Historicism is a relativist hermeneutics, which postulates the incommensurability of historical epochs or cultural formations and therefore denies the possibility of a general history or trans-cultural universals. Best described as “a critical movement insisting on the prime importance of historical context” to the interpretation of texts, actions and institutions, historicism emerges in reaction against both philosophical rationalism and scientific theory (Paul Hamilton – Historicism). According to Paul Hamilton’s general introduction:
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 … [and] it is equally suspicious of its own partisanship.
It is sometimes supposed that a strategy of socio-historical contextualisation represents the alpha and omega of materialist analysis – e.g. Jameson’s celebrated claim (Fredric Jameson – The Political Unconscious) that “always historicise” is the imperative of historical materialism. On the contrary, that although necessary, contextualisation alone is radically insufficient. This strategy of historical contextualisation, suffers from three serious defects. The historicist problematic depends upon the reduction of every phenomenal field to an immanent network of differential relations and the consequent evacuation of the category of cause from its theoretical armoury (Joan Copjec-Read My Desire: Lacan against the Historicists). It is therefore unable to theorise the hierarchy of effective causes within an overdetermined phenomenon and must necessarily reduce to a descriptive list, progressively renouncing explanation for interpretation. Secondly, lacking a theoretical explanation of the unequal factors overdetermining a phenomenon, historicism necessarily flattens the causal network surrounding its object into a homogeneous field of co-equal components. As a consequence, historicism’s description of the social structure or historical sequence gravitates in the direction of a simple totality, where everything can be directly connected to everything else. Thirdly, the self-reflexive turn to historical inscription of the researcher’s position of enunciation into the contextual field results, on these assumptions, in a gesture of relativisation that cannot stop short of relativism. The familiar performative contradictions of relativism then ensure that historicism must support itself through an explicit or implicit appeal to a neutral metalinguistic framework, which typically takes the form of a historical master narrative or essentialist conception of the social totality. The final result of the historicist turn, therefore, is that this “materialist” analysis is in actuality a form of spiritual holism.
Historicism relies upon a variant of what Althusser called “expressive causality,” which acts through “the primacy of the whole as an essence of which the parts are no more than the phenomenal expressions” (Althusser & Balibar – Reading Capital). Expressive causality postulates an essential principle whose epiphenomenal expressions are microcosms of the whole. Whether this expressive totality is social or historical is a contingent question of theoretical preference. When the social field is regarded as an expressive totality, the institutional structures of a historical epoch – economy, politics, law, culture, philosophy and so on – are viewed as externalisations of an essential principle that is manifest in the apparent complexity of these phenomena. When the historical process is considered to be an expressive totality, a historical master narrative operates to guarantee that the successive historical epochs represent the unfolding of a single essential principle. Formally speaking, the problem with expressive (also known as “organic” and “spiritual”) totalities is that they postulate a homology between all the phenomena of the social totality, so that the social practices characteristic of the distinct structural instances of the complex whole of the social formation are regarded as secretly “the same”.