Historicism refers to philosophical theories that include one or both of two claims:
The theological use of the word denotes the interpretation of biblical prophecy as being related to church history.
The term has developed different and divergent, though loosely related, meanings. Elements of historicism appear in the writings of the philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, influential in 19th-century Europe, as well as in those of Karl Marx, whom he influenced. The term is also associated with the empirical social sciences and the work of Franz Boas.
Hegel's position is perhaps best illuminated when contrasted against the atomistic and reductionist view of human societies and social activities self-defining on an ad hoc basis through the sum of dozens of interactions. Yet another contrasting model is the persistent metaphor of a social contract. Hegel sees the relationship between individuals and societies as organic, not atomic: even their social discourse is mediated by language, and language is rooted in etymology and unique character. It thus preserves the culture of the past in thousands of half-forgotten frozen metaphors. To understand why a person is the way he is, you must put that person in a society: and to understand that society, you must understand its history, and the forces that shaped it. The Zeitgeist, the "Spirit of the Age," is the concrete embodiment of the most important factors that are acting in human history at any given time. This contrasts with teleological theories of activity, which suppose that the end is the determining factor of activity, as well as those who believe in a tabula rasa, or blank slate, view, where individuals are defined by their interactions.
These ideas can be taken in several directions. The Right Hegelians, working from Hegel's opinions about the organicism and historically determined nature of human societies, took Hegel's historicism as a justification of the unique destiny of national groups and the importance of stability and institutions. Hegel's conception of human societies as entities greater than the individuals who constitute them influenced nineteenth century romantic nationalism and its twentieth century excesses. The Young Hegelians, by contrast, took Hegel's thoughts on societies shaped by the forces of social conflict for a doctrine of progress, and attempted to chart a course that would manipulate these forces to lead to various improved outcomes. Karl Marx's doctrine of "historical inevitabilities" and historical materialism is one of the more influential reactions to this side of Hegel's thought. Significantly, Karl Marx's theory of alienation comes full circle to the thought of the Hegelian right, arguing among other things that capitalism disrupts the rooted nature of traditional relationships between workers and their work.
Hegelian historicism is related to his ideas on the means by which human societies progress, specifically the dialectic and his conception of logic as reflecting the inner essential nature of reality. Hegel attributes the change to the "modern" need to interact with the world, whereas ancient philosophers were self-contained, and medieval philosophers were monks. In his History of Philosophy Hegel writes:
In modern times things are very different; now we no longer see philosophic individuals who constitute a class by themselves. With the present day all difference has disappeared; philosophers are not monks, for we find them generally in connection with the world, participating with others in some common work or calling. They live, not independently, but in the relation of citizens, or they occupy public offices and take part in the life of the state. Certainly they may be private persons, but if so, their position as such does not in any way isolate them from their other relationship. They are involved in present conditions, in the world and its work and progress. Thus their philosophy is only by the way, a sort of luxury and superfluity. This difference is really to be found in the manner in which outward conditions have taken shape after the building up of the inward world of religion. In modern times, namely, on account of the reconciliation of the worldly principle with itself, the external world is at rest, is brought into order — worldly relationships, conditions, modes of life, have become constituted and organized in a manner which is conformable to nature and rational. We see a universal, comprehensible connection, and with that individuality likewise attains another character and nature, for it is no longer the plastic individuality of the ancients. This connection is of such power that every individuality is under its dominion, and yet at the same time can construct for itself an inward world.
This view that entanglement in society creates an indissoluble bond with expression, would be an influential question in philosophy going forward, namely, the requirements for individuality. It would be taken up by Nietzsche, John Dewey and Michel Foucault directly, as well as in the work of numerous artists and authors. There have been various responses to Hegel's challenge. The Romantic period focused on the ability of individual genius to transcend time and place, and use the materials from their heritage to fashion works which were beyond determination. The modern would advance versions of John Locke's infinite malleability of the human animal. Post-structuralism would argue that since history is not present, but only the image of history, that while an individual era or power structure might focus on a particular history, that the contradictions within the story would hinder the very purposes that the history was constructed to advance.
