Historicism and Universals

By: Bradley Irish, Arizona State University

“Anyone who embarks upon the study of historicism,” Frederick Beiser warned not too long ago, “should be wary: he enters an intellectual minefield” (Beiser, “Historicism,” 174).  The present essay is an attempt to navigate, with necessary tentativeness, a particular corner of this minefield, by broadly charting how the theme of universality (literary and otherwise) has variously featured throughout several centuries of historicist thought.

It is no easy thing to define historicism—or perhaps, rather, it is altogether too easy to define it, given the multitude of (often conflicting) ways that the term has been employed by scholars of historical thought.  In 1954, Dwight E. Lee and Robert N. Beck identified at least five basic senses in which historicism had been understood; two decades later, Wesley Morris affirmed that “the meaning of the term historicism…has become so broad as to make the word useless for the philosophy of history” (Lee and Beck; Morris vii).  The subsequent critical ascendency of its “new” variety—the form of historicism most readily familiar to contemporary scholars—has only complicated matters further.

Clarifying our term is a vital first step.  The wisest course, it seems, is to select a definition that is flexible enough to include the major intellectual trends that have, by common consensus, been deemed historicist, but that is not so loose as to make delineation pointless in the first place.  Here, we may be helped by Beiser, whose understanding of historicism emerges from its operative verb:

Roughly, to historicize our thinking means to recognize that everything in the human world—culture, values, institutions, practices, rationality—is made by history, so that nothing has an eternal form, permanent essence or constant identity which transcends historical change.  The historicist holds, therefore, that the essence, identity or nature of everything in the human world is made by history, so that it is entirely the product of the particular historical processes that brought it into being.  (Beiser, German Historicist Tradition, 2).

This statement crystalizes how the topic has been defined by a range of scholars.[1]  Following Beiser, this essay understands historicism as the approach to history (or the philosophy of history) that generally adopts the premise that all features of the human world are the complete product of history, and thus must be understood as emerging entirely from a particular historical context.[2]

From the outset, this definition also makes clear that historicism is no friend to notions of universality—and indeed, may be seen to be fundamentally opposed to them.  The story of this essay, then, is the story of how the broad development of historicist thought gradually worked to undercut intellectual faith in a human sphere that is governed by enduring, universal laws and ideals.  Literary universality per se is seldom the precise target of the historicist project, so my strategy is to treat historicism’s attitude toward universality more generally—with the understanding, of course, that the historicist’s suspicion of universalizing impulses (and insistence on the primacy of context) readily applies to artistic creations, self-evidently the product of human affairs.

In this essay, I map the broad development of historicist thought, beginning with its deep origins in the Enlightenment historiographical tradition and concluding with some reflections on the current state of post-New Historicist scholarship.  Few scholars are expert in every phase of historicism’s many forms—and I am certainly not one of them—so what follows will, at times, naturally privilege my particular area of study, English Renaissance literature.  (Fortunately, this field has played a crucial role in historicist literary scholarship of the last 80 years.)  Because I cover much material (and many exceedingly complex thinkers) in a relatively short space, my goal is merely to account for some of the high-points of historicist thought—with the understanding that such a survey, in an article of this size, is inevitably incomplete.  It is my hope that, at the very least, this can serve as a starting point for thinking about the connection between historicism and literary universality—a topic, I’ll try to show, of considerable interest.


At the most fundamental level, what we now understand as historicism emerged in late eighteenth-century Europe, as a response to the Enlightenment way of doing history.  At the time, the orthodox understanding of history was underpinned by “an unstable mixture of classical, medieval and humanist elements circumscribed by and crammed into the traditional Christian interpretation of universal history” (Reill 9); reflecting the Enlightenment veneration of reason, it maintained that “all human societies were perceived as being ruled by the same rationality whereby they had formed themselves to escape the perils of the lawless state of nature” (Hamilton 27).  Universality was a persistent theme.  Humanity, it was thought, “had remained basically the same in all periods of which we have any knowledge” (Meinecke lv), and the historian’s task was to demonstrate (through a set of “self-evident transhistorical assumptions”) how “the universal rules of religion or philosophy operated in specific instances,” and how “human beings observe laws of their own nature that are everywhere invariable and constant” (Reill 10; Hamilton 26).  This final point is crucial, as Natural Law theory provided an essential framework from which the historical endeavor could proceed:

In particular, it was the prevailing concept of Natural Law, handed down from antiquity, which confirmed [a] belief in the stability of human nature and above all of human reason.  Accordingly, it was held that the pronouncements of reason, though they could certainly be obscured by passions and by ignorance, did nevertheless, wherever they could free themselves from these hindrances, speak with the same voice and utter the same timeless and absolutely valid truths, which were in harmony with those prevailing in the universe as a whole.  (Meinecke lvi)

The Natural Law then, ultimately provided the fundamental criteria for historical judgement: once “the natural laws governing human behaviour at all times [were] formulated,” Enlightenment historians could evaluate geographically and temporally distant cultures “by the degree to which they approximate to this ideal pattern” (Hamilton 2).

