Historicism (The New Critical Idiom)

Paul Hamilton writes in this 1995 book:

* Historicism is a critical movement insisting on the prime importance of historical context to the interpretation of texts of all kinds. It has enjoyed a long tradition of influence upon many disciplines of thought, recently experiencing a lively renewal in contemporary literary criticism. The most prominent late 20th-century critical fashions, poststructuralism and postmodernism, have ended up being understood through the images of history they imply.

* Historicism emerges in reaction to the practice of deducing from first principles truths about how people are obliged to organize themselves socially and politically. The natural laws governing human behaviour at all times are formulated, and cultures evaluated by the degree to which they approximate to this ideal pattern. Historicists oppose this tradition, which, primarily associated with the Enlightenment, stretches, in different versions, from the 17th-century naturallaw theorists to the sophistications of Kant and Hegel. They argue instead that human nature is too various for such legislation to be universally applicable. They therefore have to evolve a model for apprehending social and cultural diversity different from the scientific, law-governed paradigm of the Enlightenment.

* such anti-Enlightenment historicism develops a characteristically double focus. Firstly, it is concerned to situate any statement—philosophical, historical, aesthetic or whatever—in its historical context. Secondly, it typically doubles back on itself to explore the extent to which any historical enterprise inevitably reflects the interests and bias of the period in which it was written. On the one hand, therefore, historicism is suspicious of the stories the past tells about itself; on the other hand, it is equally suspicious of its own partisanship.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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