Work in Progress: Historicism

Friday 24 September 2021

Friedrich Meinecke

This past week I started collecting definitions of “historicism.” Historicism is one of those infinitely Protean terms that have been used in countless ways, though there is an attempt to get at an elusive idea in all these diverse definitions. In other words, there is something here to be got to the bottom of, but the efforts so far have not really

Friedrich Meinecke, who wrote a large volume entirely devoted to historicism — Historism: The Rise of a New Historical Outlook — has this by way of a definition:

“The essence of historism is the substitution of a process of individualizing observation for a generalising view of human forces in history.” (pg. lv)

Here we can see the influence of the distinction between the nomothetic and the ideographic, re-cast as the historical development of the idea of history itself.

Croce, who had so much to say on history, says this about historicism in History as the Story of Liberty:

“‘Historicism’ (the science of history), scientifically speaking, is the affirmation that life and reality are history and history alone. The necessary corollary to this affirmation is the negation of the theory which holds that reality can be divided into super-history and history, into a world of ideas and values and a lower world which reflects them, or has reflected them until now in a fleeting and imperfect way, and upon which they must once and for all be imposed, so that an imperfect history, or mere history, may give way to a rational and perfect reality.”

It’s not clear to me that Croce meant by “super-history” and he does not elsewhere in the work give an account of a distinction between super-history and history, although much later in the book he dies make reference to the super-historical as being purely ideal, so Croce seems to be dismissing Platonism without naming Platonism, which the above passage also suggests, with its references to the fleeting and imperfect world.

Hans Meyerhoff in his anthology The Philosophy of History in Our Time, says of historicism:

“The basic thesis of historicism is quite simple: The subject matter of history is human life in its totality and multiplicity. It is the historian’s aim to portray the bewildering, unsystematic variety of historical forms — people, nations, cultures, customs, institutions, songs, myths, and thoughts — in their unique, living expressions and in the process of continuous growth and transformation.”

This isn’t perhaps very helpful, but later, in introducing his selection from Barraclough, Meyerhoff goes into a little more detail,

“…some of the general features of historicism such as: (1) the denial of a ‘systematic’ approach to history; (2) the repudiation of any single, unified interpretation of history; and (3) the positive assertions (a) that the basic concepts of history are change and particularity, (b) that the historian has a special way of explaining things by telling a story, and © that history is all-pervasive, that historical categories permeate all aspects of human life, including morality and philosophy.”

The idea of history being all-pervasive reflects what Croce said, but it seems to me that there is a sense that those historians and philosophers of history who are characterized as being historicists (Herder and Dilthey in particular) are acting upon an historical program that is systematic insofar as it is a program at all, and therefore should not at the same time be said to deny a systematic approach to history.

In the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on “historicism” we can find a couple of passages that can be plucked out of context and made to serve as definitions:

“Historicism is an insistence on the historicity of all knowledge and cognition, and on the radical segregation of human from natural history. It is intended as a critique of the normative, allegedly anti-historical, epistemologies of Enlightenment thought, expressly that of Kant.”


“…a radical shift away from Enlightenment understandings of history.”

The radical segregation of human from natural history once again implies the distinction between the nomothetic, believed to characterize the natural sciences, and the ideographic, believed to characterize history, but if there is to be a radical segregation of human from natural history, this means that approaches like scientific history and big history aren’t historicist, though they certainly do qualify as making history all pervasive, as in Croce and Meyerhoff.

The characterization of historicism as being a radical shift away from the Enlightenment reminded me of a passage from Mark T. Gilderhus’s History and Historians: A Historiographical Introduction, in which Gilderhus wrote:

“…much of the written history during the Enlightenment suffered from a fundamental flaw: an in- capacity to comprehend the behavior of historical actors on their own terms. The historians lacked a truly historical sense of development and context in the past. Locked into the precepts of their own time, they regarded their own values and aspirations as universal and absolute, the best toward which humankind could strive. Consequently, they tended to regard deviations in other times and other places either as aberration or folly.”

This is more-or-less the position of Collingwood, and I could look up a similar quote in Collingwood if I wanted to take the time to find it.

Perhaps the best known critic of historicism, whatever that may be, was Karl Popper in his The Poverty of Historism. Popper begins with this definition of historicism:

“I mean by ‘historicism’ 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.”

E. H. Carr in What is history? has several pages on historicism in chapter 4, “Causation in History,” where he takes on Popper as well as Isaiah Berlin and others. Carr wrote:

“…Professor Popper uses ‘historicism’ as a catch-all for any opinion about history which he dislikes, including some which seem to me sound and others which are, I suspect, held by no serious writer today.”

It would be easy to go on in this manner, as the literature on historicism is vast, and the term is used very loosely much more often than any attempt to made to define it. However, sometimes loose characterizations can be helpful. In Geoffrey Barraclough’s “The Historian in a Changing World” (included in Meyerhoff’s anthology) we find the following:

“We think of ourselves as living in a scientific age; but in a profounder sense, we live — all of us, including, from Darwin’s time, the natural scientists — in an historical age, or an age of historicism; and this is perhaps the ultimate reason and justification for concerning ourselves with history: it has become, whether we like it or not, an inseparable part of our mental processes and of our being.”

