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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Beiser's "The German Historicist Tradition"

I am slowly making my way through Frederick Beiser's magisterial The German Historicist Tradition, an immensely erudite treatment of several writers in 18th and 19th century Germany, including Chladenius, Herder, Droysen, Ranke, Dilthey, and, of course, Savigny.  Historicism as a philosophical program was composed of several moving parts which included the legitimation of history as a science by "recognizing that everything in the human world -- culture, values, institutions, practices, rationality -- is made by history . . . ." (2); a focus on what Beiser calls "the individual," by which I take him to mean the particular -- "this or that determinate person, action, culture, or epoch . . . exists at a particular time and place" (4); and an emphasis on holism, the view that "society, state, culture, or epoch is not an aggregate or composite, which consists solely in its parts, each of which exists independent of the whole; rather it is an indivisible whole or unity, which determines the very identity of its parts, none of which can exist apart from it."  (5)  In the introduction, Beiser explains the struggles of history in the late medieval and early modern period to overcome its status as a lesser discipline -- an "appendentia artium" -- in the university hierarchy, the core disciplines being theology, law, and medicine, in that order.  The coming of historicism was a late stage in history's vindication as an independently viable subject of intellectual inquiry.

I've followed some of Beiser's writing from an amateur's distance (he really is a treat to read), and it seems to me that one of the interesting moves that he makes in this book is to shift from the position that historicism is anti-naturalistic to the view that some historicists are anti-naturalistic (e.g., Dilthey, Droysen) while others are not (e.g., Humboldt).  I'd be curious whether those who know more than I do think I am getting this shift right.

At any rate, one of my favorite portions of the book so far is the early chapter on Johann Martin Chladenius, whom Beiser describes as the "German Vico."  Chladenius's contribution was to defend history as its own distinctive form of knowledge having its own "sui generis standards and methods" -- standards and methods which are not the same as one would apply to other disciplines.  In this way, Chladenius championed the conjunction of the ideas that history could be a science and also that history was autonomous: "the autonomy of history, the independence of its rules and standards from those of the normal logic."  (30)  More from Beiser describing Chlaldenius's impetus for undertaking his major work, Allgemeine Geschichtswissenschaft:

Logic claimed to be universal, to be a purely formal doctrine holding for all kinds of truth and all forms of discourse; but in all strictness, it could claim to treat only one form of truth and only one kind of discourse.  For in its traditional form, logic dealt with universal truths, the discourse of abstract reasoning; it did not treat the individual truths of experience, the discourse of history . . . . And so Chladenius came to the idea of a "new science," one which would lay down rules for investigating historical truth as logic set up rules for determining universal truth.  (40)

At one point in the foggy past, I was very close to writing a dissertation on Giambattista Vico, and I still re-read sections of his rangy and highly enjoyable Scienza Nuova from time to time for a bit of inspiration.  Beiser's wonderful chapter jogged all those memories.

Is historicism dead or has it disappeared entirely?  Beiser discusses a variety of criticisms that were leveled against historicism in the early 20th century period, by Ernst Troeltsch and others.  He recognizes that many of these criticisms point out real problems in the historicist tradition, but he also resists the conclusion that there was any "crisis of historicism" which caused it to disappear entirely from the intellectual scene.  And, he adds: "Since when does an intellectual movement disappear simply because of intellectual or theoretical difficulties alone?"  (25)  What a great line.

The extent to which German historicism influenced the later development of historicism in law is an interesting subject in its own right -- some thoughts on that in a future post.  But for those like me with an amateur interest in historicism, I cannot recommend the book highly enough as a pathway into an extremely interesting and to this point neglected corner of intellectual history.

Posted by Marc DeGirolami on May 31, 2012 at 09:43 AM | Permalink

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