Sep 1, 1980

The Decline of Historicism

“Gruner points instead to the concept of individuality as the element most essential to the historist movement.”

“Historism: Its Rise and Decline.” Clio 8(Fall 1977): 25–39.

Historism (or historicism), whose origins are commonly traced back to the end of the eighteenth century, has been credited with the formation of modern “historical consciousness.” According to this view, the cultural environment in which we live and move makes historists of us all—whether we are aware of it or not. In view of this reputed influence, Prof. Gruner endeavors to isolate those elements which comprise the historist point of view and attempts to ascertain what it has in fact contributed to modern historical perception.

Gruner begins by dismissing two common characterizations of historism as “process thinking” and “a historically oriented world view.” These descriptions are far too sweeping and highlight traits which are not at all unique to historism. Gruner points instead to the concept of individuality as the element most essential to the historist movement.

Historism arose as a reaction to an Enlightenment historiography in which past events and historical periods were viewed almost exclusively as stepping stones to the Age of Reason. The eighteenth century was thus enthroned as the goal and climax of all previous history. Historism, by contrast, considered the phenomena of history as “individual totalities” which cannot be explained by the sum of their parts nor by factors outside themselves. It was not, therefore, by chance that Meinecke chose Goethe’s dictum Individuum est ineffabile as the motto of his work on the origins of historism. Burckhardt’s Civilization of the Renaissance, a classic historist treatment of an individual period of history, provides a majestic and insightful account of the Renaissance without considering how it had developed out of other periods or how it fitted into the larger context of Western civilization.

In historism process is not eliminated from consideration but, from this perspective, it arises organically out of the category of individuality. Thus, individuality is no longer subservient to a developmental flow.

By emphasizing the irreductible nature of the individuum, historism gave rise to a relativist spirit in historical scholarship. For example, under its influence, historians reacted strongly against the notion of an essential human nature which endures through time and circumstance. The maxim “Man has no nature but only history” summarizes the historists’ resolve to prejudge nothing and to deal with each datum in its own terms. This design admits of only partial achievement, however, since every evaluation involves an inevitable (though perhaps tacit) comparison with other “individualities”. Historists dealt with this undeniable tension in their position by a resolute commitment to an openness to experience.

Considering modern historiography, Prof. Gruner finds that the influence of historism has almost vanished. Contemporary historians do not attribute much importance to the notion of individuality. They are rather intent on establishing theories of development—a task in which independent individual totalities have little place.

In the final analysis, the interest of modern historians is a practical one. They esteem knowledge, including historical knowledge, first and foremost as a means to improve the human state—not as an end in itself. In this, Gruner finds that they are much more in tune with the general tenor of modern thinking than the followers of historism. In contrast to Meinecke, therefore, Gruner regards historism as a passing episode in the evolution of historiography rather than as the great shaper of modern consciousness.