Whether or not this is a good definition of historicism (I don’t think it captures what Popper, for example, wanted to capture in order to criticize), I think this is well put and quite true.

In my reading on historicism in the past week one thing that I found repeatedly was a conflation of determinism, teleology, and inevitability. I think it would be helpful to distinguish these ideas, which are, admittedly, closely related to each other, and their meanings overlap, but they do not coincide, so that we could, if pressed, take determinism, teleology, and inevitability separately. I should also point out that these ideas are frequently conflated because they are frequently conflated in the writings of historians, who usually want to dismiss all three, which equally subject to the historian’s opprobrium.

Determinism, of course, has a great many meanings, but despite the ample philosophical literature on determinism I think there is still a gap when it comes to discussion of the relationship between the idea of determinism as it applies to the individual and determinism as it is applied to history. One might hold history to be deterministic even while allowing individuals considerable leeway, as we find in Shakespeare: “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will.”

Probably it is the implied theological determinism that we find in Shakespeare that is at the root of some of the opprobrium directed against determinism, but here we could find both practitioners and critics of historicism that would accuse the other of importing theology by way of deterministic means; determinism can serve as a kind of “soft” theology, implying that there is something more going on than meets the eye. But, again, determinism is often condemned in scientific history, which is usually understood as something like the antipodes of a providential conception of history.

Teleology is simply the idea of an end or aim. History might have an end or an aim without being deterministic, except in relation to that end. In other words, there may be many paths to that one end. Obviously, this is determinism in regard to the end, which can still be consistent with indeterminism as regards means to the end. I can easily imagine someone saying that the end is all that matters, and that, if the end is determined, what does it matter that there are many paths to the same end. I think a protest like this is based in a confusion between the individual and history. As individuals, we all must die, and so in this sense if in no other, we come to the same end. However, our lives are different, even if we all must die. Similarly, societies might come to the same end, but they are still quite different.

Part of what is going on here in relation to teleology is a failure to specify some scale of time. If we imagine all societies ultimately tending to some uniform end, which, once attained, will endure until the end of time (or, rather, until the end of that society). This is something like what John Stuart Mill called the “stationary state,” and also a little like what Nietzsche called the “Last Men,” though Nietzsche makes it sound a lot less appealing than Mill’s stationary state. But all societies, like all men, could also be said to come to the same end, which is extinction. In this sense, all societies do not converge upon a steady state that they will maintain until they fail, but they do all fail. However, much is papered over in this use of “fail.” Societies fail is all kinds of interesting ways, much as people die in different ways. If the only teleology is extinction, then the indeterministic period prior to extinction seems to me to be the bulk of a society’s history, and it really means that all societies, like all men, are individuals, and their individual histories matter.

The idea that teleology could be exhausted by the common fate of extinction is, admittedly, a very weak sense of teleology. Teleology strikes me as being most interesting, and most accurately expressive of what actually happens, when we understand it pluralistically, and we see the many teleologies simultaneously playing themselves out around us, as in Aristotelian entelechy. This we know from practical experience: some individuals have set themselves on a course of success, some on a long downhill trajectory to failure and misery. These individual teleologies of life are mirrored by the teleologies of individual societies. And, in this sense, teleology isn’t determinism at all.

Isaiah Berlin, of course, wrote an essay on “Historical Inevitability” (one his Four Essays on Liberty), in which inevitability is loosely associated with determinism and the denial of liberty. Berlin also took on the idea of laws or patterns in history, implied by Popper’s definition of historicism, and which has been a whipping boy of many historians and philosophers alike, with Spengler usually singled out as the target.

There is a lot that could be said about this essay and about inevitability. I would prefer to reserve inevitability as identifying a threshold in history beyond which some end is inevitable, but it is not inevitable that this threshold will be reached. This is related to the concepts of fate and destiny, which almost no one today wants to touch, but which I believe still have value, and still reflect something important — perhaps something central — in human experience.

The obvious overlap here with teleology is that, once a process passes a threshold in which a certain outcome is inevitable, that outcome is the teleology of the process, and that the remainder of the process is more-or-less deterministic, but these are pretty constrained conceptions of teleology and determinism, and not oppressive conceptions of fate, under which some individuals feel crushed, as many men once felt oppressed by a conception of sin. If we recognize a sense of determinism free of theology, and a pluralistic conception of teleology, we can find inevitability, determinism, and teleology pervasively present in history, but not as trans-historical forces that entail a certain outcome and rob human beings of their freedom.

Needless to say, these crude remarks on determinism, teleology, and inevitability are far short of what needs to be done to clarify these concepts, and render them useful to us, rather than serving as mere object lessons of dangerous ideas to be avoided.

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