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  Historicism (from German Historismus), in history and political science, is a controversial and ambiguous concept with at least three distinct meanings.

(1) Historicism initially described a philosophical approach to history, originating in Germany, which assumed that all historical events are unique, unrepeatable and ungoverned by any general laws of nature. This historicism was a reaction against positivism as it came to be applied to the study of history towards the end of the 19th century. Contrary to the positivist doctrine that all human behaviour was explicable and law-like, historicists argued that the attempt to depict the ‘reality’ of a given historical period based on the analysis of surviving evidence or contemporary ideas is a dangerous simplification. Historicists like Wilhelm Dilthey asserted that each epoch should only be interpreted within its own ideas, values and context rather than those of contemporary analysts. Critics have wondered whether this injunction is feasible or coherent. In the study of political thought such historicism has led analysts to reject the idea that the ‘classics’ contain general, universal or timeless arguments or hypotheses. Instead they decode or ‘read’ such books as conversations between contemporaries. In effect, such historicists reject the social sciences in favour of hermeneutics and literary criticism.

(2) The second, and very different, conception of historicism is that of a negative common trait allegedly shared by a series of 19th- and 20th-century thinkers (such as Hegel, Comte, Marx and Spengler). Historicists are accused of believing in ‘historical laws of necessity’, and that they could predict the future course of events on the basis of a ‘science of history’. Following World War II philosophers like Raymond Aron, Karl Popper and Hannah Arendt argued that attempts to define general laws of historical development are merely ruses, components of ideologies which justify forms of totalitarian domination. Popper was the most famous critic of ‘historicisms’. He argued that the ideologies which underpinned fascism and Marxism falsely claimed to possess general knowledge of the laws of historical processes and of the future—an argument which he refuted particularly on the grounds that historicists could not predict the content or course of future acquisitions of knowledge, although he deployed other refutations as well. Popper also maintained that historicist determinism simultaneously suggests the impotence of politics or of human agency while providing cover for Utopian and totalitarian government. Popper\'s criticisms of historicism are devastating but are arguably indiscriminate. In particular, his treatment of Hegel—who actually shared Popper\'s view that ‘historicist knowledge of the future’ was not possible—has been condemned as unfair.

(3) A third conception of historicism, of more recent vintage, is that criticized by the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser. It has curious but imprecise affinities with the other two meanings of historicism. Althusser asserted that historical materialism was not an historicism. He meant that Marxism was not teleological, that is, he did not believe that history was inexorably working towards a given end or goal. Moreover, unlike Hegel, he argued that Marx regarded history as ‘a process without a subject’ and did not consider each historical epoch as an ‘expressive totality’, in which each social practice (economic, cultural, political and theoretical) is an expression of a single essence. Althusser\'s description of historicism came very close to Popper\'s, and his description of what historical materialism is not looked suspiciously like what its exponents and critics had always assumed it was.

Recent neo-Hegelian philosophies of history, like that proposed by Francis Fukuyama (see below), declare that history is at an end, that is, has culminated in liberal democratic capitalism, have been seen as new historicisms by their critics.

The term Historicism is an important concept in the graphic arts, design and architecture. In art criticism, the term has two diametrically opposite meanings. The original use of the term defines a given historical epoch as unique and unrepeatable, and, therefore, only to be understood through its own concerns. In opposition to this Popper used the word to mean the application of quasi-scientific world-views, such as Marxism, to historical development with the aim of not only of explaining the past, but also offering a perspective on the present and a blueprint for the future. A new approach called ‘New Historicism’ has been recently developed, rejecting both these positions to focus on the ‘intertextuality’ of historical artefacts (the way guild practice, for example, may ‘refer’ to medieval panel painting and vice versa).

In architecture, historicism refers to styles which draw inspiration and vocabulary from a past period; it is the opposite particularly of Modernism, which refers to a style of building free of such reference. The late-19th-century German word which it derives from, Historismus, was a derogatory term used to describe what was felt to be the overemphasis then given to history, and was later used to describe the philosophy of history associated with Hegel. In more recent usage it refers most often to respect for the past and the deliberate revival of past styles, treated almost as a matter of social and moral responsibility. A characteristic example is the Gothic Revival and its associations with medieval Christianity and religious piety, where the association with what was imagined as a former stable Christian Society acted as a powerful metaphor for contemporary societies. In this century, which has been mostly characterized by attempts to move away from dependence on the historicist ‘approach’, the period after World War II and the debates surrounding the reconstruction of cities mostly destroyed in the war, such as Warsaw, brought further prominence to the issue of the need for historical continuity and imitative reconstruction.

Applied to design, historicism describes the practice of selecting the ideas and styles of past periods of visual culture. Borrowing from the past has long been accepted as a legitimate creative activity—for example, Roman sculptors borrowed from the Greek tradition, while the Renaissance painter Raphael quoted from Roman wall paintings. During the last 150 years, however, historicism has come to represent an important design debate. In the 19th century, historicism was a central and legitimate area for the designer. There were simply hundreds of books reproducing the ornaments of many different cultures, ranging from Aztec to Indian and they were intended to provide the designer and the manufacturer with a diversity of source material with which to decorate their products. However, in the 20th century the Modern movement took a very different view of using the past. They wanted to create a new language of design and for the Modernist any form of historical borrowing was a crime. This puritanical position was not effectively challenged until the 1960s when pop designers freely explored the past. With the advent of postmodernism historicism offered a freedom of selection and choice of imagery that was irresistible to contemporary designers. Borrowing from the past is now an integral part of contemporary visual culture, and once again historicism is a respectable area of creativity. PD MG CMcD JM BO\'L

See also classicism; determinism; parody; Romanticism.Further reading Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man; , N. Pevsner, An Outline of European Architecture (chapter 8); , Karl Popper, The Poverty of Historicism.



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