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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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The Development of Historicism as an Intellectual
Historicism as an intellectual movement
arose in the eighteenth century in a concrete institu-
tional and intellectual setting. A prerequisite of histor-
icism as described above is a sense of history, an
awareness that the past is fundamentally different from
the present. This awareness seems to have been absent
in medieval and in non-Western culture, even in an-
cient China which possesses a long tradition of histori-
cal writing, and to have existed only in a very limited
sense in classical antiquity (Burke, 1969). A sense of
history is, however, not quite identical with an histori-
cist attitude. A new critical approach to historical
evidence began to emerge during the Renaissance. The
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which were
considered “unhistorical” by their romantic critics, had
in fact already become periods of intense historical
interest and scholarship. But neither the antiquarian
interest of the seventeenth-century erudites nor the
philosophic concerns of the great eighteenth-century
historians, such as Montesquieu, Voltaire, Gibbon,
Schlözer, were historicist. The former, such as Jean
Mabillon, were most concerned with establishing the
authenticity of texts, the latter with asking questions
of history which sought to establish typical or recurrent
normal human phenomena in diverse human societies.
Historicism was concerned with the comprehension of
the past in its uniqueness and rejected the attempts
by the philosophic historians to measure the past by
the norms of the Enlightenment.

The nineteenth century saw a remarkable develop-
ment of critical historical study in France, Great
Britain, and elsewhere. The study of politics became
an historical discipline in Western Europe as well as
in Germany. Not only Edmund Burke, in his critique
of the French Revolution, but also other, explicitly
liberal and democratic, thinkers increasingly based
their arguments on history rather than on abstract
conceptions of political justice. Yet for historians such
as Guizot, Macaulay, or Michelet the historical devel-
opment of their own country embodied values of gen-
eral human concern. They thus maintained the En-
lightenment belief that institutions must be judged by
standards of a common human rationality although
they believed that these norms must be apprehended
through historical study. The more narrow historicism
which predominated in Germany stressed that every
institution and idea was an inseparable part of a
specific, integrated national culture and was therefore
incapable of being transplanted. This form of histori-
cism reflected circumstances of which some were
unique to Germany, such as the political division of
the country, the uneven and belated development of
modern economic institutions after the sixteenth cen-
tury, and, as Troeltsch suggested (in his Social Teach-
1931), the unique intellectual and religious herit-
age of Lutheran Germany with its stress on individual
culture (Bildung) and its de-emphasis of political lib-
erty. While not in itself a political ideology, historicism
from the beginning had implications for politics.
Historicist arguments were used in the eighteenth cen-
tury to defend local institutions against the encroach-
ment of the modern, centralized bureaucratic state, and
used in the nineteenth century against the extension
of Western European models of parliamentary govern-
ment and democracy to Germany. During World War
I, Troeltsch and others saw in the historicist outlook
the roots of the basic distinction between the German
and the Western European conceptions of freedom
(Deutscher Geist und Westeuropa).

Two early formulations of historicist ideas were
contained in Giambattista Vico's Scienza nuova (1725)
and Johann Gottfried Herder's Auch eine Philosophie
der Geschichte
(“Also a Philosophy of History,” 1774).
Vico suggested that the history of man was to be
distinguished from the history of nature by the fact
that man makes his history but does not make nature,
and that the study of history dealing with human
volitions and actions thus requires different methods
from those of the study of nature concerned with the
insensible motion of bodies. But Vico was relatively


little known or understood outside of Italy until
Michelet translated the Scienza nuova into French in
1827. Herder in his philosophy of history presented
the first extensive formulation of historicist principles,
and rejected the Enlightenment conception of a uni-
linear development of human civilization. Mankind
was indeed one but, he maintained, this mankind can
only be understood in its historical manifestations in
diverse national cultures. Religion, philosophy, science,
and art thus do not exist in any absolute sense; there
are only the religions, philosophies, sciences, and arts
of specific cultures at specific stages in their develop-
ment. All cultures, Herder held, European and non-
European, primitive and civilized are thus equally
worthy of study, in a sense the primitive more so
insofar as they are closer to the original genius of a
people. Any attempts to use abstract tools of analysis
to understand national cultures were mechanistic and
unhistorical. History as life can only be grasped
through empathy (Mitfühlen).

The first two significant historical works which
reflect an historicist spirit are probably Justus Möser's
History of Osnabrück (1768) and Johann Joachim
Winkelmann's History of the Art of Antiquity (1764).

