Historicism is a theory of discerning the past truth from the study of history with man at the pivot. It was applied by 18th-century philosophers of Enlightenment and gained momentum since then, with the insistence that history is knowledge. It is the implication of the knowledge of history in explaining, besides history, a vast range of traditional subjects, like theology, philosophy, art, and literature. Historicism is a sort of tag attached to different disciplines, meaning things in the said discipline can be explained and understood by the knowledge of history. Previously, it was believed that such knowledge is apocalyptic. In history, it is applicable to Darwinian interpretation of social evolution and Marxist interpretation of dialectic materialism.
Broadly, the theory of historicism means that man may learn from history something the great religions believed that they learned from revelation. The application and value of history increased a hundredfold by this theory. As such, this is a theory of historical inevitability, a sort of historical determinism. It is the science of answering questions through historical records and repudiates the early belief of God guiding the steps of human beings (apocalypse). On the contrary, it theorized the materialistic view of the universe, insisting that man himself made certain laws through experiments and systematic observations that guided his steps, giving meaning to human life. Man is constantly thriving to derive and explain these laws. The scientific methodology of history as a collection of a mass of data together with constantly increasing ability to classify and analyze those data— encompassing facts related to socioeconomic changes, the beginning and growth of institutions, lands, and the people bearing upon individual and mass psychology—have made the task easy.
The historians have discovered uniform tendencies governing movements of religious enthusiasms. They are the same for the rise of Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. Also, the same is applicable for the rise of nationalism in Europe, America, and Asia. This implies that there are certain laws through which historical events occur and can be explained.
Historicism derives its roots from the law of change, which proclaims that what existed in the past would not exist today—and in the same manner, what exists today would not exist tomorrow. One should think historically about this law of change, and a historian should not accept the verdict of past authors without criticism. Historicism claims that there can be a preimagination of social future on the basis of historical understanding of the law of change. The German philosophers, however, conceived of the term historicism differently. Dilthey, being influenced by the 17th-century religious mysticism, believed in the historical concept of the solidarity of human race and its inevitable progress through an inner strength. He is the theoretician of that moderate spirituality that escaped positivism and thus, in turn, generated the so-called crisis of historicism.
For Ernest Troeltsch, historicism was the radical historicization of our knowledge and thought. All objects are determined by the past and are directed toward an unknown future; hence, state, law, art, and all others are dissolved in the stream of history intelligible to us as constituent parts of historical development. Troeltsch considered naturalism and historicism as the two great scientific creations of the modern world, conceiving them as homologous and juxtaposed. Though he was against the idea of unlimited historicism, he perceived it as an absolute universal and extrahistorical truth, which was the presupposition of any historiography (the conquest of historicism).
Friedrich Meinecke referred to historicism as the sense of the value of individual and individuality of nations that had been derived from the 18th-century European secular standpoint, from which the Germans had investigated the essence of individualism (cosmopolitanism and the national state), and traced the history of the 18th-century thought (the origin of historicism). Bendetto Croce used the term historicism to mean freedom of historical thought by rigidly defining the competence of each and showing that none had the right to usurp the place of historical thought. He insisted that historical attitude does not have to justify the object of its knowledge through other thoughts, but that historical thought stands both at the base and at the summit of all genuine truth. Hegel and Karl Marx used the term historicism to explain the historical philosophy of determinism. Hegel used it to explain “knowledge”: the concept of social science that can derive and produce knowledge from the study of past for the benefit of society. For Hegel, it was a historical philosophy of “knowledge.” M. C. D’Arcy used the word historicism as being identical with a philosophy of history.
Historicism thus became a term of multiple meanings. In the 19th and 20th centuries, it became all the more important, because as a consequence of this school of thought, people were convinced that they understood where the forces of history were leading and that they could further help and hasten the process, thus gaining a mastery over the secrets of universe. Historicism is not just knowledge, but the science of making predictions with the knowledge of history. It leads to positivism in interpretation.
With the publication of Poverty of Historicism (1957), by Karl Popper, the theory came into vogue, creating a wild storm of heated discussions in the mid-20th century. In the introduction, he described historicism as “an approach to the social science which assumes that historical predictions is its principal aim.” Popper thus made use of the term to mean a method of approach solely aiming at predicting the future course of history. It is unfortunate that he chose the term historicism to denote an intellectual frame that is only a species of the genus and may take many forms and could not understand what the German philosophers meant by it in totality.
In Poverty of Historicism, Popper discredited historicism, arguing that a constant growth of knowledge keeps influencing the human history and it is therefore impossible to anticipate the future and make predictions with any amount of certainty as in science. He gave an inventory of arguments against the scientific character and capacity of history, such as the complex nature of the subject, insufficient causal explanation, lack of quantification and experimentation, and an unavoidable selectivity of presentation. He utterly rejected the possibility of a theoretical history ruled by any laws. Furthermore, in Logic of Scientific Enquiry, he has stated that his theory of explanation in science can be generalized to include historical explanation. Historicism as used by Karl Popper is a doctrine that assimilates history to science and is also a doctrine sharply different from science: This is highly ambiguous and baffling.
- Antoni, C. (1962). From history to sociology: The transition in German historical thinking. London. Merlin Press.
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- Burston, W. H., & Thompson, D. (1967). Studies in the nature and teaching of history. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.