History and historicism

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

10 Scopus citations


History occupies a singular position among the modern social sciences. It was the first to assume a durable professional shape. The basic canons for modern academic historiography were introduced in Germany early in the nineteenth century. By that century’s end, the model of Barthold-Georg Niebuhr and Leopold von Ranke had been widely imitated across western Europe and the United States, establishing the permanent institutional mold of the discipline. The special place of history among the social sciences involves more than mere precedence, however. For historiography was accompanied in its passage toward science by an enabling philosophy of history - or a set of such philosophies - that claimed a unique privilege for historical explanation and understanding, with consequences for the entire range of the social sciences. It was only early in the twentieth century that these philosophies or ideologies of history were first gathered together, retrospectively, under a single rubric, that of “historicism.” Although the term was a century old, its release into wider circulation really began with Ernst Troeltsch, who used it, in the years following the First World War, to describe what he saw as the dominant outlook of the preceding century, which had emphasized the decisive place of change and development in the human realm. Contrasting it with Naturalismus, the outlook of the natural sciences, Troeltsch declared Historismus to be in “crisis,” having issued into antiscientific skepticism and relativism. A decade later, Friedrich Meinecke gave the term a slightly different inflection. Tracing its origins to Johann Gottfried von Herder and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Meinecke saw their stress on the concrete, the unique, and the individual as the core of historicism.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge History of Science
Subtitle of host publicationThe Modern Social Sciences
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)9781139053556
ISBN (Print)0521594421, 9780521594424
StatePublished - Jan 1 2003

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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