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1. the belief that natural laws govern historical events which in turn determine social and cultural phenomena
2. the doctrine that each period of history has its own beliefs and values inapplicable to any other, so that nothing can be understood independently of its historical context
3. the conduct of any enquiry in accordance with these views
4. excessive emphasis on history, historicism, past styles, etc.
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005


Purposely citing historical precedents in historic architectural styles of the past.
Illustrated Dictionary of Architecture Copyright © 2012, 2002, 1998 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. All rights reserved


  1. any approach to the understanding of history which emphasizes the uniqueness of each historical epoch, suggesting that each historical situation or period can only be understood in its own terms. Usually historical understanding and/or explanation are seen as involving only those modes of explanation particularly appropriate to social studies or the human sciences (e.g. MEANINGFUL UNDERSTANDING AND EXPLANATION, HERMENEUTICS) and not those forms of explanation (see COVERING-LAW MODEL AND DEDUCTIVE NOMOLOGICAL EXPLANATION) widely regarded as uppermost in the physical sciences. See also COLLINGWOOD, DILTHEY, GADAMER, WINDELBAND, IDIOGRAPHIC AND NOMOTHETIC, GEISTESWISSENSCHAFTEN AND NATURWISSENSCHAFTEN.
  2. Karl POPPER's extension of sense l to identify two distinct kinds of view which imply that explanation in historical and social studies is of a different order from our understanding of the physical world:
  1. non-naturalistic historicism, as in sense l , and;
  2. naturalistic historicism, in which certain theorists in philosophy and sociology (notably HEGEL, COMTE and MARX) are seen as guilty of misunderstanding and misrepresenting the true nature of scientific prediction (POPPER, 1957) in claiming to be able to predict ‘historical change’. Popper presents both forms of historicism as failing to appreciate the true character of scientific laws and theories, i.e. that scientific explanations and predictions are not ‘unlimited’, and are relative to specific ‘initial conditions’. Popper refers to historical predictions, e.g. Marx's ‘prediction’ of the collapse of CAPITALISM) as unscientific ‘prophecies’. In Popper's view, once the limited nature of scientific laws becomes appreciated arguments against the relevance of a proper use of scientific laws in historical explanations (non-naturalistic historicism) should also collapse, since reference to scientific laws need not be at odds with a recognition of the existence of elements of relative uniqueness in social situations (see also SITUATIONAL ANALYSIS AND SITUATIONAL LOGIC).
There exist some similarities (although some differences) between Popper's view and WEBER's opposition to HISTORICAL MATERIALISM and the latter's use of both meaningful explanation and IDEAL TYPES in historical sociological analysis. (Both Popper and Weber, for instance, take rational economic models as a benchmark.) Critics of Popper's view, however, accuse him of constructing a ‘straw man’ of the theorists he opposes, and point out that much of his argument relies on a prior acceptance of his disputed COVERING-LAW MODEL of science. This said, while differences in degree and perhaps kind between historical and social reality on the one hand, and physical reality on the other, are widely acknowledged in sociology and conceptions such as sense 1 above illuminate these, there is no general acceptance of the view implied in sense 1 that any simple distinction can be drawn between science and ‘nonscience’ (see also SCIENCE, SOCIOLOGY OF SCIENCE).
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a view of reality that considers it as changing over time and developing. The principle of historicism was originally advanced and developed in the philosophical systems of G. Vico, Voltaire, J. J. Rousseau, D. Diderot, J. Fichte, G. Hegel, Saint-Simon, and A. I. Herzen.

In the 18th and the first half of the 19th century historicism developed as a philosophy of history, arising in the course of a struggle against the empty empiricism of medieval historical science and against theology’s belief in the providential causation of historical events. The philosophy of history of the 18th-cen-tury Enlightenment viewed human society as a part of nature. Borrowing the concept of causality from the natural sciences, Enlightenment thinkers proposed the idea of “natural laws” of history and of the unity of the historical process (J. Herder). The French materialists developed the theory of progress as a movement from a lower to a higher stage. The representatives of German classical idealism elaborated the view that the history of society is an intrinsically lawlike, necessary process. However, their concept of historical necessity was borrowed from without, from philosophy. Hegel’s philosophy marked the highest stage in the development of pre-Marxist historicism. In the words of Engels: “He was the first to try to demonstrate that there is an evolution, an intrinsic coherence in history” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 13, p. 496). Advances in the special sciences, both the social sciences (for example, A. Bar-nave, a French historian of the Restoration period) and the natural sciences (I. Kant, C. Lyell, C. Darwin), played a very important role in establishing the principle of historicism. The idea of development as the struggle between internal contradictions was absent from historicism prior to Marx, resulting in a predominance of evolutionism.