Möser sought to study the “liberties” or privileges
of the Osnabrück patriciate as interwoven with the
peculiar history of Osnabrück within the peculiar his-
tory of the Holy Roman Empire. Winckelmann, while
sharing the Renaissance reverence for Greek art as the
most sublime aesthetic expression attained by man and
hence a part of the common heritage of man, never-
theless recognized that the art of the Greeks was
inimitable because it was interwoven with a total cul-
ture which occupied a unique point in history and was
incapable of being recreated. For him the spirit of
Greek culture could be understood only by immersion
into the primary evidence, in this case the remnants
of Greek works of art, which reflected this spirit.

Winckelmann's approach foreshadowed the critical
philological method which emerged among German
classicists and Biblicists in the late eighteenth century
and which laid the foundation for the critical historical
method of nineteenth-century historical scholarship
(Niebuhr, Ranke). This method has often been confused
with the critical examination of evidence. The criteria
for such examination had already been systematically
formulated by Jean Mabillon in 1681 in his De re
For F. A. Wolf, in his Prolegomena to
(1795), scholarship did not end with the critical
analysis of documents but proceeded to view these
documents in their historical context. Greek philology
for him concerned itself with the totality of Greek life
as reflected in the remnants of the Greek past, particu-
larly its literature. Immersed in his evidence, the
scholar then by inference and intuition had to proceed
to the comprehension of the spirit of the culture in
which the evidence originated. The documents thus
had a very different meaning for Niebuhr and Ranke
and the scholarship which followed them than for
Mabillon or the erudites. The critical use of the docu-
ments required more than the establishment of a cor-
rect and authentic text, although the latter was the
prerequisite of all scholarship. To be understood the
documents had to be examined within the historical
and cultural framework of the age and nation of which
they formed a part.

In the early nineteenth century almost all social and
humanistic studies in Germany were placed on histori-
cist foundations. Historical study replaced systematic
analysis. The Historical School of law (Savigny, Eich-
horn) opposed any codification of the law and held that
law is an expression of the spirit of a people, develops
with it, and that jurisprudence is therefore not con-
cerned with the formulation or critique of law on
rational foundations but with the study of the positive
law of concrete historical societies. The new science
of linguistics (Bopp, Lachmann, the Grimms) neglected
structural considerations for studies of the evolution
of specific languages and language families within
specific national cultures. The new Historical School
of economics (Roscher, Knies, Schmoller) rejected the
conception of classical political economy that abstract,
quantifiable laws govern the economy, and viewed
economic behavior as deeply influenced by non-
economic considerations, including political ones,
which reflect the ethos of a people. All these disciplines
thus replaced a theoretical approach by a preeminently
descriptive one.

The theoretical foundations upon which the new
methodologies rested were well formulated by Leopold
von Ranke (1795-1886). Ranke insisted on a history
based on a rigorous examination of primary evidence.
Yet his prescription that the historian not judge the
past but merely describe it wie es eigentlich gewesen
has often been misunderstood as an exhortation to
factualism. The term eigentlich as understood by Ranke
should not be translated as “actually,” as it often has
been, but as “really,” “properly,” or “essentially,” so
that it becomes the task of the historian not merely
to narrate the events of the past as they occurred but
to go beyond these events to the reconstruction of the
past “as it essentially was.” Far from calling on the
historian to restrict himself to the bare factual account,
Ranke called upon him “to rise... from the investi-
gation and contemplation of the particular to a general
view of events and to the recognition of their objec-
tively existing relatedness” (Ranke, p. 23). In the last
analysis, all history was therefore to be world history.


For Ranke, history alone, not abstract philosophy,
could provide a guide to the ultimate questions of
human concern. Ranke's optimism regarding the phil-
osophic function of history rested on certain meta-
physical assumptions which Wilhelm von Humboldt
had already formulated in the famous essay “On The
Historian's Task” (1821), asserting that “every human
individuality is an idea rooted in actuality” (p. 21). For
Humboldt, as for Ranke, nations and states possessed
the characteristics of individuality, and to an even
higher degree than persons. The study of the particular
thus made it possible for the historian to attain the
general. The task of the historian, Humboldt had writ-
ten in words similar to those used four years later by
Ranke, is “to present what actually happened.” But,
he continued, “an event is only partially visible in the
world of the senses; the rest has to be added by intui-
tion, inference, and guesswork” (p. 5). Ranke similarly
maintained that “history can never have the unity of
a philosophical system” but is not “without inner con-
nection”; still this connection—Ranke spoke of
“tendencies” in history and the “leading ideas” of an
age—“cannot be defined or put in abstract terms but
one can behold them and observe them” (Ranke, pp.
57, 55, 100). Thus despite Ranke's rejection of factual-
ism he restricted critical scholarly study to the estab-
lishment of concrete reality. The understanding of
social movements as well as of social norms was thus
left to intuition and inference governed by no logic
of inquiry. To the detached observer, the forces at work
in history would reveal themselves. No theory was
necessary. Theory indeed distorted. What was needed
was total immersion in the facts.

