Metaphysics and History:
The Individual and the General Reconciled

Gabriel R. Ricci*

[From HUMANITAS, Volume X, No. 1, 1997. © National Humanities Institute, Washington, DC USA]

Introduction: Perennial Philosophy Historicized

The mainstay of perennial philosophy is the problem of "the one and the many." In the hands of Plato this problem was resolved by an economical philosophy, the consequence of which was a bifurcated and hierarchical world which degraded the poetical and productive expressions of history. Aristotle first exposed the redundancy in Plato’s philosophy, and this ruling has marked philosophical discussion since. In extolling the virtue of matter’s inherent teleological impulse, Aristotle presaged the value of historical development which was to occupy nineteenth-century intellectual history. The core of developmental thinking in the nineteenth century expressed the ontological verity of the emergent, as witnessed in Darwinism, but as with Darwinism a final telos is abandoned in favor of spontaneously generated life forms that are at once continuous with and a conversion of the store of the historical past. Having thus displaced the convention of a transcendent paradigm, historicism’s inaugural incarnation was occupied with discovering an Archimedean point from which values and standards could obtain moral leverage in the face of the flux of history.

The historicization of thinking to follow in the wake of Hegel’s historical treatment of the Logos can be credited with a unique assault on foundationalism. The rise of historicist conceptualization that marked the methodological innovations of the historical sciences, especially, is the source of a morally charged relativism that is exemplified in the historiographical work of Benedetto Croce. Croce’s insights into how the appropriation of the past provides material for future transformation paralleled currents in German philosophy that were predicated on the methodological demarcation between the Geisteswissenschaften and the Naturwissenschaften. Croce’s rendering of historicism as the creation of appropriate actions out of the historical past is perhaps the most concise way to capture the ethical impetus of historicist thinking that thrived in the first half of this century. Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923), who adapted his reading of Hegel to this historicist dimension in thinking, agreed with Croce that a methodological approach to the transitory does not deny an ethical dimension. The hammering out of the moral dimension from the transitory was an abiding concern for both Troeltsch and Croce. Croce declared Friedrich Meinecke’s Die Entstehung des Historismus (1936) a moving force of this brand of historicism, but, before Troeltsch’s untimely death in 1923, Meinecke had been introduced to Troeltsch’s historical logic during the pair’s casual walks through the Berlin woods.

Historicism’s recasting of the proverbial problem of the individual and the general has been communicated to contemporary philosophy through the work of Hans-Georg Gadamer. Gadamer’s aesthetic and hermeneutic framework in Truth and Method and the ontological dimension of understanding that he inherited from Heidegger, however, did not illumine the ethical underpinnings of the historicism of earlier thinkers. On the other hand, Gadamer’s declaration that the proper focus of hermeneutics is not the development of a method or process, but the insertion of one’s subjectivity into a unifying historical process buoyed by tradition did successfully convey the essence of earlier historicism. The earlier manifestations of this concept of effective-history (Wirkungsgeschichte) had already challenged the primacy of the historical past by emphasizing individual historical enmeshment and the productive and futural aspect of being in history. This essay focuses on a slice of the methodological controversy that percolated at the turn of the century and whose main characters have been obscured by later historicist trends which have not been sufficiently sensitive to the original historicist affirmation that history’s assimilation to thought is at once the source of writing history and of human liberation.

Methodology and Worldview

The debate in the nineteenth century over methodology and the proper theoretical framework for historical thinking was informed by the delineation between the natural sciences and the human studies, the status of value-relations imposed by historicity, and the claims imposed on interpretation by the influence of worldview.1 Most historians agreed that historical conceptualization should be differentiated from scientific thinking, but not all agreed that the object of inquiry in the respective fields should likewise be separated. Various historical genres emerged, each claiming a certain aspect of historical reality as the engine of historical movement. This proliferation of styles can be traced to both Herder’s original sensitivity to the "spirit" of an age with his emphasis on "Folk-Study" and Hegel’s overarching concept of Geist guiding the course of universal history. But, whether the historian looked to the "spirit" of an age, or group, or to individual personality, investigation and interpretation involved probing the psychological strata of historical phenomena.2

By the end of the nineteenth century Kulturgeschichte, emphasizing a unifying soul-substance, was established among the historical genres.3 This historical style reached a critical pitch in Karl Lamprecht’s application of the concept of Massenpsychologie. Lamprecht’s rendering of this genre attempted to reconcile the individual and general forces in history. More importantly, he intended that narrative description and sequential representation of history should be supplanted by a more causal reading of history predicated on sociopsychological forces. Lamprecht’s methodology met strong opposition from the Rankean School which championed the individual-psychological form of historical narration. While Ranke asked the question how things actually happened (wie es eigentlich gewesen ist), emphasizing the individualistic character of history, Lamprecht sought a more comprehensive analysis, asking the question how things came to be (wie es eigentlich geworden). In asking the latter question, Lamprecht aimed at explanation rather than reconstruction.4 These two approaches signify the difference between a formalist analysis and the sensitivity to contextualism that informs the recent incarnation of historicism in literary criticism. The former position argues that texts are autonomous aesthetic phenomena while most new historicists assert that culture and history are themselves texts within which literary efforts are nested. Whatever form new historicism takes it is allied with critical theory and always offends formalists like Harold Bloom, who, for all intents and purposes, claims a transcendent quality to literary texts that have achieved the degree of linguistic exuberance that qualifies them for admission to the canon. Bloom’s ex cathedra pronouncements deny that all the world is a text, the essential "new" historicist thesis.

In 1913 G. P. Gooch remarked that Lamprecht’s dismissal of individual personality was reprehensible, no matter what other claims could be made in favor of Lamprecht’s brand of Kulturgeschichte. Lamprecht also was assailed for the inaccuracy of his recording, a fault that some thought naturally followed from the emphasis on the overall character of an era. Lamprecht’s most aggressive apologetic came in his American lecture series What is History?, in which he defied Ranke’s dictum wie es eigentlich gewesen ist and defended wie es eigentlich geworden as the proper call of historical inquiry.

