Cultural History, School of

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Cultural History, School of


a trend in art studies, primarily in literary scholarship, which arose in the mid-19th century and developed the historical-genetic approach to the study of literature and art.

Introduced in the late 18th century by J. Herder and partially employed in the biographical method, this approach was most fully developed in the works of H. Taine (France), who regarded an artistic work as the expression of a people’s social psychology at a certain stage of its development. “The arts arise and disap-pear simultaneously with the trends in thought and customs with which they are linked” (Filosofiia iskusstva, Moscow, 1933, p. 6). The characteristic features of these trends, moreover, depend on three basic conditions: race (the innate national temperament), environment (nature, climate, social circumstances), and the given historical moment (including traditions).

The fundamental positions of the school of cultural history were developed and applied in the works of J. Bédier, F. Brunetière, and G. Lanson (France), G. Brandes (Denmark), W. Scherer and H. Hettner (Germany), Menéndez y Pelayo and Menendez Pidal (Spain), and P. P. Pekarskii, A. N. Pypin, and N. S. Tikhonravov (Russia).

Establishment of a dependence of artistic development on the stages of social development allowed the exponents of the school of cultural history to write histories of national literatures (Taine, Lanson) and European literature (Brandes). These historico-literary works facilitated the emergence of comparative literary scholarship. The school, in its general theoretical predilection for historicism and its avoidance of aesthetic dogmatism (”it does not impose rules, but rather ascertains principles,” ibid., p. 8), played a notable role in the development of scientific literary scholarship. But by interpreting art as a product of social development and likening it to other forms of social thought, the school of cultural history relegated to the background the unique qualities of art—the universality of ideas, the individuality of the artist’s perception of the world, and unconstrained imagination.

The methodological possibilities of the school of cultural history were limited by the influence of positivist philosophy. Many scholars, notably Lanson and Pypin, refused to seek the dominant factor in the genesis of a work, holding all factors to be equally significant. The accumulation of facts rather than development of integrated concepts became their main task. They often regarded a work merely as a historical document, as a source for studying the psychology and material culture of a people.

Marxist scholars recognize the indisputable achievement of the school of cultural history in the accumulation of an enormous amount of historical-cultural material, in the development of principles of textual analysis, and in laying the foundation for the scientific study of sources.


Cultural History, School of


in ethnology, an antievolutionary trend in bourgeois science, based on the theory of cultural circles (Kulturkreise).

The methodological principles of this theory were set forth by the German ethnologist F. Graebner in his Method of Ethnology (1911) and derived from the idealistic conception of the neo-Kantian H. Rickert, according to whom there are no laws of history and historical phenomena are individual and nonrecurring. In Graebner’s view, every cultural phenomenon occurs once and in one place, and its presence among various peoples is explained by diffusion from an original center.

The works of the exponents of the school of cultural history devote primary attention to the study of the spatial distribution of cultural phenomena. In a particular area a distinctive combination of elements of material and spiritual culture appears, forming a “cultural circle.” The entire history of culture is reduced to the diffusion and stratification of several cultural circles, apart from particular peoples, the creators of culture.

A variant of the school of cultural history is the Vienna Catholic school, headed by the Austrian priests W. Schmidt and W. Koppers. The theory of cultural circles has been applied to archaeological materials by the Austrian archaeologist O. Menghin.


Levin, M. G., and S. A. Tokarev. “Kul’turno-istoricheskaia shkola’ na novom etape.” Sovetskaia etnografiia, 1953, vol. 4.
Tokarev, S. A. “Venskaia shkola etnografii.” Vestnik istorii material’noi kul’tury, 1958, no. 3.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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