Ranke and much of German scholarship in the histor-
icist tradition drew certain consequences for politics
and ethics from the above assumptions. Ranke was
undoubtedly right in seeing the state itself as a product
of historical forces, and not (as had the rationalists)
as an unhistorical mechanism standing apart from the
popular culture. But this did not justify Ranke's asser-
tion that states were integrated personalities towering
above the conflicting interests of society. Such a con-
ception of the state in fact separated the state from
the total historical development. It viewed the primary
activity of the state as the extension of its power. In
practice it led to a narrowing of historical perspective
from the broad cultural and comparative concern of
the philosophic historians of the eighteenth century to
a narrow emphasis on national history and international
relations. History became a narrative centering largely
on the acts of a small number of statesmen as recon-
structed from official documents. Such a history was
necessarily a truncated one. That the recognition that
each age must be viewed through its own values could
be reconciled with a broader cultural approach was
demonstrated by Ranke's Swiss disciple, Jakob Burck-
hardt. Burckhardt escaped an event-oriented, narrative
approach and sought to reconstruct the spirit and the
structure of an age. But the scope of his cultural history
was also focused on an aristocratic elite and separated
the culture of this elite from the broader social frame-
work within which it existed.

The Rankean school prided itself on its objectivity.
Ranke rightly insisted that the historian not project his
own value conceptions into his historical subjects but
seek to understand his subjects as they understood
themselves. But he uncritically assumed that the per-
sons and institutions found in history represented posi-
tive values. Ranke demanded impartiality on the part
of the historian because he firmly believed that “moral
energies” or “spiritual substances” manifested them-
selves in history to the detached observer. All states,
he maintained, represented “thoughts of God” (Ranke,
pp. 117, 119). At this point the profound difference
between the historicism of Ranke, including the Histor-
ical School, and that of Hegel becomes apparent. The
core of Hegel's philosophy was that all existence as
well as logic itself was immersed in historical change
but that history itself was a rational process. For Hegel,
as for Ranke, the state was an expression of spirituality;
but for Hegel the spirituality of the state rested on
its rational structure and the course of history itself
was the test of its rationality. For Ranke the test of
its spirituality and the justification of its power-political
striving was its uniqueness which defied all rational
inquiry or judgment. As the young Marx, steeped in
Hegel, suggested in 1842, the Historical School of law
in holding with Ranke that historical institutions, no
matter how oppressive must be accepted uncritically
as they manifest themselves in history, in fact, sought
to prove that “what is positive is not rational,” that
“the pimple is as positive as the skin” (Writings of the
Young Marx,
pp. 98, 99). Ranke uncritically assumed
that all power rests on spiritual foundations, that the
state in extending its military power strengthens the
foundations of freedom and culture. Nevertheless, such
a view introduced metaphysical assumptions as well
as an ideological bias into historical writing. It subor-
dinated all considerations of domestic policy and social
concern to the strivings of the established political
order to maintain its power.

Within Germany, the historicist outlook was firmly
established in the social and cultural sciences until the
late nineteenth century. As scholarship became in-
creasingly professionalized and university-centered also
outside of Germany, historicist assumptions and
methods entered scholarly practice there too. In prac-
tice the broad historical perspective of Herder gave


way in the course of the nineteenth century to a paro-
chial, nationalistic, and event-oriented history, leading
often to pedantic factualism and narrow specialization.
The “crisis of historicism” came in two stages: first,
before World War I as a result of the decline of idealis-
tic assumptions upon which this scholarship rested and
the inability of this scholarship to deal adequately with
the complex processes of a technological, mass society;
but, secondly, only after World War I in the face of
the German national defeat. For historicism despite its
explicit rejection of the idea of progress had been
deeply optimistic about the course of history. The deep
currents of pessimism in European philosophy and
literature at the turn of the century found few echoes
in historicist scholarship. Classical historicism had,
however, assumed the soundness of the social, eco-
nomic, and political order of pre-1914 Germany. The
political, social, and cultural dislocations which fol-
lowed Germany's defeat in World War I thus dra-
matically intensified the “crisis of historicism.”

