Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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core definition

Historicism is the view that the human and social sciences are historically situated, that there are no extra-historical universal laws or truths, and history is not a process of discovering facts but of interpreting the past.

explanatory context


analytical review

Giambattista Vico is often regarded as one of the pioneers of historicist throught. He was one of the first commentators to introduce a conception of progress into human history. Vico's history divided the history of mankind into three stages: religious, heroic and human.


Vico's account of this history of 'mankind' is based on the distinction he makes between historical and scientific knowledge. Historical knowledge is the knowledge actors have of their actions and the events they are involved in; scientific knowledge is knowledge of spectators.


This division of history into three stages presupposes some way of identifying the ways in which the stages succeed each other. These stages apply to all cultures. They represent the relationships people sustain with nature, together with their conceptions of the natural and social world in each age and reflected in the kinds of institutions they construct for satisfying their needs.


As Hayden White [source lost] put it:

The first age of a culture is characterized by the kinds of relationships children have with their worlds, and the modes of organisation devised in such ages are always derived from the essentially religious consciousness of such ages of naive faith in immediate experience. Hence the first age…he calls the age of the gods, for in it men are presumed to have projected onto the natural world their conceptions of their own passional and sensate natures, to have endowed all aspects of nature with an animus, or spirit, and to have conceived themselves to be governed by and to have worshipped these products of their own imagination.

The second age Vico calls the age of heroes, inasmuch as in it men have begun to identify themselves with the spiritual forces with which they have endowed nature, and in such a way as to justify the privileged position that certain men or a class of men—usually the most powerful, who are therefore regarded as the most wise—enjoy at the expense of the weaker members of their communities, namely children, women and aliens. The institutions of this age reflect the fractured nature of the society they sustain: class division, disparity of privileges and responsibilities between strong and  weak, and an ideology which ascribes to the upper classes the attributes of the gods and to the lower classes the attributes of the beasts.

In the third age, the age of men, the humanity shared by the upper and lower classes is made the basis of a new kind of polity, governed by written laws. Conflicts between classes, and between the private and the public are mediated by the abstract conception of justice. This is the age of reason; an age of reflection and meditation and its own inherent tendencies towards destruction by tending towards relativism in morality and scepticism in belief.


Vico was a practicing Catholic and his history, however, whilst applying to all cultures, exempts Christian and Hebrew culture from the cycle of death and return that marks the sequence of history. In all other cultures the cycle is repeated: Christian and Hebrew cultures by virtue of the ‘direct revelation of man’s proper relationships to god, nature and man, are exempted from this cycle of death and recurrence’.


Whilst Vico sees the history of mankind as ‘an ideal eternal history traversed in time by every nation in its rise, growth, decline and fall’ his exemption of Christian and Hebrew cultures from this general sequence is based on his belief that they fulfil the will of God—the destiny that has been set for them by God. This is, in effect, the idea of progress.


Vico believes this understanding to be a new science; whilst knowledge is attained, man cannot aspire to the perfect knowledge which only God can know. Nevertheless, historical knowledge whilst finite is superior to all other human knowledge. As Isaiah Berlin (1976, p. 67) put it: ‘since the comprehension by the actors of the parts that, in some sense, their own acting creates will, if they understand the regular and recurrent structure of the ends and methods of social activity, be superior in kind to the knowledge possessed by spectators, however perceptive they may be. In history we are the actors; in the natural sciences mere spectators’.


Vico is also regarded as a pioneer of structuralism


Daniel Halverson (2015) also invokes Vico:

Historicism is the view, first advanced by Giambattista Vico, and later rediscovered (apparently independently) by German historians, that there does not exist any extra-historical perspective on which judgments about people or ideas can be grounded. Put another way, there is no such thing as a “general category,” a “universal principle,” or “human nature” inherent in reality itself—there are only individual objects, individual people, and their interpretations of reality, where reality is conceived of as one enormous, unconquerable brute fact, about which we can entertain notions, but cannot have knowledge....

Historicists agree that human beings are products of history, and that their values and knowledge necessarily rest on a contingent and somewhat mysterious process. However, they do not necessarily agree about the implications of this principle. In general, they can be thought of as falling along a spectrum, with historicists of a more skeptical turn denying the possibility of any knowledge of history (and hence of the world) except that arrived at “from the inside,” and those with a more daring spirit who believe that reason can “pull itself up by its own bootstraps,” to use Hayek’s phrase. The latter group believes, in other words, that knowledge of the contingent nature of knowledge is in fact a kind of noncontingent knowledge, from which other kinds of knowledge can potentially be leveraged. Vico, Hegel, and Ranke fall into the first group, Marx and Karl Mannheim into the second.


Halverson goes on to mistakenly align Karl Marx with historicism (rather than critical historicism) and to refer to him as a positivist, which he wasn't. Nor did Marx think 'that history could be understood as a mechanism, that it was governed by deterministic laws'. This is naive view, perpetrared by deliberate misrepresentations of Marx by people like Karl Popper. Marx's uses a polemic of 'iron laws' of history in his critique of capitalism but his analysis of history in his wrirings is far from deterministic.


Frederick Beiser (2017) argued that there are two senses of the term historicism:

one is methodological, where “historicism” means an investigation into the possibility of history as a science; the other is metaphysical, where “historicism” means the attempt to historicize everything in the human world, i.e., to see it as product of a specific time and place and therefore subject to historical change. [Beiser] rejects the common paradigm of historicism as a rejection of naturalistic explanation in the human sciences, because some of the early fathers of historicism (Chladenius, Möser and Herder) were devoted to a naturalistic program of in history.


New World Encyclopedia contributors (2014):

Historicism is a position that holds that all knowledge and cognition are historically conditioned. It is also widely used in diverse disciplines to designate an approach from a historical perspective. The term is used both in the pejorative and neutral sense. Historicism in the most narrow sense signifies a philosophical position that appeared in Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, primarily in Germany, held by a number of thinkers in diverse disciplines, such as philosophy, history, law, and economics. Historicism challenged a progressive view of history that interpreted history as a linear, uniform process that operated according to universal laws, a view widely held by thinkers since the Enlightenment. Historicism stressed the unique diversity of historical contexts and stressed the importance of developing specific methods and theories appropriate to each unique historical context.

Historicism also often challenged the concept of truth and the notion of rationality of modernity. Modern thinkers held that reason is a universal faculty of the mind that is free of interpretation, that can grasp universal and unchanging truth. Historicism questioned this notion of rationality and truth, and argued for the historical context of knowledge and reason. Although individual theories vary as to how and to what extent knowledge is historically conditioned, historicism is an explicit formulation of the historicity of knowledge. The major question to historicism is its relativist implications. If all knowledge is conditioned by history, there is no objectivity or universality in knowledge.

The earlier formulation of historicism was made by Vico (1668-1744) and Herder (1744–1803), and the historicity of knowledge is one of the central issues continually debated today.

associated issues

See Critical Social Research Section 1.6.8 for a discussion of history and historicism

related areas

See also

critical historicism






Critical Social Research Section 1.6.8


Beiser, F.C, 2017, 'Introduction: the concept and context of historicism' available at, accessed 21 May 2017, still available 5 June 2019.

Berlin, I., 1976, Vico and Herder: Two studies in the history of ideas. London, Hogarth Press.

Halverson, D., 2015, Philosophy of History Part XV: What Is Historicism? dated 23 October 2015, available at, accessed 17 May 2017, still available 5 June 2019.

New World Encyclopedia contributors, 2014, 'Historicism', New World Encyclopedia, last updated 25 February 2014, available at:, accessed 21 May 2017, still available 5 June 2019.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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