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Introduction | Types of Historicism
Introduction Back to Top

Historicism (also known as Historism) holds that there is an organic succession of developments, and that local conditions and peculiarities influence the results in a decisive way. It can be contrasted with Reductionism or Atomism, which both hold that all developments can be explained by fundamental principles on an ad hoc basis. Historicism recognizes the historical character of all human existence, but views history not as an integrated system but as a scene in which a diversity of human wills express themselves. It holds that all historical knowledge is relative to the standpoint of the historian.

By the middle of the 19th Century, the term "historismus" (from which Historicism comes) was well established in Germany, where much of the early development of the doctrine occurred in the 18th and 19th Century. As early as 1797, Friedrich Schlegel (1772 - 1829) mentions Historicism as a “kind of philosophy” which places the main stress on history. However, it was mainly used as a pejorative term until the 20th Century.

The Austrian-British philosopher Karl Popper (1902 - 1994) has objected to Historicism on the grounds that it leads to an inevitable and deterministic pattern to history, and therefore abrogates the democratic responsibility of each one of us to make our own free contributions to the evolution of society, and hence leads to Totalitarianism.

Types of Historicism Back to Top

The term "historicism" is used in several different fields of study (including philosophy, anthropology, and theology) to indicate some widely differing lines of thought:

  • Hegelian Historicism is the position, adopted by G. W. F. Hegel, that all human societies (and all human activities such as science, art or philosophy) are defined by their history, and that their essence can be sought only through understanding that. He further argued that the history of any such human endeavor not only builds upon, but also reacts against, what has gone before (a position he developed from his famous dialectic teachings of thesis, antithesis and synthesis). According to Hegel, to understand why a person is the way he is, you must put that person in a society; and to understand that society, you must understand its history, and the forces that shaped it. He is famously quoted as claiming that "Philosophy is the history of philosophy".
    Right Hegelians or Old Hegelians took Hegel's conception of human societies as entities greater than the individuals who constitute them to influence 19th Century romantic nationalism and its 20th Century excesses. The Young Hegelians, by contrast, took Hegel's thoughts on societies shaped by the forces of social conflict for a doctrine of progress, and Karl Marx's theory of "historical inevitabilities" was influenced by this line of thought.

  • Biblical Historicism is a Protestant theological belief that the fulfillment of biblical prophecy has taken place throughout history and continues to take place today (as opposed to other beliefs which limit the time-frame of prophecy fulfillment to the past, or to the future).

  • Anthropological Historicism is associated with the empirical social sciences and particularly with the work of the German-American anthropologist Franz Boas (1858 - 1942). It combines diffusionism (the idea that all of culture and civilization was developed only once in ancient Egypt and then diffused throughout the rest of the world through migration and colonization) with historical particularism (the idea that one has to carry out detailed regional studies of individual cultures to discover the distribution of culture traits, and to understand the individual processes of culture change at work).

  • New Historicism is the name given to a movement which holds that each epoch has its own knowledge system, with which individuals are inexorably entangled. Given that, post-structuralists then argue that all questions must be settled within the cultural and social context in which they are raised, and that answers cannot be found by appeal to some external truth.

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