Ernst Troeltsch responded deeply to the spectrum of historical speculation in the nineteenth century. He also directed his attention to historical causality, rather than to mere narration of past events. Unlike Lamprecht, though, Troeltsch’s efforts to reconcile the individual and the general in history argued that historical consciousness was autonomous and should not be reduced to psychological mechanisms or external laws of any kind. Troeltsch’s critique of Lamprecht’s psychological interpretation of history, in his major work Der Historismus und seine Probleme (1922), reduces Lamprecht’s analysis to positivistic psychology and the tendency to impose alien, uniform laws onto historical development.5 Troeltsch insisted that history must be liberated from positivism which disregards the holistic or totalizing tendencies of historical development. That is, the materialistic reductionism which informed positivism could not address the vitalistic underpinnings of the historical world.

Troeltsch’s critique of Lamprecht’s application of psychological laws to history must be seen against his more aggressive critique of Hegel, who more than any other person, according to Troeltsch, violently reduced history to a lawfully regulated historical monism. Nevertheless, he shared Lamprecht’s ambition to mix the individual and the general in grasping historical reality. When the smoke cleared, historical methodology had been forever linked to the larger concern of philosophical worldview. This vitalistic connection signified that historical interpretation comprised a dialectic that could no longer deny the preeminence of the subjective and the idiographic habit of historical reality.

Mixing the Individual and the General

Ranke’s methods promoted a romantic hermeneutics recommending a sympathetic reconstruction of an original situation through the understanding of principal historical figures.6 In contrast, Lamprecht adapted Otto Hintze’s expression Massenpsychologie to express what he regarded as a retrievable dominant psychological spirit of an epoch. Ranke had faced severe criticism from even his students, but Lamprecht’s challenge was an unprecedented attack upon the master Ranke. Friedrich Meinecke tried to relieve the tension, suggesting that it was merely a matter of where one placed emphasis. Otto Hintze shed some understanding in his essay on Lamprecht’s method in the Historische Zeitschrift (LXXVII, 1897). Hintze, along with Meinecke and others, though, reproached Lamprecht for the emphasis on the influence of general trends and the imposition of collective forces onto historical development. The controversy denied Lamprecht the editorship of the Historische Zeitschrift; Meinecke was handed the prestigious task instead.

Lamprecht’s work on German history—like that of Troeltsch, who distinguished the German spirit from the cold rationalism of Western Europe7—intensified the controversy over the application of the concept of totality to history. It goes without saying that Lamprecht’s holistic category Massenpsychologie did not have the pejorative connotation it has in contemporary jargon, but referred to the dominant spirit of an age through which historical events and epochs meaningfully coalesce. The negative consequences of this imposition of law-like regularity onto history are witnessed in Karl Popper’s scathing argument against historicism, especially in its German expression.8 Though Popper was motivated to uncover the totalitarian undercurrent of the German historical imagination, he did not restrict his critique to German thinkers; Plato was at the top of his list.

Lamprecht relied on the work of the cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt to make his point about the usefulness of a social-psychological approach to history, but this did not make his thinking less controversial.9 In any event, the Lamprechtstreit intensified the debate concerning which was more influential: the creative individual or general trends in history. Favoring the latter thesis promised to raise the historical sciences to the status of the natural sciences. Efforts of this kind had certainly been made before, and, in fact, parity between the Geisteswissenschaften and the Naturwissenschaften had been promoted by Dilthey, Rickert and Windelband.10 In an attempt to raise the epistemological credibility of the historical sciences, Lamprecht sought to identify the historical with the generalizing tendencies of the natural sciences. His attempt did not represent a total annihilation of the singular quality of historical events; he sought a melding of the individual with the collective drama of development. The question whether such an underlying spirit can be identified before an epoch has defined itself totally was not logically pursued by Lamprecht. Troeltsch addressed this dilemma in his formal logic of history and resolved the issue by endowing what one might call the "critical moment" of inquiry with the power of delineating totalities. Although Troeltsch, in his sweeping critique of historical thinking, dismisses Lamprecht as an example of positivism’s inability to penetrate the truly historical, he shares the distinction with Lamprecht of compounding the historical individual with the totality of an era. According to Troeltsch, however, history is always distorted when it is subsumed under the rubric of the natural sciences. Troeltsch defined such efforts as "bad historicism" and identified Hegel, Comte and Spencer as the primary culprits of this tendency.

Troeltsch’s critique of historical thinking, comprising the majority of Der Historismus und seine Probleme, focused on the rationalistic schemes of history, as represented in Hegel’s historical monism. Troeltsch had earlier pitted himself against Hegel in Die Absolutheit des Christentums, but at that time (1901) he chiefly argued against the evolutionary apologetic for Christianity implied in Hegel’s scheme. Troeltsch had also begun to speculate on the special compounding of the particular and the universal in his critical essay on William James’s philosophy of religion.11

Troeltsch’s logic of history, what he referred to as the "irrational logic of the new and creative," was not only a deep attack against Hegelianism but a challenge to all forms of classical metaphysics. Troeltsch was equally critical of some neo-Kantians’ efforts to subsume the historical world under the rubric of the natural sciences. Hermann Cohen was his main target in this regard; Troeltsch dismissed Cohen’s concept of historical development as mathematical Messianism (DH, 546).

