Conceptualising historicism

Conceptualising historicism


his article is meant for the reflection of young scholars aspiring to excel in humanities and social sciences with the expectation that they will discuss the theme of historicism and form an independent opinion about it. Historicism is an approach that explains social and cultural phenomena by studying their origin and historical evolution. It is widely used in philosophy, anthropology and sociology.

Unlike functionalism, which explains phenomena based on their societal function, historicism asks where and how the phenomena originated. It emphasises the importance of process and contingency. Historicism contrasts with individualist theories like strict empiricism and de-contextualised rationalism, as it acknowledges the role of tradition. Moreover, historicism differs from reductionist theories and those suggesting that historical changes occur randomly.

The term historicism was coined by Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel. It has evolved diverse meanings over time. As a concept, it originated in the writings of Michel de Montaigne and Giambattista Vico, further developed by Friedrich Hegel and Karl Marx. It’s also linked with empirical social sciences and Franz Boas’s work.

Historicism emphasises cautious, rigorous and contextual interpretation, often seen as hermeneutic or relativist, rejecting universal interpretations. Building on EH Gombrich’s work, art historian David Summers defines historicism negatively. He describes it as the belief in formulatable laws of history and the predictability of historical outcomes. This view suggests that history is a predetermined matrix where events are placed by historians. Summers criticises historicism for making the end of history seem visible, leading to the justification of excluding certain groups from history’s narrative. He argues that this has contributed to the creation of harmful myths in modern times.

Hegel believed that the realisation of human freedom was the ultimate goal of history, achievable through the creation of an ideal state. Progress towards this state unfolds through a dialectical process, where the tension between humanity’s purpose (freedom) and its current condition prompts efforts to align the two.

This journey is essentially one of self-discovery, as humans may not always grasp the goal of history. Hegel attributed this progress to the “spirit,” an abstract force shaped by human activity. While often seen as metaphysical, Hegel clarified that it arises from finite agents. His historicism posits that societies and human endeavours, like science and philosophy, are shaped by their histories.

Understanding this history is crucial for grasping their essence. Hegel’s dialectical teaching, summarised as “thesis, antithesis and synthesis,” illustrates how each stage of history reacts to and builds upon the previous. He famously stated, “Philosophy is the history of philosophy,” encapsulating his view succinctly.

Hegel’s perspective diverges from atomistic and reductionist views of society, emphasising an organic relationship between individuals and their societies. He sees social discourse as rooted in language, preserving cultural heritage through metaphors. Understanding individuals requires examining them within their societal context, which necessitates understanding its history and influencing forces. Hegel’s ideas have been interpreted differently: the Right Hegelians saw them as justifying national destiny and stability, influencing romantic nationalism.

The Young Hegelians viewed society as evolving through conflict, seeking social progress. Karl Marx’s theory, influenced byHegel, emphasised historical inevitabilities and materialism, particularly critiquing capitalism’s impact on worker relationships.

Hegel’s historicism is tied to his views on societal progress, notably through the dialectic and his understanding of logic reflecting reality’s essential nature. He contrasts modern philosophers, integrated into worldly pursuits, with ancient thinkers who were self-contained and medieval ones who were often monks.

In his History of Philosophy, Hegel observes that in his contemporary times, philosophers engage in common work or civic life, reflecting a shift towards reconciliation with the world. This modern (his contemporary) era sees external stability and organised societal structures, altering the nature of individuality. Despite this, individuals can still cultivate their inner worlds amidst these societal changes.

The notion that societal involvement shapes individual expression has been a pivotal question in philosophy, explored by Nietzsche, John Dewey, Michel Foucault and others. Responses to Hegel’s challenge vary: Romanticism highlighted individual genius transcending limitations, while modernity adopted versions of Locke’s view on human malleability. Post-structuralism contends that historical narratives, though constructed to advance specific agendas, are hindered by internal contradictions, challenging their intended purposes.

