of those who thought that they were, or might become, the possessors of knowledge about (social) futures. There is widespread disagreement about whether Karl Poppers account of historicalism is an accurate portrait of Hegel, or rather a characterisation of his own philosophical opponents, including Marxist-Leninist ideas, which were widely considered at the time to be challenging to Western philosophical foundations, and theories like Spenglers, that drew predictions of future events from the past.

In his arguments against historicism, Popper was obviously motivated by his interest in eliminating intellectual support for such revolutionary political practices.

Crocean historicalism might in some respects which is precisely what professor David A. Roberts wants it to be–but that does not mean that, for Benedetto Croce, history is eventually reducible to simple contingent, finite conditions. Marx’s historicism is a diametrical antithesis to that of Hegel, insofar as it begins from a thesis about humankinds material experience of the world, essentially grounded in the economy, or production of material goods.

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