It has two main senses. First, that historical events must be seen in their uniqueness and can only be understood against the background of their context. In this sense it is akin to the emphasis on Verstehen in Wilhelm Dilthey’s hermeneutics.

The second sense is that of Karl Raimund Popper(1902-1994) who uses ‘historism’ for the above sense. Historicism for Popper is the view that history is governed by inexorable laws, which the historian tries to predict, and is thus assimilated to science in a way quite incompatible with any appeal to Verstehen.

Popper’s historicism (which he was concerned vigorously to oppose) also gives corporate wholes a life of their own which cannot be explained in terms of the individuals composing them.

Also see: holism

K R Popper, The Poverty of Historicism (1957)

Historicism is the idea of attributing significance to elements of space and time, such as historical period, geographical place, and local culture, in order to contextualize theories, narratives and other interpretative instruments. The term “historicism” (Historismus) was coined by German philosopher Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel.[1] Over time, what historicism is and how it is practiced have developed different and divergent meanings.[2]

Elements of historicism appear in the writings of French essayist Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) and Italian philosopher G. B. Vico (1668–1744), and became more fully developed with the dialectic of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), influential in 19th-century Europe. The writings of Karl Marx, influenced by Hegel, also include historicism. The term is also associated with the empirical social sciences and with the work of Franz Boas. Historicism tends to be hermeneutic because it values cautious, rigorous, and contextualized interpretation of information; or relativist, because it rejects notions of universal, fundamental and immutable interpretations.[3]

The historicist approach differs from individualist theories of knowledge such as empiricism and rationalism, which neglect the role of traditions. Historicism may be contrasted with reductionist theories—which assumes that all developments can be explained by fundamental principles (such as in economic determinism)—or with theories that posit that historical changes occur at random. The Austrian-English philosopher Karl Popper condemned historicism along with the determinism and holism which he argued formed its basis. In his The Poverty of Historicism, he identified historicism with the opinion that there are “inexorable laws of historical destiny”, which opinion he warned against. If this seems to contrast with what proponents of historicism argue for, in terms of contextually relative interpretation, this happens, according to Popper, only because such proponents are unaware of the type of causality they ascribe to history. Talcott Parsons criticized historicism as a case of idealistic fallacy in The Structure of Social Action (1937). Post-structuralism uses the term “New Historicism”, which has some associations with both anthropology and Hegelianism.

5 thoughts on “Historicism

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