Notes on Lee & Beck (1954)

Lee & Beck provided a solid introduction into the various definitions of historicism and offered at the end two definitions of their own. The first definition they give places historicism in the service of evaluation, where it plays the role of determining the “truth, meaning, and value of anything”. The second one defines historicism in opposition to positivistic and naturalistic viewpoints. I expand my thoughts upon their definitions later in this article. I recommend their short 10 page read for anyone interested in learning more about historicism.

“German intellectual historians, especially, have emphasized that historicism was a reaction to eighteenth-century rationalism…”
Lee & Beck (1954)[1, p.569]


“The view that the history of anything is a sufficient explanation of it, that the values of anything can be accounted for through the discovery of its origins, that the nature of anything is entirely comprehended in its development. . . . The doctrine which discounts the fallaciousness of the historical fallacy.”
Runes as quoted by Lee & Beck (1954)[1, p.568]

Lee & Beck continue on the next page with a paragraph discussing the potential issues with the above definition by pointing out that it contradicts other definitions for historicism.

“a faith that history is the main road to wisdom in human affairs.”
Morris R. Cohen as quoted by Lee & Beck (1954)[1, p.569]

In Cohen’s definition, the word faith causes some confusion for me. In my life, I’ve seen faith defined in a number of ways, some more coherent than others. I’d need to read Cohen’s work (which I have not yet read) to determine exactly what he meant there.

Excluding the first two words of Cohen’s quote, I can somewhat agree that history is the primary path to understanding relationships and interactions between people. History allows for the contextualization of the present.

“That attitude which was centered around history, which saw most of the spheres of intellectual life as permeated by history, which made history the magistra, if not of active life, at least, to a great extent, of theoretical life, will be understood here under the term “historicism”.”
Friedrich Engel-Janosi as quoted by Lee & Beck (1954)[1, p.569]

Magistra is the Latin word for teacher and is used here to emphasize the role History plays in the each person’s intellect.

“…all three definitions agree that historicism has to do with explanation or evaluation by means of history and with the belief that historical knowledge is in some sense distinctively important in human affairs.”
Lee & Beck (1954)[1, p.569]


“la sens de la difference de temps”
Beard & Vagts as quoted by Lee & Beck (1954)[1, p.570]

Lee & Beck went on to note that the above French quote stands in contrast to the cyclical view of history found at home with Enlightenment thinkers. Where the Enlightenment intellectuals focused on the ways in which history repeats itself, the French quote focuses on the ways in which the times differ. The 1905 George Santayana quote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” comes to mind. That quote was altered for use in Winston Churchill’s 1948 speech to the House of Commons, where he said “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”[2] The song “Once In A Lifetime” by the Talking Heads also comes to mind. Several interpretations of the song have gained prominence, but as David Byrne, the person who wrote the lyrics, said:

“We’re largely unconscious… You know, we operate half awake or on autopilot and end up, whatever, with a house and family and job and everything else, and we haven’t really stopped to ask ourselves, ‘How did I get here?'”[3]

That question is crucial for the historian who wants to understand their discipline and themselves. It can also be fruitfully applied to objects beyond the self. I wonder if these aren’t all variations upon that original idea of history repeating itself. The lyrics “same as it ever was” seem to me to resonate strongly with that ideology. Given Byrne’s quote about how unconscious we are in our day to day life, I wonder if Byrne would agree or disagree with my assessment of similarity between meanings. If he agreed, I wonder if he would concede that his lyric was influenced by Enlightenment philosophy.


Hofer & Three Schools

Lee & Beck (1954), page 570, laid out the gist of a report by Hofer on the three main groups of definitions for historicism. They noted that not all of these had made their way into English speaking circles. Here I provide my notes on that quote.


To my knowledge, the term “pure history” is not firmly established. It’s a concept I’ve been toying with for some time which I think I’ve only ever seen in one other spot, but I bring this up here because I often define it as the second part of group (a)’s definition, “history for history’s sake”. I compare this term and its meaning with those of “pure mathematics”, which I’ve often defined as “math for math’s sake”. Pure mathematics is accompanied with applied mathematics, where the latter employs math for the sake of physics, or engineering, etc…. Oddly enough, even though pure history is not yet an established term, “applied history” was established as early as 1909 by Benjamin Shambaugh. Applied history is the use of history in other fields aside from history. Typically it finds its use in decision-making, but more specifically it is often employed in policy-making. To summarize my current thoughts on (a), according to Lee & Beck’s summation of Hofer’s report, applied history is dependent on pure history and historicism is an asymmetric mix of the two with pure history being the one larger in volume.


Group (b) was initially confusing to read but I think I’ve made sense of what the authors wrote. Fundamentally, historicism is “a bundle of contradictory characterizations”. Within this bundle are two main branches:

1st – “the exaggerated belief that the study of history can recreate actuality or the opposite view that historical knowledge is impossible”

2nd – “the doctrine of purely empirical research to the exclusion of metaphysics or the opposite view that history must be approached through philosophy and is antipositivistic”

The first branch makes me wonder if Hofer was against historicism. I’m not sure why else he would include the word “exaggerated” if not, except for maybe noting the obvious that historiology can’t literally recreate actuality, it can only help facilitate the modelling of it. I think the second branch can be modeled by the differences between inductive and deductive methods respectively. Where empirical research is more akin to the inductive method where philosophical research is more akin to the deductive method.


