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What is "Historicism" ? (Meaning, Variants & Crticism)

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Jul 16, 2022 , Updated: Jul 16, 2022 · 2 min read

"Historism" is a philosophical and historiographical theory, founded in 19th-century Germany and especially influential in 19th and 20th century Europe.

In those times there was not a single natural, humanistic or philosophical science that would not reflect, in one way or another, the historical type of thought.

Historicism is an approach to explain the existence of social and cultural practices (including ideas and beliefs), by studying their history, that is, by studying the process by which they came about.

Historicism challenged a progressive view of history that interpreted history as a linear, uniform process that operated according to universal laws, a view widely held by thinkers since the Enlightenment.

Historicism also often challenged the concept of truth and the notion of rationality of modernity.

Historicism questioned this notion of rationality and truth, and argued for the historical context of knowledge and reason.

Notable exponents of historism were primarily the "German 19th-century historians" - "Leopold von Ranke" and "Johann Gustav Droysen", 20th-century historian "Friedrich Meinecke", and the philosopher "Wilhelm Dilthey".

Dilthey was influenced by Ranke.

The jurists "Friedrich Carl von Savigny" and "Karl Friedrich Eichhorn" were strongly influenced by the ideas of historism and founded the German Historical School of Law.

The Italian philosopher, anti-fascist and historian "Benedetto Croce and his British colleague "Robin George Collingwood" were important European exponents of historism in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Collingwood was influenced by Dilthey.

Ranke's arguments can be viewed as an antidote to the lawlike and quantitative approaches common in sociology and most other social sciences.

The principle of historism has a universal methodological significance in Marxism


Because of the power held on the social sciences by logical positivism, historism or historicism is deemed unpopular.

"Karl Popper" was one of the most distinguished critics of historicism.

The term historicism is used in his influential books "The Poverty of Historicism" and "The Open Society and Its Enemies".

Popper condemned historicism along with the "determinism" and "holism" which he argued formed its basis.

In The Open Society and Its Enemies, Popper attacks "historicism" and its proponents, among whom (as well as Hegel) he identifies and singles out Plato and Marx—calling them all "enemies of the open society".

The objection he makes is that historicist positions, by claiming that there is an inevitable and deterministic pattern to history, abrogate the democratic responsibility of each one of us to make our own free contributions to the evolution of society, and hence lead to totalitarianism.

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