The views in philosophy of history of neo-Kantianism (H. Rickert, W. Windelband), Croceanism (B. Croce), Lebens-philosophie (W. Dilthey), existentialism (K. Jaspers), pragmatism, neo-positivism (K. Popper), and neo-Hegelianism, as well as the theories of adherents of these conceptions in the special sciences (the “historical school” in political economy and the “positivist school” in history), essentially deny the possibility of understanding objective reality through revealing the lawlike process of its development and supplant historicism with relativism. Historicism is also interpreted in a limited way by representatives of those bourgeois conceptions of history that reduce the process of development to a succession of the same “cycles” (A. Toynbee) or to unconnected “stages of growth” (W. Ros-tow).

The principle of historicism was consistently developed by Marx, Engels, and Lenin. Expressing the essence of the Marxist view of this principle, Lenin wrote, “The most important thing is not to forget the underlying historical connection, to examine every question from the standpoint of how the given phenomenon arose inhistory and what were the principal stages in its development, and, from the standpoint of its development, to examine what it has become today” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 39, p. 67). Marxist historicism is distinguished by its applicability to all spheres of objective reality—nature, society, and thought. As Marx and Engels wrote: “We know only a single science—the science of history. One can look at history from two sides and divide it into the history of nature and the history of men. The two sides are, however, inseparable. The history of nature and the history of men are dependent on each other so long as men exist” (Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 3, p. 16, note).

The starting point of Marxist historicism is not simply the movement of the objective world or its mutability over time but its development. Thus an object must be regarded, first, in terms of its internal structure—not as a mechanical aggregate of separate elements, connections, and dependences but as the organic totality of these structural components, as an internally related and functioning entity, a system. Second, the object must be regarded from the standpoint of process—that is, as the totality of the historical connections and dependences of its internal components as they succeed each other over time. Third, it must be seen as revealing and fixing qualitative changes in its overall structure. Finally, the object must be regarded as revealing the lawlike character of its development, the laws governing the transition from one historical state of the object, characterized by one particular structure, to another historical state characterized by a different structure.

In accordance with the principle of historicism as worked out by Marxist-Leninist philosophy, the processes of development of the objective world must be viewed in the form in which they actually occurred. In other words, Marxist historicism is identical with the highest scientific objectivity, excluding the distortions of actual history permitted by bourgeois science such as rendering the present in terms of the past or viewing the past in modern terms. A phenomenon or subject may be understood and correctly evaluated only if viewed within the context of its concrete historical conditions and connections. Lenin wrote that “the entire spirit of Marxism, its entire system, requires that each tenet be examined (a) only historically, (b) only in connection with others, and (c) only in connection with the concrete experience of history” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 49, p. 329).

Contemporary science, including both natural sciences (biology) and social sciences (sociology, anthropology, linguistics, ethnology), as well as the philosophical, logical, and methodological comprehension of processes taking place in contemporary scientific knowledge, is characterized by the further development of the principle of historicism, by the rapprochement of historicism with other principles (above all, structural-functional and systems-theoretical approaches), and by the enrichment of its content with elements of these principles and methods.


Marx, K., and F. Engels. Nemetskaia ideologiia. In Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 3.
Marx, K. K kritike politicheskoi ekonomii. Ibid., vol. 13.
Engels, F. Anti-Duhring. Ibid., vol. 20.
Lenin, V. I. “Chto takoe ‘druz’ia naroda’ i kak oni voiuiut protiv sotsialdemokratov?” Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 1.
Plekhanov, G. V. “K voprosu o razvitii monisticheskogo vzgliada na istoriiu.” Izbr. filosofskie proizvedeniia, vol. 1. Moscow, 1956.
Asmus, V. F. Marks i burzhuaznyi istorizm. Moscow-Leningrad, 1933.
Grushin, B. A. Ocherki logiki istoricheskogo issledovaniia. Moscow, 1961.
Kon, I. S. Filosofskii idealizm i krizis burzhuaznoi istoricheskoi mysli. Moscow, 1959.
Stoliarov, V.I. Protsess izmeneniia i ego poznanie. Moscow, 1966.
Filosofskie problemy istoricheskoi nauki (Collection). Moscow, 1969.
Popper, K. R. The Poverty of Historicism. London, 1960.
Lipset, S., and R. Hofstadter (eds.). Sociology and History: Methods. New York, 1968.
Nisbet, R. A. Social Change and History: Aspects of the Western Theory of Development. New York, 1969.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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To these words, he traces the fundamental distinction that New Historicists liked to make between "traditional historicism"--which was said to entail an "absolute reduction of the fundamental heterogeneity of the past"--and the New Historicism itself, which in emphasizing "the historicity of the historian's practice" claimed to avoid both "a presentist projection of contemporary concerns into the past" and "an antiquarian obsession with the past per se" (14, 16-17).
Regina Gagnier, "Methodology and the new historicism," Journal of Victorian Culture, 4, 1 (1999), 117.

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