Definition (c) is one that I somewhat agreed with. I think this one paints historicism more as a science, a discipline in motion.


Croce & Absolute Historicism

“‘Historicism’ (the science of history), scientifically speaking, is the affirmation that life and reality are history and history alone.”
Croce as quote by Lee & Beck (1954)[1, p.572]

They report that Croce coined the term storicismo assoluto (absolute historicism) and defined it as above. With my model of time portraying time as past, present, and future, I cannot agree that life and reality are history and history alone. History is the collection of every event which has ever occurred. This means it belongs to the past and not the present. Life and reality are bound by time, and time changes them from future to present to past. We only ever experience the present. The future and past are seemingly intangible. We can imagine the past and the future, but we can only ever experience them as the present.

“Historicism is creation of appropriate actions, thoughts, or poems, by moving from present awareness of the past; historical culture is the acquired habit or power of so thinking and doing; historical education, the formation of this habit.”
Croce as quote by Lee & Beck (1954)[1, p.572]

Croce differs from Meinecke in that Meinecke accounted for the irrationalistic aspects of the mind while Croce argued that historicism was the result of logical thought and therefore it could not be illogical.[1, p.572]

“Historicism … provides the only means of knowing reality.”
Lee & Beck (1954)[1, p.572]

I think the above quote is Lee & Beck’s summary of the beliefs of Meinecke and Croce, but potentially they could be sharing their own. I’m not clear on this. Regardless, I don’t know if I agree with this quote. I’d have to think on it more.



“Collingwood’s historicism seeks to historicize philosophy and to emancipate history from science.”
Lee & Beck (1954)[1, p.572]


“That belief, which would deny the validity of absolute principle in history, is sometimes called historical relationism or historicism. It insists upon the relation of ideas to historical circumstances (including other ideas); it maintains that ideas are only “reflex functions of the sociological conditions under which they arose.”
Louis Gottschalk as quote by Lee & Beck (1954)[1, p.573]

The quote is built upon that idea that “all historical knowledge is relational knowledge” given by Karl Mannheim in his theory of historical knowledge. However, Mannheim and Gottschalk diverge at the point of differentiating between historical relationism and historicism. Mannheim clarified key differences between the words, Gottschalk, like Maurice Mandelbaum, use them synonymously.[1, p.573]


“Commenting upon the “view which holds that the actual structure and continuity of the historical process is falsely represented in every historical work,” Mandelbaum finds that this “can only be defended on the assumption that every attempt to gain knowledge is relative to its place in the historical process. This assumption of historicism with respect to knowledge we have called the basic presupposition of historical relativism.”
Lee & Beck (1954)[1, p.574]


Karl Popper

According to Karl Popper, historicism is “a methodology of the social sciences that emphasizes their historical character and aims at historical prediction“.[1, p.574]

“The “historicists” whom Popper particularly despises are Plato and Hegel; among the others whom he castigates with varying amounts of vigor are Marx, Comte, J. S. Mill, and Arnold J. Toynbee.”
Lee & Beck (1954)[1, p.574]

Popper’s definition contradicts earlier definitions from Croce and Meinecke. These varying definitions show the ways in which historicism has been viewed.[1, p.574]

Lee & Beck

“…we suggest two brief definitions: (a) the belief that the truth, meaning, and value of anything, i.e., the basis of any evaluation, is to be found in its history; and, more narrowly, (b) the antipositivistic and antinaturalistic view that historical knowledge is a basic, or the only, requirement for understanding and evaluating man’s present political, social, and intellectual position or problems.”
Lee & Beck (1954)[1, p.577]

To my understanding, positivism is that certain knowledge of any kind is derived through sense perception coupled with logic and reason. Also that naturalism is the belief in a world free from supernatural or spiritual explanation. I’m not sure how the view about historical knowledge is necessarily excluded from being positivistic or naturalistic.


Meinecke singled out Goethe as the one who established the principles of historicism and Ranke as the one who best employed historicism.[1, p.571] Croce saw Vico and Hegel as the early masters of historicism.[1, p.572]

1600s-1700s: According to Meinecke, this is when, in opposition to Cartesian rationalism, German, French, and English intellectuals began to establish historicism.[1, p.571]

1800s: According to Croce, this is when, in opposition to abstract rationalism, historicism was born.[1, p.572]



[1] – Lee, Dwight E., and Robert N. Beck. “The Meaning of ‘Historicism.’” The American Historical Review, vol. 59, no. 3, 1954, pp. 568–577. JSTOR, Accessed 25 Mar. 2021.

[2] – Virginia Tech’s College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. “History Repeating”. Accessed 25 Mar. 2021.

[3] – “Once In A Lifetime” National Public Radio broadcast. March 27, 2000. Accessed 25 Mar. 2021.

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