Troeltsch’s formulation of the historical world was original in his adaptation of Leibniz’s monadology and Bergson’s metaphysics. His appeal to a modified Leibnizian monadology—i.e., the monads were not windowless—marked his effort to blend the individual with the whole. Troeltsch placed primary emphasis on the monad’s ability (as historical individuality) to possess its own genetic laws of development and, consequently, insight into its own totality. In distinguishing the historical unit from the atomistic units of natural science, Troeltsch wished to point out that, unlike the non-composite units in science, historical totality contains within itself the relations and energy of which it is itself the source. This phenomenon of the self-contributing complexity of history devolves into coherent totalities, according to Troeltsch, but they are never anterior to historical interpretation and the spontaneity of historical perception. Historical totality is realized when the past is perceived as meaningfully continuous with the historical observer. Troeltsch’s position was obviously informed by Heinrich Rickert’s emphasis on the value-relatedness (Wertbeziehung) intrinsic to the idiographic sciences. Historical understanding, following Gadamer, does not require the development of special techniques but an awareness that all understanding derives from effective-historical consciousness. The dichotomy between self and other, individual and general, is spontaneously dissolved in the unity of historical apperception which was metaphorically depicted in the concept of the fusion of horizons, an idea canonized in Gadamer’s work but which appeared earlier in Troeltsch’s historiographical writings.

The growth or advance characteristic of history that was proposed by Troeltsch, and others before him, is analogous to Bergson’s creative evolution in which "continuous phases penetrate one another by a kind of internalgrowth." 12 Arguing against the platform of universal science with its tendency to explain everything under general, uniform principles, Bergson proposed a philosophical method resembling the historical methods of nineteenth-century German historiography. "Intuition" was required as a philosophical method in order to penetrate the internal duration of life’s processes. This proposal came as a challenge to associationist theories that did not perceive succession as "a prolongation of the past into the present which is already blending into the future," but understood succession as a juxtaposition of contiguous states.13 Correspondingly, this unity of the heterogeneous can never be adequately represented by the juxtaposition of words to words. By identifying the emergent quality of life both Bergson and Troeltsch suggested that thinking must be prepared to go beyond the mere concatenation of words.14 During this era James Joyce brought this form of "historical seeing" to literary life, but Troeltsch intended this unity of apperception to be the crux of the ethical sciences, since history conceived as going beyond the simple coupling of words implied praxis. On these terms history could not be limited to an aesthetic retrieval of the past. The historical continuity, expressed in the reconciliation of the individual and the whole, guarantees the contemporaneity of the past and a foothold in the future.

The Ambiguity of Ranke

Troeltsch was deeply moved by the independence of the historical realm and sensed that it, more than any other concern, promised the autonomy of the human studies. This conclusion rests on the special nature of historical energy, or movement, as Troeltsch saw it. As he defined his logic of history, in contrast to Hegel’s and the neo-Kantians’ effort to subsume history under a formal deductive schema, the historical realm was the province of the spontaneous and the new, in much the same way that Whitehead has defined the creative core of reality and that Bergson has promoted in his notion of creative evolution.15

As the realm of the production of the new, (philosophy of) history meant, for Troeltsch, the opportunity for responsible action and creativity. In this regard Troeltsch, though generally an admirer of Ranke, did argue against Ranke’s position that one should primarily strive to reconstruct the past and not instruct the future. Troeltsch’s ambivalence toward Ranke may be understandable in light of the dual reputation the latter enjoyed, but this was also typical of his reaction to the imposing figure of Hegel.16

Ranke enjoyed an attentive audience in academia for many years, and in spite of early, harsh criticism for his sponsoring a contemplative philosophy of history, he succeeded in inspiring generations of historical thinkers. Although Troeltsch’s appeal to the formation of the future in his mature philosophy of history agrees with some of the contemporary criticisms of Ranke, it is Ranke whom Troeltsch praises, above all, for the awakening of the new historical perspective of the nineteenth century. Ranke’s major critics came from the didactic school, whose chief figures were Rottleck, Schlosser and Gervinus.17 Schlosser was the most influential of the group, and, in G. P. Gooch’s opinion, was more of a moralist and publicist than an actual historian. He disparaged Ranke’s dependence on archival material and declared his intention to "wean his contemporaries from evil tendencies by the teachings of history." 18 Denying the possibility of objective history, Schlosser publicly "despised the research of Ranke and spoke with contempt of the dust of the archives." 19 The didactic school bitterly refuted Ranke’s position as mere instruction and aspired to teach men how to live.20 Gervinus, shortly after the action of the "Goettingen Seven," a protest by professors (including the Grimm brothers) in response to the tearing up of the constitution by Ernest August in 1837, declared that: "The active life is the focus of all history. All the forces of mankind concentrate on action." 21 The so-called didactic school, like Troeltsch, extolled the virtue of the critical drive originating in the individual forces of all historical seeing.

While Ranke was active as an historian and teacher, the social world was fraught with revolutions and constant political upheaval. His students were sensitive to this climate, and in the case of Heinrich von Sybel politics was indeed a natural part of study. On the occasion of Sybel’s first break with Ranke, in 1856, he warned that Ranke’s "all-round receptivity sometimes ran the risk of weakening the ethical severity which the perfect historian needed." 22 In spite of such critics, however, Ranke enjoyed an unprecedented influence upon academic history, establishing the standards and format of the Seminar. His influence was widespread through the German university system. Meinecke, who along with Troeltsch shared an interest in the relationship of personality to history, fell within the Rankean circle through the influence of Droysen. Troeltsch’s involvement with history culminated in the typical Rankean concern for the creative development of personality, and Meinecke’s essay of 1918 "Pers"nlichkeit und geschichtliche Welt" asks the very question: What is the meaning of the historical world for the formation of personality?23

Troeltsch’s Der Historismus und seine Probleme represents an ambivalent reaction to Ranke’s thinking. In many respects Troeltsch’s logic of history parallels early criticisms of Ranke, in that his logic condemns all forms of contemplative philosophy of history. According to Troeltsch, however, Ranke’s understanding of how things happen exemplifies the idea of individuality. Ranke’s famous saying: "All epochs are immediate to God," embodies a concept of individuality as once-ness, in contrast to abstract and universal laws comprehensively integrating a plurality of events. Events and persons are not merely means for a passage to something else or grist for the "cunning of Reason" (DH, 151). Furthermore, where Ranke’s critics condemned his pursuit of so much dust (in archives), and lambasted him for avoiding critical issues and valuations, Troeltsch includes Ranke’s contributions as part of the natural questioning of former values in order to establish judgments for the future. Not "of" the future, which would make Troeltsch’s historicism susceptible to Popper’s main argument against prescriptive historicism, but "for" thefuture.24 Troeltsch proposed a value-related historicism which prefigures critical theory’s admonition that the historical world is of our making, even though we inherit the material of previous generations.

