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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC126-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2021
Retrieved May 07, 2021, from

Article Summary

The term ‘historicism’ has a range of different meanings. It is often used in a broad sense to refer to any theory or approach that characterises human culture, or belief- and value-systems, in historical terms. Accordingly, a vast range of philosophical projects that emphasise historicity and that rely on historical methods have been labelled historicist, including, for example, those of Friedrich Nietzsche, Wilhelm Dilthey, Benedetto Croce, Robin Collingwood, and Michel Foucault. Historicism is sometimes understood more narrowly to refer to historical accounts that reject the idea of linear historical progress and stress that there is a diversity of historical cultures that cannot be measured by the same standard. Historicism in this sense is often associated with historical relativism, the view that epistemic or moral judgments are true or false only relative to a particular historical context (e.g. Bambach, 1995; Iggers, 1983; Wittkau, 1992). Sometimes, a further ingredient of the view is taken to consist in the idea that the historical disciplines do not aspire to general knowledge, but rather seek to capture the unique, unrepeatable, and individual character of historical phenomena. A quite different understanding of the term singles out theories of historical development that aim to uncover the laws of history in order to predict the future. Historicism in this sense comes in naturalist and anti-naturalist forms, depending on whether the laws of history are modelled on natural laws (Popper, 1957). Yet another use is as a concept in intellectual history. Here, historicism refers to a specifically German tradition or movement that emerged in the late eighteenth century and extended throughout the nineteenth. Depending on how the story is told, this movement emerged in response and opposition to the universalism of the Enlightenment natural law tradition (Iggers, 1983), or with the goal of justifying history as an empirical discipline capable of objective knowledge (Beiser, 2011; Jaeger and Rüsen, 1992).

Many of the meanings and connotations that the concept of historicism carries today go back to late nineteenth century. The term historicism had earlier been used sporadically and in reference to specific philosophies like Winckelmann’s or Hegel’s. In the late nineteenth century, it took on a more precise meaning, initially a pejorative one, as it was taken up in debates about the relation between philosophy and the historical disciplines. The central protagonists in this debate are Wilhelm Dilthey on the one hand, and his critics, who accused him of historicism, on the other – Wilhelm Windelband, Heinrich Rickert, and Edmund Husserl.

The debate between Dilthey and his critics extended to three interrelated problems. First, the question of historical method and what distinguishes the historical disciplines from the natural sciences. Second, the question of how philosophical method relates to historical method. And third, the question as to whether philosophy is a science, or the expression of world-views. For the Baden neo-Kantians Windelband and Rickert, historicism consists in the reduction of normative philosophical questions to matters of empirical, historical fact. Historicism is akin to psychologism, and both are seen to lead to relativism and scepticism (Windelband [1883] 1924; Rickert [1905] 1907). Husserl later criticises historicism along analogous lines and finds in Dilthey’s philosophy of world-views a paradigmatic example of the view (Husserl [1911] 1965). This entry focuses on how the concept of historicism was first forged in the debate between Dilthey and the neo-Kantians, and how it was later taken up by Husserl.

Citing this article:
Kinzel, Katherina. Historicism, 2021, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC126-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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