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The Errors Of Historicism, The New Historicism, Bibliography

Historicism (German Historismus, French historisme, Italian storicismo) is a term of Romantic origins associated first with the German Historical Schools and then more generally with historical method as applied to all the arts and sciences and to human life. "Historicism" appeared first in a fragment of Novalis, who contrasted it with other methods (chemical, mathematical, artistic, etc.) and associated it with "the system of confusion." Contemporaneously Friedrich Schlegel associated Historismus with the modern science of philology. The word was occasionally used in philosophical polemics, and again the usage seems pejorative since it was opposed to academic philosophy and, especially, unhistorical Kantian idealism. Felix Dahn argued that "historicism is above all a methodological moment, not a speculative principle …; its goal is [not philosophy but] life"; Christlieb Julius Braniss opposed it to the reductionist and deterministic philosophy of naturalism; and in 1879 Karl Werner applied the phrase "philosophical historicism" to the work of Giambattista Vico, a connection later endorsed by Benedetto Croce, Friedrich Meinecke, Erich Auerbach, and others. And in 1895 Lord Acton pointed to "that influence for which the depressing names historicism and historical-mindedness have been devised"—"all things," for him, including law, theology, science, and philosophy itself.

By the later nineteenth century historicism had acquired a largely pejorative meaning because of its associations with relativism and the threats posed to the assumptions and values of philosophy, theology, and economics, which represented three of the absolutes of Western culture, namely, reason, religion, and the free market. The attack began in the newly professionalized field of economics, especially in 1883 by Karl Menger's liberal assault on "the errors of historicism," that is, the irrational methods of Gustav Schmoller and other members of the so-called younger historical school of economics. In a sense this war of methods (Methodenstreit) recapitulated the struggles between the historical and philosophical schools in the nineteenth century, but now with the weaponry of modern positivism and quantitative techniques. Liberal rejection of historicism, indeed of historical method in any sense, has persisted in many areas of social sciences, as well as in the humanities, as in Russian formalism, structural linguistics, and the New Criticism.

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