Ranke avoided pure contemplative history, or, as Troeltsch characterized it, the gathering of the historical under the point of view of the ideal (DH, 114). The consequence of this rationalist procedure is a quietism that eliminates the practical will (DH, 114). Troeltsch was not unaware that Ranke had often been reproached for coming so close to pure contemplative history, but he considered Ranke’s approach to be more deliberately active, as it emphasized the empirical, stressing both context and the meaning of an historical undertaking: "Here is naturally seen the connections of his [Ranke’s] valuations with his own standpoint and his own ideals of future formation" (DH, 114).

In citing Ranke’s lasting legacy, Troeltsch emphasized his two most famous teachings, i.e., the methodological canon of wie es eigentlich gewesen ist and the metaphysical premise that "all epochs are immediate to God." The latter doctrine, Troeltsch thought, defines the central premise of historicism which states that values arise from individual contexts and are not subject to an ultimate transcendental or otherwise timeless criterion. This phrase has consistently been taken out of context and, in context, clearly emphasizes the aspect of "ownness" and uniqueness with which historical happenings are inherently endowed: "Every epoch is immediate to God and its worth is not at all based on what derives from it but rests on its own existence, in its own self." 25 This statement encouraged the "discovery" of historicity in the nineteenth century; it signifies that events are not hierarchically set in a progressive process of history.

Troeltsch’s idea of development, discernible in his critique of developmental theories in the third chapter of Der Historismus, is derived from organology and consequently entails decline. The rational and progressive model of history implies a purposefully directed movement towards a climactic ending, and hence an ultimate value is projected from which all previous movement is measured. No such ultimate value arises from Troeltsch’s concept of development, for values radiate from historical individuality, that which in every case is "immediate to God" in Ranke’s sense.

In the preface to his work Histories of the Romance and Teutonic Peoples Ranke dismissed equating history with either judgment of the past or instruction of the present. His work, he claimed, did not aspire to such a lofty task. This clearly places him in opposition to Troeltsch, who, in the spirit of Nietzsche, valued history in so far as it instructed and served action. Nietzsche’s The Use and the Abuse of History fueled both Troeltsch and Heidegger and in some sections anticipated Troeltsch’s Der Historismus: "Historical study is only fruitful for the future if it follows a powerful life giving influence, for example, a new system of culture. . . ." 26 Nietzsche has certainly influenced the criteria that Troeltsch struggled to formulate. And, as so often in German scholarship, all roads lead to Goethe. Nietzsche begins The Use and Abuse of History in the following manner: " ‘I hate everything that merely instructs without quickening my activity’. These words of Goethe, like a sincere ceterum censeo, may well stand at the head of my thoughts on the worth and worthlessness of history."

In light of the activism represented by Goethe and Nietzsche, Ranke’s ambition for the study and use of history misses the point of history altogether. Once again, in the words of Nietzsche, "The knowledge of the past is only desired for the service of the future and the present, not to weaken the present or undermine a living future." 27 Ranke’s history does not come to grips with the distinction that Troeltsch and others would insist upon between the natural sciences and the Geisteswissenschaften, what Troeltsch interpreted as the historical-ethical sciences. Ranke’s theory courts the static realm of the natural sciences and does not properly acknowledge the lively connection between interpretation and critique.

Ranke’s articulation of the proper task of history and his emphasis on certain key terms are to be found in a manuscript from the 1840s. The views expressed in this lecture countered the rational, universal history popularized by Hegel. More importantly, Ranke set forth the main theme that raises the subject (Sache) of history to a science.28 Ranke’s method was guided by recognizing Geschichte as the noun counterpart for geschehen or "what happened." The key to the historical sciences, for Ranke, is to have Geschichte coincide with Historie, which on his account is derived from the Greek word historia which originally meant knowledge—Wissen. The task of history, then, is to have the object of history coincide with its subjective counterpart. Therefore, the expression wie es eigentlich gewesen ist only makes sense if we understand eigentlich to be the call for the union of Geschichte and Historie. Although Heidegger agreed with the assessment of Ranke as a mere "ocularist" and antiquarian in Being and Time, he formulated an historical ontology on the basis of the etymological kinship between Geschichte and geschehen (BT, 400).

Ranke meets Troeltsch’s favor in so far as he argues against Hegel’s rationally designed history. In the same essay from the 1840s, Ranke appears gripped by the same passion that inspired Kierkegaard’s diatribe against Hegelianism. In Ranke’s view, philosophies which assert that reason rules the world "run counter to the truth of individual consciousness." 29 "If this view were correct," Ranke continued, "the world spirit alone would truly be alive. It would be the sole actor; even the greatest men would be instruments in its hands and would carry out what they themselves neither understand nor wanted." 30 Ranke was perhaps most offended by the kind of God that resulted from the Hegelian position.31

Critiques of Troeltsch and Lamprecht

Contemporary assessments of Lamprecht and Troeltsch were not consistent. Otto Hintze, who also contributed to historical methodology and wrote history himself, commented on both Lamprecht and Troeltsch. His main criticism of Troeltsch’s historicism was that Troeltsch had not adequately distinguished methodology from the more speculative aspects of history.32 In contrasting Troeltsch’s Der Historismus und seine Probleme to Spengler’s pessimistic view of the disintegration of the West, Hintze reduced Troeltsch’s insights to a reassertion of the optimistic historical interpretation emanating from Hegel and German Idealism. Troeltsch’s concerted effort to undermine Hegel’s program is undeniable. While many felt compelled to choose between the individualist position of Ranke or the collectivist approach advocated by Lamprecht, Hintze made it clear that both methods were necessary, since the collective forces in history are organically connected to individual action. This, he thought, was aptly demonstrated in Lamprecht’s sensitivity to the tension between individual ego assertion and the larger cultural framework.

