2 minute read


German Historicism

Giambattista Vico (1668–1744) and Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744–1803), the founders of German historicism, deepened the rebellion against monism and absolutism. These critics of the great tradition of Western philosophy rejected that tradition's key assumption that natural laws operated to maintain an independent, objective reality, knowledge of which would yield absolute, foundational truth. Attacking the Enlightenment claim that European culture best exemplified the triumph of reason and science, Vico and Herder surveyed the sweeping panorama of history and cultural variation with deep respect and tenderness. Rather than demanding conformity to some chimerical universal truth, these pluralists cherished a world made vibrant by difference. Each culture, each epoch did not represent a mistake, deviation, or lower stage of development. Like a colorful garden made up of many flowers, the plurality of cultures suggested beauty and completeness in each form, all wondrous manifestations of the creative force of humankind. Vico grounded his defense of pluralism in a rejection of the philosophes' notion that mathematical laws corresponded to those of an independent reality. Far from offering a paradigm of certainty, mathematics, for Vico, provided at best knowledge of regularity but certainly not authentic understanding of the human world. The utility of mathematics lay in its origin as a human creation, not in its presumed correspondence with reality. And humans could understand mathematics because they had created it. Vico then applied this maker's theory of knowledge to the realm of culture. We could come to understand other cultures by virtue of our shared humanity and capacities as cocreators of culture. For this to occur, however, we must abandon the fallacious doctrine of absolutism and approach other cultures on their own terms.

Herder too rejected the mechanical method of science and universalism for sympathetic understanding, which he termed Verstehen. In exercising this ability to understand others separated from us by time or cultural difference, we engage the other in a process of dialogue in an encounter between self and other. Through the use of subtlety and imaginative reconstruction, we attempt to understand the different on its own terms rather than attempting to force it into conformity with nonexistent laws. For Herder then, authentic progress consisted not in uniformity but in the acknowledgment that "not a man, not a country, not a people, not a natural history, not a state are like one another. Hence the True, the Good, the Beautiful in man are not similar either" (Berlin, p. 210). Thus by Herder's lights, "It is terrible arrogance to affirm that, to be happy, everyone should become European" (Berlin, pp. 210, 197). For these defenders of difference, the flowering of spontaneous, natural forms of human self-expression by men and women in cultural groups united by a common language and worldview provided humankind with a flesh-and-blood alternative to the abstract, lifeless citizen of the Enlightenment.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Planck mass to PositPluralism - Philosophical Pluralism, Aristotle, German Historicism, Pragmatism, Cultural Pluralism, Political Pluralism, Conclusion