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The Errors Of Historicism

In theology the errors of historicism were equally offensive. In the prewar years, religious controversies raged around the various forms of "modernism," which had been denounced in Pope Pius IX's "Syllabus of Errors" of 1864, accompanied by a whole list of other secularizing "-isms." Positivism, psychologism, and historicism all posed threats not only to traditional moral values but also to the validity of both reason and revelation. The historicizing of Christianity was the avowed aim of the historical school of religion (religionsgeschichtliche Schule) headed by Weber's friend Ernst Troeltsch, whose classic work, Die Soziallehren der christlichen Kitchen und Gruppen (1912; The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches), marked the intersection of the socioeconomic and theological problematics of historicism; and it, too, was carried on with heavy anxiety about questions of traditional norms and the elimination of metaphysical and metahistorical absolutes.

Philosophers had worried about the threat of history since the later eighteenth century, and their anxieties resurfaced in the early twentieth century as a "crisis of historicism." In 1910 Edmund Husserl denounced historicism as the enemy of "philosophy as a rigorous science." Martin Heidegger, following Friedrich Nietzsche's famous critique of "the use and abuse of history," contrasted it with true historicity (Geschichtlichkeit) grounded in contemporary existence. Like Braniss, Troeltsch opposed "historicism" to "naturalism" and traced this war of methods back to the seventeenth century with special reference to Vico's attack on Cartesianism; and he celebrated historicism for removing the "dead hand" of dogma while at the same time fearing the threat it posed to philosophical and moral tradition. Following Troeltsch, Karl Heussi distinguished between "history for the sake of history" (l'histoire pour l'histoire), relativism, radical evolutionism, and speculative philosophy of history, and analyzed them all under the rubric "the crisis of historicism."

Historicism represented a problem for all the human sciences and, for Karl Mannheim, a complete Weltanschauung beyond the level of conscious reflection or ideology, so that history itself was caught in its net. It served the modern dynamic world as "timeless reason" had served a more static world. As a counterpart to the older faith in reason, now itself historicized, historicism also needed to be the object of critical theory. Yet it was not absolute but only bound to assumptions of spatial, temporal, and material conditions that had undercut universalist conceptions. The virtue of historicism for Mannheim was that it set dynamism at the center of its conceptualizations instead of relativizing it as in "the old static system," and so made it "the Archimedean lever" for the modern worldview and life experience, that is, made it in effect the condition of human, historical, and indeed philosophical understanding.

Croce, following Vico and Hegel, thought that the Germans had not pushed historicism far enough. He rejected the claims of modern social science, such as those of Max Weber and Émile Durkheim, to universal status, regarding them all as open to contingency and subject to historical conditions. So were human values, and Croce had no fear that relativism was a major threat, since for him historicism was "a logical principle …, the very category of logic." In Germany historicism was the reigning condition of contemporary thought and life—and according to Croce's famous aphorism, "every true history is contemporary history." Indeed philosophy itself was "absolute historicism," so that historicism was not the source of the intellectual crisis of the twentieth century but rather its potential solution. Croce's views and prejudices were carried over into the Anglophone world by R. G. Collingwood, who translated his work and followed his interpretation of historiographical tradition and who turned back to the classical view of history as a form of "inquiry" into human behavior, proceeding through the interpretation of evidence and aiming ultimately at "human self-knowledge."

The best known interpretation was Friedrich Meinecke's Die Entstehung des Historismus (1936; Historicism: The Rise of a New Historical Outlook), which offered a comprehensive map of European historical thought since the seventeenth century and gave systematic form to the Rankean principles of individuality and development. He granted a place for cultural history—as in Vico, Voltaire, Wallace K. Ferguson, Johann Joachim Winckelmann, and Johann Gottfried von Herder—and indeed he ended with a detailed assessment of Goethe, "Herder's pupil," down to the breakthrough of the fundamental ideas, though not to its "full evolution." Yet he also includes the arch-naturalist Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz in his curious canon and so tends to overlook the linguistic and literary—and indeed in many ways antiphilosophical—orientation of historicism as it emerged in the age of Romanticism, neglecting the contributions of the historical schools (Reinhold Niebuhr, J. G. Eichhorn, Friedrich von Savigny, Jakob Grimm, Wilhelm Roscher, et al.) and the scholarly tradition as a whole. By reducing historicism to a philosophical doctrine, Meinecke violates the original impulse; for in general historicism is not a concept but an attitude, not a theory but a scholarly practice, not a system of explanation but a mode of interpretation; and it was part of an effort not to make history into a philosophical doctrine but rather to transform it into a foundational discipline to which philosophy itself would be subject. In this sense historicism penetrated even into Russia.

The later semantic history of historicism has become increasingly muddled because of misappropriations of the word for philosophical or ideological but quite un-or even antihistorical purposes, beginning with Karl Popper's Poverty of Historicism (1957), which identifies historicism with naive biological determinism (precisely the opposite of the view of Braniss) and a total innocence of history, experience, and even common sense. Another instance is the book of Maurice Mandelbaum, who writes in History, Man, and Reason, "Historicism is a belief that an adequate understanding of the nature of any phenomenon and an adequate assessment of its value are to be gained through considering it in terms of the place which it occupied and the role which it played within a process of development," and Michael Gillespie, who thinks historians go "critically astray" in tracing the source of historicism to the attitudes associated with historical scholarship, especially that of early modern Europe. On the contrary, historicism was and is an alternative to conventional philosophy and scientific naturalism, and it flourished in the rich soil of literary and antiquarian learning and the teachings of the historical schools. In fact historicism is positioned in opposition to the scientisms that evade questions of point of view, perspective, cultural context, and the necessity of interpretation in posing questions about a past that is not only a "foreign country" but also largely inaccessible except through traces and testimonies that happen to have survived and that must be expressed in the language and conditions of the present—a present that is itself on its way soon to becoming a past.

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