Paul Tillich’s review of Troeltsch’s Der Historismus und seine Probleme was more sympathetic to Troeltsch’s innovations, especially in respect to his unique understanding of historical totality. Tillich was also sensitive to the shortcomings of this concept. Although Troeltsch was aware of a special category to identify and understand historical consciousness, i.e., something "between the individual and the general," he did not fully articulate how this special category should function in historicalinterpretation.33 Tillich suggested, in spite of Troeltsch’s special category, that historical interpretation is confused by Troeltsch’s equal assertion that historicism entails the interconnection of all times (and events), thus making historical totality a mere abstraction. Although Troeltsch did define historical time as a living fusion (Verschmolzenheit), in contrast to positivistic accounts of time (DH, 58) he resolved this issue by appealing to the tact and discretion that were required of the historian to demarcate qualitatively different eras.

The fact that historical situations are open on all sides, so to speak, weakened Troeltsch’s concept of historical totality for Tillich. In defense of Troeltsch, though, historical totality is better understood as a process than as an object of some kind. Troeltsch’s concept referred to an inner continuity entailing the merging of the past with the "own standpoint" of the historical observer. This connectedness, as it stretches to the individual, is an articulation of a living experience or Erlebnis. Historical totality, in Troeltsch’s logic, was not an already constructed totality, since it is primarily mediated through the powers of what Troeltsch labeled momentane Vernunft. History, then, is the stage for the presentation and the creation of the concrete-universal. Here Troeltsch was in accord with Benedetto Croce. Indeed, Croce viewed historicism as the preeminent category of logic, the logicality of the concrete-universal.34

Tillich compared Troeltsch’s sense of these historical totalities—classed between the individual and the general—to the notion of Gestalten and missed Troeltsch’s major emphasis on the underlying creative and evaluative structure of one’s "own reality." This represents Troeltsch’s major insight into historical consciousness, since it is through the creative and intuitive powers of individual interpretation that history is made whole and creatively united at every moment (DH, 58).

In the expanse of Troeltsch’s Der Historismus und seine Probleme, Tillich recognized Troeltsch’s ambition to go beyond the implications of methodological innovations in the historical sciences; Troeltsch, according to Tillich, wanted to indicate what it meant to "stand in history." 35

Consciousness situated in history is a much more profound concern than arguing for a particular sense of history. Troeltsch promoted the foundational and constitutive character of historical consciousness and saw the implications for a morality predicated on such principles. Troeltsch’s rendering of the Geisteswissenschaften as the historical-ethical sciences speaks to the life implications of historical study, but his understanding of history as constitutive of consciousness is a precursor to the metaphysical perspective of Heidegger and Gadamer, both of whom ironically resurrect Hegel. Troeltsch’s critical review of the historical theories of the nineteenth century, then, stands as a bridge between the historiographical discussions of Droysen, Humboldt and Ranke and the metaphysics of interpretation in Heidegger and Gadamer.

Troeltsch’s Assessment of Lamprecht’s Positivistic Model

Historical totality, the fundamental unity that history creates, is not an amalgamation that can be deduced from psychological principles nor produced by an underlying mechanism other than the interpretative efforts of individuality. Historical totalities are united intuitively (DH, 32), and as wholes they are defined by what Troeltsch refers to as the "own reality" and the indissolubility of individuality (DH, 37). The demarcation of stretches of time as identifiable periods, then, is purely subjective (DH, 32). This position is diametrically opposed to Lamprecht’s approach to history, which receives its orientation from putatively larger and more collective forces.

Since individuelle Totalitätsbegriffe was the only way into history for Troeltsch, the real task of history must be to show the "concrete-individual in its historical connections of becoming" (DH, 36). In this way, individual totality, i.e., the emergence of an historical whole through the intuitive feeling of one’s own self, implies the notion of originality. Troeltsch, in his analysis of historical becoming, turned from mere explanation and deduction to a sympathetic feeling into the fact of becoming (DH, 38). Naturally, the embedded originality of historical seeing amounts to the creation of new forms of life. In a sense, the originality that Troeltsch defined as the real energy of historical development liberates history from the deterministic grip of antecedent influences. History, that is, cannot be construed in a strictly causal way, since it is always being assimilated from the "own reality" possessed by the historical observer. Herein lies the strongest tension of the particular and the general in Troeltsch’s scheme (DH, 44). This tension is hermeneutically cast in a to-and-fro motion that mutually restricts the particular and the general and unites all individuals into a "super-individual connection" (DH, 48). This super-connection is continually fed by tradition, but there still remains a germ of individual interpretation which cannot be dissolved. "This personal originality possesses the strength of transforming the whole." This was not just an assumption for Troeltsch, for its real effects could be observed in its productivity (DH, 48).

Troeltsch strove to liberate history from scientistic interpretation. Comte was perceived as the model for this movement, since his theory of historical development was seen as the gradual purification of a static principle (DH, 48). In his own defense, Lamprecht, in his lecture "Epochs of Culture," denied any influence from Comte and insisted that any attempt to prove such influence should be based on the application of Lamprecht’s own social-psychological interpretation of history. He argued that any connection between his view and Comte’s must be established on the basis of similar overriding social conditions.36 This defense clearly revealed Lamprecht’s appeal to general and collective forces in determining historical outcome. The forces of similar collective psyches can only account for similar individual and subjective profiles. The subjection of the singular to the general means that a certain form of necessity prevails in history which is analogous to the deterministic model of the natural sciences. It was on the basis of this thesis, in particular, that some critics were led to dismiss Lamprecht’s theory. Lamprecht was remiss in not articulating the organic relationship between the individual and the general. Not totally ignorant of this relationship between the individual and the general forces in history, Lamprecht summed up his position in a lecture on the structure of psychic change: "we might say that individuality becomes suggestive in a very high degree to the externalworld." 37

It seems that Lamprecht’s most obvious intellectual connection was to the psychology of Wundt. The reduction of historical movement to psychical processes was viewed by Troeltsch as the mathematical quantification of entities and their causal relations. This reductionism was nothing less for Troeltsch than the elimination of the soul (DH, 443). Though Troeltsch charges Wundt with responsibility for the psychologization of positivism (DH, 446) and notes that his positivistic psychology cannot penetrate the soul of the historical, Troeltsch still saw Wundt’s theory as representing progress over Hegel’s "gnostic-spiritualistic monism"(DH, 458). Wundt’s idea of development was based on Comte’s universal history (where there is a real lack of exchange between the individual and the general), but still Troeltsch recognized in Wundt’s thought the real stirrings of history (DH, 464). This can only mean that Wundt’s psychology does not eliminate the possibility of the emergence of the new, and this influence was carried over to Lamprecht.