The extensive Neo-Kantian philosophic discussion of
the nature of historical knowledge (Wilhelm Dilthey,
Wilhelm Windelband, Heinrich Rickert) before World
War I has too often been misunderstood outside of
Germany as an expression of the “crisis of historicism”
and disillusionment with German historical traditions.
This was not the case. In part, this literature was
directed at the attempts of Karl Lamprecht to intro-
duce generalizations and social analysis into historical
writing. It represented for the most part a reiteration
of the faith—expressed by Ranke, J. G. Droysen, and
others earlier in the century—in the autonomy of
historical knowledge and, in Dilthey's case, an attempt
to develop further a logic of historical inquiry in the
sense of classical historicism. The vehemence with
which German historians, including Meinecke, com-
batted Lamprecht was related to the fact that they
believed they saw in Lamprecht's work not only a
challenge to German idealistic notions but also a threat
to German political traditions.

Yet only after World War I did the recognition of
the historicity of all human life and thought lead to
a radical skepticism regarding the possibility of objec-
tive historical knowledge and the meaning of the his-
torical process. Troeltsch had in 1902 recognized that
once the theological presuppositions of historicism
were abandoned the idea of a unified human history
would become untenable. The logical conclusion,
which Troeltsch recognized but was unwilling to ac-
cept, was that there is no history but only histories
and that we can only know the history of our culture.
Moreover, whatever is historical is also relative, for
historical and relative are identical (Troeltsch [1902],
pp. 48-49). Hence Christianity loses its claim to be
the absolute religion and Western Civilization its claim
to being the one civilization. This thesis was, of course,
close to anticipating Oswald Spengler's position in the
Decline of the West (1918). Carried even further the
recognition of the historicity of all knowledge led to
the recognition that there is no objective historical
cognition but that all historical knowledge is relative
to the standpoint of the historian. The crisis of histori-
cism, as understood by Troeltsch in Der Historismus
und seine Probleme
(1922), derived from the fact that
in the course of the nineteenth century all ideas and
ideals had come to be viewed in their historical setting
with the result that all stable norms had been de-
stroyed. History, Troeltsch reiterated, leads to relativ-
ism. For a host of German thinkers of the 1920's, the
study of history also reveals the absurdity of history
and the irrationality of the traditional humanistic
values of the West.

Nevertheless within the academic intellectual com-
munity in Germany and in Italy the attempt was made
to overcome the dilemmas of historicism within the
framework of an historicist outlook and thus to save
not only the idealistic heritage of the nineteenth cen-
tury but also the political and social values of the
German and Italian educated bourgeoisie which had
been a part of this heritage. Convinced that the prob-
lems of historicism could be overcome only through
the study of history, Troeltsch argued that a critical
selection of the ideas and values of Western Civili-
zation could yet create a cultural synthesis meaningful
to modern man.

Meinecke, who earlier, in Weltbürgertum und
(“Cosmopolitanism and the National
State,” 1908), had maintained that political values were
also to be found in history and that German political
development in the nineteenth century represented the
highest symbiosis of culture and power, now after
World War I recognized the irrationality of power. But
if historicist concepts were no longer applicable to
political history, they were relevant to intellectual and
cultural history, the realms which ultimately mattered.
In its highest formulations, in Goethe and Ranke,
historicism succeeded in overcoming historical relativ-
ism, in discovering the elements of transcendent truth
contained in “historical life in its temporal, individual
form” (Meinecke, p. 221).

Benedetto Croce's “absolute historicism” repre-
sented a third attempt to overcome historical relativity
through history. More radically than Troeltsch or
Meinecke, Croce stressed that all “history is contem-
porary history” reflecting the interests and perspectives
of the present. In the final analysis “history is princi-
pally an act of thought” (Croce [1921], p. 19). In a
very similar manner Collingwood argued that written


history is the reenactment of past thought in the mind
of the historian (Collingwood, p. 282). What preserved
Croce, as it did Collingwood who proceeded along
similar lines, from the radical subjectivism implicit in
the German historicist concept of Verstehen was the
belief that thought itself had a rational structure and
that “historicism is a logical principle” (Croce [1955],
p. 74). Yet in identifying history with thought, Croce
and Collingwood assumed that history consisted of the
conscious acts of men. Such a history was unable to
take into account those factors, subconscious or collec-
tive, which did not enter directly into the awareness
of the agents of history. Croce then, in fact, wrote
history which in the idealistic manner of classical
historicism understood politics largely as a function of
ideas abstracted from their broader social context.