In its most general sense, historicism refers to a new historical consciousness emerging in late-18th- and early-19th-century Europe. This novel “historical-mindedness,” as the cultural historian Stephen Bann has called it, sprung from a recognition that human knowledge and human making are historically conditioned and must be understood within particular historical contexts. Historicism inspired new interest in the origin and development of cultural phenomena, not least art and architecture. When used in relation to architecture, historicism usually refers to the 19th-century notion that architecture is a historically dynamic and relative phenomenon, changing with time and circumstance. This in contrast to 18th-century classicism which tended to uphold the classical tradition as a universal ideal and a timeless standard. Historicism in architecture often entails Revivals of various kinds, i.e., the reference to or use of historical styles and motifs. The term is related to concepts such as eclecticism, revivalism, and relativism. In architectural history, an early anticipation of a historicist way of thinking is Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s History of the Art of Antiquity (1764). While still idealizing Greek art, Winckelmann also analyzed Egyptian, Etruscan, Phoenician, and Persian art and architecture, paying close attention to the historical conditions in which each of these cultures emerged. This new attentiveness to the relationship between cultural conditions and artistic expression lies at the heart of historicism, as does the related idea that architecture has the capacity to represent an epoch or a nation, forming a veritable index of cultural development. There is a strong organicist aspect to historicism, i.e., a tendency to think about cultural phenomena as organic wholes that evolve according to laws.
Philosophical Background of Historicism
The philosophy of historicism emerged primarily in the German language sphere in the late 18th century with thinkers such as Johann Gottfried Herder who argued that human culture develops historically and must be understood in a historical context. Historicism is intimately linked to the intellectual movement of romanticism, but draws also on strands in Enlightenment thinking, for instance Montesquieu and Voltaire’s interest in cultural difference and the relative status of customs. In German, one distinguishes between Historismus—the idea that cultural expressions may be accounted for by their particular historical context—and Historizismus, the belief that history develops according to predetermined laws. A similar distinction between historism and historicism appears occasionally in English (e.g., the translation of Meinecke 1936 in 1972), yet most often the two are treated as part of the same complex under the term ‘historicism.’ Troeltsch 1922 and Meinecke 1936 have long been the standard works on historicism as an intellectual movement, a status that has recently been rivaled (at least for English-language readers) by Beiser 2011. Berlin 2000 gives an accessible introduction to the philosophical origins of historicism, while Popper 1957 presents an idiosyncratic yet influential critique. Koselleck 2004 and Gumbrecht 2014 investigate notions of temporality that underpin historicist thinking, and Bann 1984 looks at the way historicism impacted cultural representation.
Bann, Stephen. The Clothing of Clio: A Study of the Representation of History in Nineteenth-Century Britain and France. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
A rich study of the way the new “historical-mindedness” manifested itself in all areas of 19th-century society. Drawing on literature, history, cultural heritage, art, and architecture, Bann outlines what he calls a historical poetics in 19th-century visual and literary culture.
Beiser, Frederick. The German Historicist Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Beiser treats historicism mainly in relation to the disciplines of history and historiography and does not venture into visual culture or architecture. Nonetheless, his rigorous account of the German historicist tradition is valuable also for students of historicism in architecture. The presentation of Herder’s historicism is particularly instructive.
Berlin, Isaiah. The Roots of Romanticism. London: Pimlico, 2000.
Berlin wrote extensively on critics of the Enlightenment such as Herder, emphasizing their historicized understanding of human culture. This slim volume, based on Berlin’s 1965 Mellon lectures, presents this material in a lucid and accessible manner.
Gumbrecht, Hans Ulrich. Our Broad Present: Time and Contemporary Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.
This is not really a book about historicism but rather about what has replaced it. Yet Gumbrecht’s analysis of what makes the contemporary concept of time different from that of historicism constitutes a brilliant portrait of historicism itself.
Koselleck, Reinhart. Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time. Translated by Keith Tribe. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.
A philosopher of history, Koselleck tends to avoid the term historicism. Nonetheless, his study of the “temporalization” (Verzeitlichung) of modern thinking constitutes a lucid analysis of the emergence and implications of historicism. He does not discuss architecture in particular, but provides nonetheless an essential background for understanding the 19th-century dilemma of Style.
Meinecke, Friedrich. Die Entstehung des Historismus. 3 vols. Munich: R. Oldenbourg, 1936.
Meinecke’s three-volume work remains one of the most comprehensive introductions to the philosophy of historicism, tracing its origins in French, English, and German thought in the 18th century. The work is translated into English as Historism: The Rise of a New Historical Outlook (New York: Herder & Herder 1972).
Popper, Karl. The Poverty of Historicism. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957.
What Popper calls historicism (the belief in historical destiny and historical prediction in the social sciences) does not correspond to most other scholars’ use the term, yet given the formidable influence of Popper’s critique, it is hard to omit this book from a bibliography of historicism. The teleology underlying historicist (and modernist) architectural history writing is often critiqued through Popper (see for instance Watkin’s critique of Pevsner in his Morality and Architecture [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977]).
Troeltsch, Ernst. Der Historismus und seine Probleme. 2 vols. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1922.
Troeltsch famously defined historicism as “the fundamental historicization of all our thinking” and made a good effort both at analyzing and criticizing it. Writing from within the historicist tradition himself, Troeltsch demonstrates how the new historical consciousness penetrated modern thinking in the 19th century.
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