Faith, Imagination and the Object of History

In Lamprecht’s view the tension between the individual and the general is heightened at times of transition from one dominant (collective spirit) to another. His analysis of the assimilation of a new dominant or standard is suggestive of Kuhn’s concept of paradigm shifts. While Kuhn identifies the transition from one paradigm to another as a conversion experience, requiring faith,38 Lamprecht was far more subtle in his psychological account of the effects of a new dominant on identity. Lamprecht’s analysis, titled "Structure of Psychic Change," imagines that at the tensest moments of transition from one dominant to another, volition recedes and general psychological laws assimilate the "ego" into another frame of reference.39 This process of assimilation is governed by the dominant and the "soul of individuality is almost choked out." 40 In the contest between identifying with a current dominant and one that is forthcoming, an either-or vacillation presses upon the individual and eventually a new center of personality is created. Only then does the psyche regain its former mastery over itself.41 In both Lamprecht’s assessment of the transition of dominants and Kuhn’s conception of paradigm shifts an imaginative leap is required of the individual or group that will soon be re-formed. These aims and ideals that are projected through the imagination or faith are not mere phantasms, since they do not exist only in the mind but in the action of scientists, in the case of Kuhn, and in the collective drama of history, according to Lamprecht.

John Dewey has offered a similar account of the unifying process of faith and its object in A Common Faith. Dewey argues for a reversal of the traditional conception of the "ideal": that is, it is not an embodiment of an antecedent reality, but only a reality by virtue of a process generated by the imagination. The ideal is connected to existence, not through the privilege of a Being outside nature, but through the activity of cooperative human effort. The new vision accompanying paradigm shifts and the introduction of new dominants in the drama of history, Dewey would agree, arise not out of nothing but emerge "through seeing, in terms of possibilities, that is, of imagination, old things in new relations serving a new end which the new end aids in creating." 42 There is a power of growth underlying paradigm shifts and the transition of dominants which Dewey would classify as the union of imaginative ideal ends and actual conditions.

In light of Troeltsch’s historical category of individual totality any thought of a uniform law comprehending history completely, be it naturalistic or dialectic, becomes impossible. This is the basis for the marked praxical determination in his thought. This activism of the individual human spirit, or the self-production of personality out of the pressing forces of history, means that historical development can never devolve into a causally linked series of facts. Troeltsch emphasized that it is a "unity of becoming" that cannot be described or circumscribed logically. Striking the antirational position so characteristic of Romanticism’s response to the Enlightenment prejudice of reason, feeling and seeing became the essence of historical meaning for Troeltsch. History, on these terms, cannot be summed up in mere narration, nor can it be grasped sequentially. The unity of becoming of which Troeltsch spoke, and the union of the actual and the ideal comprising Dewey’s understanding of the religious frame of mind, are both dependent on deliberate, spontaneous action. These generative forces do not arise simply from antecedent reality, since the unity of becoming only emerges through the project of future formation.

In this regard Troeltsch enunciated a form of causality that was germane to the historical world. In contrast to the causality of equivalence in the natural sciences, he promoted the idea of non-equivalent causality. The strict causal connections in the natural sciences, based on the formula of an equivalent exchange of forces, could not account for the creative core of reality which always generates the new and is simultaneously guided by the kind of imaginative end or ideal that affects the perception of the past. The structure of historical accounts must take this facet of historical happening into view, if historical writing is to reflect the historical process.

Troeltsch, for all his vacillation, viewed Hegel’s philosophy of history as the embodiment of the causality he argued against. The abstract chain of necessities implied in Hegel’s imposition of logic onto the course of history denied the vital, creative call for responsibility of the moment and of personal decision (DH, 66). In emphasizing the vital role one’s own reality plays in forming connections between past and future, Troeltsch brings to the fore the practical and reflective importance of the observed. Historical interpretation must always take the form of agreement or contrast with one’s own existence. Human endeavor can never surrender to the passivity imposed by Hegel’s logic. On these terms there is no purely contemplative philosophy of history, and the view of the future, to be formed by us, can never be lost (DH, 70). Troeltsch’s logic of history, demonstrating the constructive historical process from the standpoint of the observer (von Standpunkt des Betrachters) necessarily implies the creation of the material of history. If the meaning of continuous development can only be construed from the standpoint of the observer, then we can understand Troeltsch’s perception of Hegel’s history as a "running ahead of the facts" (DH, 73). In accord with Dewey, Troeltsch recognized the tendency for dogma to supplant ideals under these conditions. This destinal reading of history, Troeltsch advised, is conquered by the individual will to form ideals [der Wille zu eigener verantwortlicher Idealbildung] (DH, 189), a practice he not only recommended to historians and philosophers but which he viewed as the fate that marks human historicity.


