Daily Archives: August 19, 2006

Isaiah Berlin on Historicism

I’m about to teach my Introduction to Literary Studies again, and I thought I’d post a little thumbnail definition of Hegel’s Historicism, courtesy of Berlin’s small but useful book on Marx, that I use to talk about the importance of Hegel and Marx for our now commonsense notions of history and historical difference.

We’ve had quite a few mentions of history, historicism, and theory, and I thought people might want to take up at least one writer’s description of Hegelian historicism and its implications:

[Hegel] conceived of history, as it were, in two dimensions: the horizontal, in which the phenomena of different spheres of activity are seen to be broadly interconnected in some unitary pattern, which gives each period its own individual, ‘organic’ recognizably unique character; and the vertical dimension, in which the same cross-section of events is viewed as part of a temporal succession, as a necessary stage in a developing process, in some sense contained and generated by its predecessor in time, which is itself seen already to embody, although in a less developed state, those very tendencies and forces whose full emergence makes the later age that which it ultimately comes to be. Hence every age, if it is to be genuinely understood, must be considered in relation not to the past alone, for it contains within its womb seeds of the future, foreshadowing the contour of what is yet to come; and this relation, no historian, however scrupulous, however anxious to avoid straying beyond the bare evidence of the facts, can allow himself to ignore (35).

Do we still believe this? What do you think?