Within anthropology and other sciences which study the past, historicism has a different meaning. It is associated with the work of Franz Boas. His theory took the diffusionist concept that there were a few "cradles of civilization" which grew outwards in circles, and merged it with the idea that societies would adapt to their circumstances, which is called historical particularism. The school of historicism grew up in response to unilinear theories that social development reflected adaptive fitness, and therefore existed on a spectrum. While these theories were espoused by Charles Darwin and many of his students, historicism was neither anti-selection, nor anti-evolution. However, it attacked the notion that there was one normative spectrum of development, instead focusing on how local conditions would create adaptations to the local environment. What was adaptive for one region might not be so for another. This conclusion has likewise been adopted by modern forms of biological evolutionary theory.
The primary method of historicism was empirical, namely that there were so many requisite inputs into a society or event, that only by focusing on the data available could a theory of the source be determined. In this view, grand theories are unprovable, and instead intensive field work would determine the most likely explanation and history of a culture, and hence it is named Historicism. Boas would later teach at Columbia University and this would produce a school of thought based on his ideas.
This view would produce a wide range of definition of what, exactly, constituted culture and history, but in each case the only means of explaining it was in terms of the historical particulars of the culture itself.
Since the 1950s, when Lacan and Foucault argued that each epoch has its own knowledge system, which individuals are inexorably entangled with, many post-structuralists have used historicism to describe the view that all questions must be settled within the cultural and social context in which they are raised, answers cannot be found by appeal to an external truth, but only within the confines of the norms and forms that phrase the question. This version of historicism holds that there are only the raw texts, markings and artifacts that exist in the present, and the conventions used to decode them. This school of thought sometimes goes by the name of New Historicism.
The same label, new historicism is also employed for a school of literary scholarship which interprets a poem, drama, etc. as an expression of or reaction to the power-structures of the surrounding society. Stephen Greenblatt is an example of this school.
Within the context of 20th century philosophy, the conflict over whether ahistorical and immanent methodologies were sufficient to understand meaning — that is to say, "what you see is what you get" positivism — or whether context, background and culture are important beyond the mere need to decode words, phrases and references. While post-structural historicism is relativist in its orientation, that is, it sees each culture as its own frame of reference, a large number of thinkers have embraced the need for historical context, not because culture is self-referential, but because there is no more compressed means of conveying all of the relevant information except through history. This view is often seen as being rooted in the work of Benedetto Croce. Recent historians in this tradition include Thomas Kuhn.
In Christianity, the term historicism refers to the confessional Protestant form of prophetical interpretation which holds that the fulfillment of biblical prophecy has taken place throughout history and continues to take place today; as opposed to other methods which limit the time-frame of prophecy-fulfillment to the past or to the future. The historicist method is what led reformers throughout Europe to declare that the Pope was the man of sin sitting on the seven hills of Rome. Examples of famous Christians and Protestant denominations declaring the pope to be the antichrist include the Waldensians, Albigenses, Lollards, Lutherans, Calvinists, Hussians, and a host of individuals, including the father of the modern English Bible William Tyndale and even articles of faith such as the Westminster Confession of Faith. See #External links below.
In The Open Society and Its Enemies, Popper attacks "historicism" and its proponents, among whom (as well as Hegel) he identifies and singles out Plato and Marx — calling them all "enemies of the open society". The objection he makes is that historicist positions, by claiming that there is an inevitable and deterministic pattern to history, abrogate the democratic responsibility of each one of us to make our own free contributions to the evolution of society, and hence lead to totalitarianism.
Another of his targets is what he calls "moral historicism", the attempt to infer moral values from the course of history. This may take the form of conservatism (former might is right), positivism (might is right) or futurism (coming might is right). Futurism must be distinguished from prophecies that the right will prevail: these attempt to infer history from ethics, rather than ethics from history, and are therefore historicism in the normal sense rather than moral historicism.
He also attacks what he calls "Historism", which he regards as distinct from historicism. By historism, he means the tendency to regard every argument or idea as completely accounted for by its historical context, as opposed to assessing it by its merits. In Popperian terms, the "New Historicism" is an example of historism rather than of historicism proper.