* Gabriel R. Ricci teaches in the Department of Philosophy at Elizabethtown College. [Back]

1 See, for example, Otto Hintze’s review of Troeltsch’s Der Historismus und seine Probleme, originally published in Historische Zeitschrift, volume 135 (1927), 188-232. It appears in The Historical Essays of Otto Hintze, edited with an introduction by Felix Gilbert (New York, 1975), 368-421. Hintze, among other things, argued that Troeltsch confused methodological and philosophical issues in historicism. Though Troeltsch’s analysis in Der Historismus und seine Probleme is heavily methodological, he was deeply concerned with the metaphysical import of historicism and its relation to a worldview. Indeed the material philosophy of history that Troeltsch linked to his logic of history demonstrates that he was conscious of the ethical implications of historicist principles. In this respect Troeltsch’s methodological concerns can be traced to Droysen who also explicated the moral strata of historical practice. [Back]

2 The historical theorists mentioned here can all be considered as having been actively involved in explicating the relationship of psychology to history. From this perspective their approaches differ in the range the psychological dimension assumes. [Back]

3 This method is most notably associated with Jacob Burckhardt, but also had leading proponents in Germany with Riehl and Freytag. For an account of the rise of Kulturgeschichte, see G. P. Gooch, History and Historians in the Nineteenth Century (Boston, 1965, first published in 1913), especially the final chapter, 523-542. [Back]

4 There has been some ambiguity surrounding Ranke’s position concerning methodological and philosophical issues in history. Georg Iggers discusses Ranke’s reputation in The German Conception of History (Middletown, Conn., 1968), 63-89, and in an article titled "The Image of Ranke in America and Europe," History and Theory, Volume XIV, Number 4, Beiheft 14, 17-40. There seems to be clarity regarding his position with Hegel, however. He was vehemently opposed to Hegel’s conception of God as a developing God and Hegel’s alleged ability to grasp the total universal historical process. [Back]

5 Ernst Troeltsch, Der Historismus und seine Probleme (Scientia Verlag Aalen, 1977), 459-463. Hereafter this work will be cited in the text as "DH." [Back]

6 See Maurice Mandlebaum’s discussion of the Romantic backlash to the Enlightenment in History, Man and Reason, "The Scope of Historicism," (Baltimore, 1977), 41-55. His discussion is framed within the context of the developmental view in history. [Back]

7 Ernst Troeltsch, "The Idea of Natural Law and Humanity in World Politics." This article appeared as an appendix to Otto Gierke, Natural Law and the Theory of Society, 1500-1800, translated by Ernest Barker, Volume I (Cambridge, 1934) 201-222. This essay was originally delivered as a lecture before the Hoechschule fuer Politik in Berlin, 1922. [Back]

8 Karl Popper’s argument against historicism was perhaps the strongest voice against this tendency in some forms of historicism. See the Preface to The Poverty of Historicism (New York, 1964) for Popper’s formal, logical argument against historicism. A summary of this argument is included in note 24 below. [Back]

9 Throughout What is History? (London, 1905) Lamprecht applied the concept of the dominant and believed it most applicable to the German people. See e.g. p. 184. [Back]

10 Meinecke’s chapter on Goethe in Die Entstehung des Historismus (München, 1936) begins: We would not be where we are today without Goethe. Meinecke connects events in Goethe’s life with Eureka experiences reflecting the historicist outlook. Dilthey had eloquently argued that the distinction between the two scientific realms lay in the objects of inquiry that each pursued, and similarly Rickert argued that the two sciences differed only in the methods to be employed in research. Operating within the Kantian framework, Rickert made no effort to radically differentiate the natural world from the historical world, a distinction that was profoundly made by Giambattista Vico in the eighteenth century and evidenced in the thought of Herder and Goethe. Dilthey, having recognized the peculiarity of the historical object, that it was in fact continuous with the historical observer or subject, invoked Alexander Pope’s sentiment that the proper study of mankind was man. See H. A. Hodges’s Wilhelm Dilthey: An Introduction (London, 1944), 58. Dilthey’s dictum that historical understanding was the rediscovery of the "I" in the "Thou" signifies that he who makes history is he who interprets history, thus making historical inquiry simultaneously an act of self-inquiry. [Back]

11 Ernst Troeltsch, "Empiricism and Platonism in the Philosophy of Religion," Harvard Theological Review, Volume V, Number 4, October 1912, 402-422. In this essay Troeltsch distinguished between James’s psychological and relative approach to religion and the European tradition that was founded on the unitary essence of religion. James was radically empirical in his view, while at the time Troeltsch was still captured by the Platonic framework. Troeltsch, who was tempted by James’s view in 1912, acknowledged that his position came "unintentionally" close to James’s without violating transcendental philosophy. The "mixed universe," i.e., the mixture of irrational and rational forces, proclaimed by James to be the nature of the world, calculated the worth of religion in regard to its affective force, not in its derivation from an original source. By the time he wrote Der Historismus Troeltsch had become radically historical and his philosophy rested on a profound respect for historical individuality in its developmental totality. [Back]

12 Henri Bergson, The Creative Mind (New Jersey, 1975), Introduction I, 20. [Back]

13 Ibid., Introduction II, 32. [Back]

14 Alfred North Whitehead’s analysis of experience, in Adventures of Ideas, offers a similar account of the need to go beyond the traditional philosophical framework in capturing the essence of reality. Whitehead is known for his own interpretation of monadology, and his suggestion that the basis of all experience is emotional echoes Bergson’s intuitive philosophy. Whitehead demonstrated that the fundamental subject/object relationship was not an epistemological one, i.e., the relationship of knower to known. Instead he defined the occasion of experience as "an affective tone originating from things whose relevance is given." In a word, this fundamental structure is designated by "concern." "Concern" situates an object as an ingredient in the experience of the subject "with an affective tone drawn from this object and directed towards it." According to Whitehead, the Quaker word "concern" "divested of any suggestion of knowledge" is more suited to express the fundamental structure of experience. The connection between the temporal analysis of Bergson and Troeltsch can be seen in Heidegger’s philosophy wherein the fundamental structure of Dasein is designated as Sorge or Care. Among other things, this structure indicates that human reality is always ahead of itself. In so being, reality can never be reduced to mere words or representations, since the future, which arises with Dasein, is always replete with possibilities. However, Heidegger’s link with the activist form of history and the praxis advocated by Troeltsch and others is muffled in his design for a fundamental ontology. See Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York, 1933), 226. It should be noted that James Joyce at the time was actively experimenting with a literary style to accommodate historical consciousness. His early essay from 1904 outlines the need for us to overcome our conception of the past as the ossified memorial of what once was and to acknowledge the past as the source of "the development of an entity of which our present is a phase only." Like Troeltsch and Croce, Joyce sensed that from within the historical process that generates the superficial self, there lies a more direct manner of acquaintance with an "individuating rhythm" that formally links what would otherwise be a mindless succession of events. (See the essay "A Portrait of the Artist," A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, edited by Chester G. Anderson [New York, 1968], 257-258.) [Back]

