The Folly of Historicism

In my last post, I discussed a rather positivist speech that took a very simplistic and erroneous view of ethics and the humanities in general. The opposite of positivism is often understood to be historicism, but this latter concept is also to be rejected, which is important to point out lest one think that rejecting positivism is tantamount to embracing historicism, and vice versa. It is not.

There are some different interpretations and understandings of positivism and historicism, depending on the area of concern – science, epistemology, logic, historiography, and so on. I am concerned right now with positivism and historicism as they manifest themselves with ordinary people in our culture, that is to say, with their vulgar manifestations. In brief, and not too simplistically, positivism may be defined as the notion that gains and progress in philosophical understanding can be gained as surely as gains in natural science, but only insofar as philosophy may be said to be science. It relies on empiricism and observed phenomena, so that the store of human philosophical knowledge can be progressively enlarged, one building block upon the next, with the result that humanity, over the course of generations, becomes increasingly aware and philosophically advanced, even though it is possible in times of crises for there to be a regression of some sort. Historicism is, by contrast, far more skeptical in nature. It is the notion that philosophical “knowledge” is conditioned by history, so that no thinker can lay claim to an absolute understanding of a particular issue, since his or her beliefs will be conditioned by the historical circumstances and other conditions of that particular time and place. This means that an insight which positivism claims to be objectively certain based on sensory data, historicism will consider uncertain and necessarily bound by subjective value judgments. Historicism would hold that the truth can only be sought, never possessed. As such, I do find some charm in it, but there are some insuperable problems with this dogma.

Historically, historicism branches out in two opposite directions. It is easy for it to do so, since once everything is considered subjective and therefore inadmissible in an absolute sense, it follows that everything is equally admissible, too. In its earlier version, historicism opted for Western values, not because these could positively be confirmed to be the best, but simply because they appeared to be preferable to the historicists themselves. More recently, over the past several decades, historicism has turned against the West and asserted that non-Western values are at least as admissible as Western ones, if not in fact preferable (this is a case of oikophobia, which I discuss in my first blog entry of May 8, 2014). The tendency of historicism today is thus to discount any higher claim to truth or nobility to which earlier Western thought, social science, and politics used to make.

An uncharacteristically intelligent historicist

The main problem with historicism is not that it appears to be self-refuting, since the rejection of objective knowledge as historically conditioned is itself historically conditioned – historicism arose in Germany and one of my great heroes, Nietzsche, is one of the main culprits, who reacted against the exaggerated positivism of his day – but rather that it is extremely dangerous. Fortunately, however, most historicists lack the courage of their convictions, and I say fortunately, because the consequences would be devastating. The lack of intellectual rigor inherent in historicism can be seen in the fact that it so easily lends itself to practically any nonsense that a person can think up, and its sometimes pro-Western, sometimes anti-Western stance is a sign of that. And this is where the danger lies. A whole generation of young intellectuals nowadays fancy themselves historicists in some manifestation or other, but they do not go all the way. If they did, they would have to reject our condemnation of the holiness of war and our embrace of literacy as conditioned by our society. And their own rejection of the death penalty (to use an example from the last post, of June 5) would similarly have to be chalked up to the more lenient Western society of recent times, since, after all, the death penalty has existed for thousands of years, its rejection only since the French Revolution. A full embrace of historicism would strike lame our efforts to intervene against injustice – historicism, in its newer manifestations, is thus a sort of postmodernism – but the historicists are either too stupid to realize the natural result of their beliefs, or too cowardly to follow them. To return to the matter of oikophobia, to which nowadays there is always a reason to return, the modern historicists are similar to those who reject that which they have come to take for granted, that on which they are heavily dependent in every way.