Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology

By Francis Frascina; Charles Harrison et al. | Go to book overview

2 Historical Interpretation

Sir Karl Popper

It can be argued that Modernism is a doctrine of the kind we now call historicist (and that historicism is an intellectual error). The philosopher Karl Popper made the word 'historicism' his own when he published The Poverty of Historicism, and we now use the word in this sense. Popper uses the word to characterize 'a theory (about the course of historical development) which has often been put forward, but perhaps never in a fully developed form'. He continued, 'This is why I have deliberately chosen the somewhat unfamiliar label "historicism". By introducing it I hope I shall avoid merely verbal quibbles: for nobody, I hope, will be tempted to question [our emphasis] ... what the word "historicism" really or properly or essentially means.' ( The Poverty of Historicism, pp. 3-4.)

Popper defined historicism for his own use thus: '. . . I mean by "historicism" an approach to the social sciences which assumes that historical prediction is their principal aim, and which assumes that this aim is attainable by discovering the "rhythms" or the "patterns", the "laws" or the "trends" that underlie the evolution of history.' ( The Poverty of Historicism, p. 3.) To say that Modernism is historicist is to say that it sees artistic developments in the modern era as growing out of each other in accordance with rhythms, patterns, laws or trends.

In this extract from The Poverty of Historicism, Popper outlines an argument against historicism in general. It is important to note, however, that he does not argue against the 'interested' writing of history.

[Editors]

Is there nothing whatever in the historicist demand for a reform of history — for a sociology which plays the role of a theoretical history, or a theory of historical development? Is there nothing whatever in the historicist idea of 'periods'; of the 'spirit' or 'style' of an age; of irresistible historical tendencies; of movements which captivate the minds of individuals and which surge on like a flood, driving, rather than being driven by, individual men? Nobody who has read, for example, the speculations of Tolstoy in War and Peace historicist, no doubt, but stating his motives with candour — on the movement of the men of the West towards the East and the counter-movement of the Russians towards the West, can deny that historicism answers a real need. We have to satisfy this need by offering something better before we can seriously hope to get rid of historicism.

Tolstoy's historicism is a reaction against a method of writing history which implicitly accepts the truth of the principle of leadership; a method which attributes much — too much, if Tolstoy is right, as he undoubtedly is — to the great man, the leader. Tolstoy tries to show, successfully I think, the small influence of the actions and decisions of Napoleon, Alexander, Kutuzov, and the other great leaders of 1812,

____________________
Source:Sir Karl Popper, 'Situational Logic in History. Historical Interpretation' in The Poverty of Historicism (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1961), pp. 147- 152. First published in 1957. Footnotes have been omitted.

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