essays

Jun 1, 1982

Historicism & the History of Ideas

“Study of the past is valuable only insofar as it casts light on present problems and needs.”

Joseph V. Femia
University of Liverpool

“An Historicist Critique of ‘Revisionist’ Methods for Studying the History of Ideas.” History and Theory 20, no. 2 (1981): 113–134.

What are the correct procedures to adopt to arrive at an understanding of a past work of philosophy or political thought? During the past decade, a “revisionist school” within the field of intellectual history—whose nucleus includes Quentin Skinner, J.G.A. Pocock, and John Dunn—have attacked traditional approaches to the history of ideas, decrying a “lack of historicity in the treatment of linguistic artifacts” (writings) from the past. In particular, this revisionist school excoriates the prevalent notion that “the whole point of studying ‘great’ works of philosophy is to extract the ‘timeless elements’ or ‘dateless ideas’ with universal (and therefore contemporary) application.

The revisionists argue that in order to understand a historical text, we must recover the historical context and particularity of the author’s intended meaning. They claim that in the sphere of political-social reality, thought has (1) no universal truth, (2) no independence of its cultural-linguistic context, (3) no significance for the present, (4) and no meaning beyond its author’s intentions. Although this ‘intentional’ approach is a variant of classic historicism, it goes far beyond this type of historicism. A study of Antonio Gramsci’s historicism shows that only the first claim is entailed by historicism or justifiable in its own terms. The revisionists’ program would prevent us from understanding our own political ideas as they are founded upon our philosophical traditions.

Professor Femia challenges the revisionists’ critique and methodology from Gramsci’s “absolute historicism” perspective. Concentrating on an analysis of Skinner’s famous article, “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas” (History and Theory 8 (1969): 3–53), Femia dissects the fallacies which he discerns in the revisionist approach to the history of ideas. Following Gramsci, he argues that: (1) ideas may enshrine much that is of permanent value, even though they are themselves untrue or obsolete; (2) thinkers do indeed work within intellectual traditions, which, to some extent, transcend particular historical-linguistic contexts; (3) all history is “contemporary history,” dictated by the interests of the historian; study of the past is valuable only insofar as it casts light on present problems and needs; and (4) it is neither necessary nor desirable, from historicist perspective, to understand a body of thought purely or even primarily in terms of the author’s conscious designs.

The author presents an analysis of historicism from Vico through Dilthey and the nineteenth century to Gramsci and contemporary writers, and places Skinner in an “extreme variant” of this tradition, since Skinner sees all statements as inescapably bound up in their unique historical-linguist context which they cannot transcend without anachronism. Past ideas cannot, in effect, transcend translation into the language of disparate cultures. But if history is a series of disconnected events, what is history? The revisionists’ error derives from a positivist theory of knowledge which rests on a complete disjunction of subject and knowledge, as if facts impinge upon passive consciousness which has no activity of its own.