According to Karl Popper, historicism is ‘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, 1957). Historicism is therefore the belief in laws of history, of social development, or of progress . Political ideologies such as fascism and communism are often said to be erected upon historicist foundations.
Popper's critique of historicism has several aspects. He accuses those guilty of it of making predictions about the future course of history in the form of unconditional prophecies, whereas scientific predictions can only be conditional in character. In an independent argument. Popper claims that human history is also radically unpredictable, because of its dependence upon knowledge. New knowledge cannot be predicted because to do so would be to be already in possession of it. Marxism is rejected because of its determinism and historicism, but also because its predictions have turned out to be false. It is at best a former scientific conjecture which has been subsequently falsified. To continue one's adherence to Marxism in the face of its empirical refutation is, in Popper's view, to abandon science in favour of metaphysical or quasi-religious faith.
The debate about historicism seems to revolve around the question of human agency and class agency. As regards the former, critics such as Popper challenge the structural determinism contained in various political philosophies and social theories, and assert the essential unpredictability of history and appropriateness of the methods of piecemeal social engineering . But related to this is a critique of historicist arguments concerning the role of the working class in history. Marxists who have ascribed a revolutionary role to this class are coustantly seen to be baulked by historical reality and therefore modifying their predictions in the face of historical contingency. Among Marxists, capitalist hegemony is generally presented as the reason for the incorporation of the working class into society, although critics argue that this reasoning (and indeed Marxist interpretations of working-class culture generally) are the result more of what John H. Goldthorpe describes as ‘wishful rather than critical thinking’ (see’Intellectuals and the Working Class in Modern Britain’, in , Social Stratification and Economic Change, 1988). It should be noted, however, that Goldthorpe is no less critical of liberal theories of industrial society (as represented by the work of Daniel Bell, Clark Kerr, and others). In both cases he objects to what he calls the ‘halfhearted and covert historicism’ of the theories of social change advanced by these authors.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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