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Why We Cannot Make History. Some Remarks on a Lesson from Early Historicism

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There are various perspectives from which the meaning of historicism can be understood. Historically, the interpretation of historicism has predominantly been interested in either questions concerning historical methodology, or the relationship between the natural and human sciences, or the normative consequences of historicism. My intention is not to cast doubt upon the legitimacy of these different research approaches, but rather to supplement them by confronting the meaning of historicism from the perspective of a different question. Did historicism in the late 18th and the early 19th centuries formulate a notion of historical chance or of historical contingency, a notion of what is neither necessary nor impossible in history but rather the result of accident and chance? To answer this question, I begin with Reinhart Koselleck’s interpretation of historicism presented in two rather short essays, “Der Zufall als Motivationsrest in der Geschichtsschreibung” and “Über die Verfügbarkeit von Geschichte”. In the next step of my analysis, I confront Koselleck’s interpretation of the historicist sensibility for contingency and chance with Odo Marquard’s conceptual distinction between two notions of contingency and chance. This line of argumentation gives rise to a definition of historicism as a theoretical sensibility for the “fatefully accidental” (Marquard). I further support this claim with an analysis of Savigny’s legal history, of Schleiermacher’s theology and of the “anti-Faustian” (Werner Busch) art of Caspar David Friedrich. Historicism ultimately teaches us that history is never the exact outcome of the intentions of historical actors. Though human beings undeniably act in history, they cannot make history or at least cannot make it as they please. It is in this regard that I find, in my concluding remarks, Hermann Lübbe’s description of historicism as a “sermon of human finitude” to be wholly accurate.

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/content/journals/10.1163/187226310x509484
2010-01-01
2015-01-27

Affiliations: 1: Email: vogt.peter@bcg.com

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