In anthropology and related sciences, historicism takes on a different meaning. Father of American anthropology Franz Boas introduced historical particularism, merging diffusionist concepts with societal adaptation theories. This school arose in response to uni-linear theories of social development, challenging the idea of a normative spectrum. Julian Steward further argued for adaptive cultural evolution tailored to local environments. This empirical approach prioritises fieldwork over grand theories, focusing on historical specifics to understand cultures and histories.

Since the 1950s, thinkers like Jacques Lacan and Michel Foucault have argued that every era has its own knowledge system, shaping individuals’ perspectives. Post-structuralists use historicism to emphasise that answers to questions are framed within cultural and social contexts, not by external truths. New historicism sees only present texts and conventions as relevant, while a literary interpretation focuses on the works as responses to power structures.

Debates in 20th Century philosophy questioned whether historical context is essential beyond decoding language, with some embracing it for conveying relevant information efficiently. Benedetto Croce’s influence is evident, with intellectuals like Thomas Kuhn following this tradition.

Modern scholarship on Karl Marx’s social theory presents an ambiguous view regarding historicism. Critics like Karl Popper have branded Marx’s theory as historicist from its inception, sparking debates among Marxists themselves. Marx, in his Theses on Feuerbach, critiques the materialist doctrine for overlooking the role of human agency in changing circumstances.

Western Marxists like Karl Korsch, Antonio Gramsci and Georg Lukacs highlight Marx’s indebtedness to Hegel, viewing Marxism as historically relativist. They see Marxist ideas as products of the historical epochs, emphasising class consciousness within historical processes. However, structural Marxist Louis Althusser disagrees, arguing that Marxism is an objective science independent of societal and class interests.

Karl Popper, in his influential works The Poverty of Historicism and The Open Society and Its Enemies, criticises historicism as an approach to the social sciences that prioritises historical prediction and believes that it can be achieved by uncovering underlying historical patterns or laws. He condemns historicism, along with its basis in determinism and holism, warning against its potential to foster dogmatic, ideology-driven beliefs not based on falsifiable facts. Popper particularly targets Plato, Hegel and Marx as proponents of historicism, arguing that their views undermine individual responsibility and lead to totalitarianism by suggesting an inevitable pattern to history. He also critiques “moral historicism,” which seeks to derive moral values from history, and “historism,” which he distinguishes from historicism as the tendency to explain every argument solely by its historical context rather than assessing it on its merits.

Leo Strauss criticised historicism as the greatest threat to intellectual freedom because it denies addressing pure injustice, dismissing concepts like “natural right.” He argued that historicism undermines political philosophy by rejecting questions of permanent significance and positing that all human thought rests on unverifiable premises that change with historical epochs.

Strauss singled out RG Collingwood as a key advocate of historicism. He warned against historicist social scientists for failing to address real-life issues like tyranny, as they subjectivise ethical problems based solely on socio-material conditions.

In his works Natural Right and History and On Tyranny, Strauss critiques historicism in Hegel, Marx and Heidegger. He suggests that it can also be found in Burke, Tocqueville, Augustine and Mill. While that is disputed, Strauss suggested that historicism arose against Christianity and threatens civic participation, human agency, religious pluralism and understanding of classical philosophers.

He cautioned that historicism leads to tyranny, totalitarianism and extremism, linking it to Nazism and Communism in his exchange with Alexandre Kojève. Strauss warned that Islam, traditional Judaism and ancient Greece were susceptible to historicism and tyranny due to their focus on sacred law. He drew on Nietzsche’s critique of progress and historicism, though he labeled Nietzsche a “radical historicist” justifying historicism philosophically. Despite this criticism, a historian can hardly shun historicism altogether as context is extremely important for the narration of any event. Thus, questioning its indispensability may render the task of a historian difficult if not impossible.

The writer is professor in the Faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse

National University, Lahore

Conceptualising historicism