15 Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution, translated by Arthur Miller (London, 1928). The opening lines to the first chapter, on page 1, read like a basic tenet of historicism: "The existence of which we are most assured and which we know best is unquestionably our own, for of every other object we have notions which may be considered external and superficial, whereas, of ourselves, our perception is internal and profound." [Back]

16 See Iggers’s accounts of Ranke in the article and book mentioned above. Iggers partially explains the ambiguity surrounding the master historian as the direct result of detaching Ranke from his philosophical heritage of idealism. Iggers’s account of Ranke in The German Conception of History also reports on his ambiguous status. Ranke apparently did not make a strict demarcation between methodology and philosophy as some have argued. There is much in Ranke’s critical writings that evidences the historicist methodological framework. Iggers cites Ranke’s interpretation of Machiavelli, which insisted that his politics be understood within his original situation. Equally, Ranke did not conceal his metaphysical leanings when he argued for an underlying objective spirit generating historical totalities. Ranke was neither a strict empiricist nor a flagrant idealist. It is certain, however, that he never imagined that history could be pursued from the vantage point of the completion of humanity; that was strictly the province of God, and herein lies his main dispute with Hegel. [Back]

17 G. P. Gooch, History and Historians in the Nineteenth Century, 98. [Back]

18 Ibid., 100. [Back]

19 Ibid., 102. [Back]

20 Ibid. [Back]

21 Ibid., 103. [Back]

22 Ibid., 131. [Back]

23 Friedrich Meinecke, Zur Theorie und Philosophie der Geschichte, G. S. Band IV, 30. Troeltsch’s final lectures were called Christian Thought: Its History and Application in English and titled Der Historismus und seine Ueberwindung in German. The German title indicates Troeltsch’s ambition to philosophically overcome historicism that was tentatively worked out in Der Historismus und seine Probleme. The lectures most relevant to the earlier volume on historicism are "The Place of Christianity Among World Religions" and "The Morality of the Personality and the Conscience." [Back]

24 Chapters I and III of The Poverty of Historicism are dedicated to the contention that historicism is anti-naturalistic. Popper outlines his formal argument against historicism in the preface to The Poverty of Historicism written July 1957. He sums up his argument in the following five statements: 1) The course of human history is strongly influenced by the growth of human knowledge. (The truth of this premise must be admitted by even those who see in our ideas, including in our scientific ideas, merely the by-products of material developments of some kind or other). 2) We cannot predict, by rational or scientific methods, the future growth of our scientific knowledge. (This assertion can be logically proved, by reasons which are sketched below). 3) We cannot, therefore, predict the future course of human history. 4) This means that we must reject the possibility of a theoretical history; that is to say, of a historical social science that would correspond to theoretical physics. There can be no scientific theory of historical development serving as a basis for historical prediction. 5) The fundamental aim of historicist methods is therefore misconceived; and historicism collapses.The crux of Popper’s argument is in step number 2. It implies that the course of human history cannot be predicted. Popper, then, wishes to establish that there can be no theoretical history that corresponds to a theoretical physics. Historicist theory, according to Popper, seeks an affiliation with the methods of the natural sciences. Historicism, according to Troeltsch for one, rests on the contention that there should be a science of the human studies to parallel the natural sciences, but it should not embrace the scientific model of reasoning. Consequently, the prediction of the future is neither desirable nor possible; the future, in some ways, is as obscure as the past. However, taking responsibility for the future is a distinct precept of historicism. Troeltsch defined the historicism with which Popper was concerned as "bad historicism" (e.g., Comte’s). Troeltsch was convinced of the difference between the natural sciences and the human studies, and in no wise did he seek to establish methods for predicting the future. Popper’s reading of historicism appears, at best, to be impoverished. It is obvious that Popper was not sympathetic to the distinction between the natural sciences and the human studies on any grounds. Many historians had already outlined theoretical approaches to history which, though not constructed to read like the natural sciences, certainly sought the status of sciences within the limitations of the historical process. [Back]

25 Georg Iggers, editor, The Theory And Practice of History by Ranke (New York, 1973). See the section titled "On Progress in History." [Back]

26 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Use and Abuse of History, edited by Levy (London, 1909), Volume 5, 16. [Back]

27 Ibid., 1. [Back]

28 Iggers, The Theory and Practice of History by Ranke, 50. [Back]

29 Ibid., 49. [Back]

30 Ibid. [Back]

31 Ibid., 50. Hegel’s thought leads to the conclusion that history is the "history of a developing God." Ranke was emphatic in his declaration of belief in the God "who was and is and will be." [Back]

32 See note 1 above. [Back]

33 Paul Tillich, "Ernst Troeltsch: Historismus und seine Probleme," Theologische Literaturzeitung, XLIX, 1924, 25-30. [Back]

34 Benedetto Croce, History as the Story of Liberty (London, 1941), 78. [Back]

35 Tillich makes these remarks in the opening lines of his review of Troeltsch’s book. [Back]

36 See footnote on page 15 of What is History? for Lamprecht’s specific defense. [Back]

37 Lamprecht, "Structure of Psychic Change," in What is History?, 126. [Back]

38 Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago, 1970), 158. [Back]

39 Lamprecht, What is History?, 117-134. [Back]

40 Ibid., 121. [Back]

41 Ibid., 133. [Back]

42 John Dewey, A Common Faith (New Haven, 1967), 49. [Back]

Copyright © 1997 National Humanities Institute.
Last updated 29 July 97