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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S028-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 16, 2024, from

Article Summary

Historicism, defined as ‘the affirmation that life and reality are history alone’ by Benedetto Croce (1938: 65), is understood to mean various traditions of historiographical thinking which developed in the nineteenth century, predominantly in Germany. Historicism is an insistence on the historicity of all knowledge and cognition, and on the radical segregation of human from natural history. It is intended as a critique of the normative, allegedly anti-historical, epistemologies of Enlightenment thought, expressly that of Kant. The most significant theorists and historians commonly associated with historicism are Leopold von Ranke, Wilhelm Dilthey, J.G. Droysen, Friedrich Meinecke, Croce and R.G. Collingwood.

The main antecedents for the development of historicism are to be found in two key bodies of work. J.G. Herder’s Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man (1784) argues against the construction of history as linear progress, stating rather that human history is composed of fundamentally incomparable national cultures or totalities. G.W.F. Hegel’s The Philosophy of History (1826) insists on the historical situatedness of each individual consciousness as a particular moment within the total progression of all history towards a final goal. The shifting fusion of these ideas provides the foundation for both the strengths and the problems of historicism. Historicism follows both Herder, in attempting to do justice to objective history in its discontinuity and uniqueness, and Hegel, in attempting to determine general patterns of historical change. Indeed, historicism can perhaps be best termed a Hegelian philosophy of history without an all-encompassing notion of progress.

Rather than constituting a unified intellectual movement, historicism is best known for its elusiveness. Its multifarious quality can be inferred from the variety of critical positions taken up against it. Influential critiques of historicism have been written by Friedrich Nietzsche, Friedrich Rickert, Ernst Troeltsch, Walter Benjamin, Karl Löwith and Karl Popper. Critical engagement with historicism has focused on its alleged relativism, its alleged particularism, its alleged claims to totality, its alleged subjectivism and its alleged objectivism. More positive debates with historicism have significantly influenced the thought of Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl and Hans-Georg Gadamer.

Citing this article:
Thornhill, Christopher. Historicism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S028-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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