A few representative examples from seventeenth and eighteenth-century thinkers can give a sense of this outlook in action.[3]  Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), for example, places Natural Law theory at the center of his political philosophy; early in Leviathan (1651), he famously defines Lex Naturalis as a “Precept, or generall Rule, found out by Reason, by which a man is forbidden to do, that, which is destructive of his life, or taketh away the means of preserving the same; and to omit, that, by which he thinketh it may be best preserved” (Hobbes 64).  The German jurist and philosopher Samuel Pufendorf (1632-1694) argued that man is subject to the laws of God, nations, and nature; in On the Duty of Man and Citizen According to Natural Law (1673), he similarly argues that “the Law of Nature asserts that this or that thing ought to be done, because from right Reason it is concluded that the same is necessary for the Preservation of Society amongst men” (Pufendorf A6v).  For Pufendorf, it is a “fundamental Law of Nature” that “every man ought, as much as in him lies, to preserve and promote Society, that is, the Welfare of Mankind”—and indeed, “all other Precepts are to be accounted only Subsumptions, or Consequences upon this Universal Law, the Evidence whereof is made out by that Natural Light which is engrafted in Mankind” (44).  Henry St. John, Lord Bolingbroke (1678-1751) suggests the ultimate purpose of Enlightenment historiography when he observes that “by comparing…the experience of other men and other ages with our own, we improve both”; by searching for the universal currents of historical knowledge, he argues, the historian is empowered to “reduce all the abstract speculations of ethics, and all the general rules of human policy, to their first principles” (Bolingbroke 1:147).  And the era’s approach to historical judgment may be inferred from the preface to the English edition of Voltaire’s Essay on Universal History, The Manners and Spirit of Nations (1756): in this “philosophical history of the world,” the translator suggests, “the sagacious author may be said to erect his supreme tribunal, to sit as judge of all that has been transacted for a number of centuries in the various parts of this globe, to pronounce the destiny of the great, to fix their character with posterity, to give lessons to all nations, and to direct the conduct of future ages” (Voltaire 1:v).

These were some of the central orthodoxies of Enlightenment historical consciousness—and it was historicism, then, that “liberated modern thought from the two-thousand-year domination of the theory of the natural law” (Iggers 5).  Historicism thus “emerges in reaction to the practice of deducing from first principles truths about how people are obliged to organize themselves socially and politically,” and came to argue instead “that human nature is too various for such legislation to be universally applicable” (Hamilton 2).  The historicists resisted “our natural tendency to eternalize our values and institutions, as if they were true for humanity in general and held for all time,” and in doing so struck a crucial blow to the universalizing impulses that animated Enlightenment historiography (Beiser, “Historicism,” 158).  This does not mean, however, that their “historical method excludes altogether any attempt to find general laws and types in human life”—and indeed, as we will see, thinkers associated with historicism variously relate to teleological understandings of human affairs that seemingly flirt, however obliquely, with notions of (constrained) universality (Meinecke lv).  But the point is that even those historicists who sought laws of historical destiny understood them not as a priori products of nature, but rather as emerging from the circumstances of history itself—and in that sense, the historicist sensibility did entail a radical shift in how European thinkers related to the past.[4]

Historicism emerged in gradual response to the prevailing mode of Enlightenment historiography, and its early origins can thus be detected even in the work of thinkers who we would not yet necessarily designate as fully historicist.  A good example is that of the Italian political philosopher Giambattisa Vico (1668-1744), a man often credited as both a forerunner of historicism and as the inventor of the philosophy of history (Hamilton 30; Bertland). Throughout his intellectual career, Vico routinely opposed the Enlightenment emphasis on Cartesian rationality; in his magnum opus The New Science (1725), he utilizes scientific principles to develop a sweeping history of human society that is also at odds with the dominant historical assumptions of his day.  While taking no issue with a search for the “principles of universal history,” Vico argued that historians like Pufendorf “err together” by “beginning [their histories] in the middle; that is, with the latest times of the civilized nations (and thus of men enlightened by fully developed natural reason), from which the philosophers emerged and rose to meditation of a perfect idea of justice” (Vico 126; 124).  To understand the rules of history, Vico countered, we must begin with the most remote origins of human society, and his scientific method thus considered the

course [that] nations run, proceeding in all their various and diverse customs with constant uniformity upon the division of the three ages…the successive ages of Gods, heroes, and men.  For the nations will be seen to develop in conformity with this division, by a constant and uninterrupted order of causes and effects present in every nation, through three kinds of natures.  (335)

The emphasis on both diversity and uniformity is crucial.  Vico saw all civilizations as progressing through the same three developmental stages—but the acknowledgement of such development, and of the “various and diverse customs” through which it manifests, implicitly repudiates Enlightenment notions of human universality.  In developing a “new science which could accommodate historical variety without loss of principle,” Vico thus became “the first to take seriously the possibility that different people had fundamentally different schema of thought in different historical eras”—a crucial tenet of what would become the historicist tradition (Hamilton 30; Bertland).[5]

We find Vico’s approach reflected—and vitally extended—in the work of philosopher and theologian Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), a founding voice of the German historicist tradition.  In works such as Another Philosophy of History for the Education of Mankind (1774) and Ideas on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind (1784-91), Herder similarly emphasized “the organic development of peoples and nations,” mounting an explicit critique of “the eighteenth century view that the history of humanity was a fundamental unity” (Thomas 32; Antoni xviii).  Railing against the “weakness of generalizing,” he echoed Vico in stressing the diversity of human experience and the inevitability of historical change:

No people stayed or could have stayed the same for any extended period of time; every people, like the arts and sciences and everything else in the world, had its period of growth, blossoming, and decay; each of these changes lasted only the minimum amount of time that could be given to it on the wheel of human destiny; finally, no two moments in the world are ever identical.  (Herder, Against Pure Reason, 38-39)

For Herder, ostensibly transhistoric ideals like happiness are thus “in all Places an individual Good”—they are “climatic and organic, the Offspring of Practice, Tradition, and Custom” (Herder, Outlines, 1:393).  Consequently, he critiqued the “universal, philosophical, philanthropic tone” of the Enlightenment historical method, which “readily applies ‘our own ideal’ of virtue and happiness to each distant nation, to each remote period in history”; contemporary historians, he lamented, “create arbitrary verdicts of praise and blame on the basis of a favorite people of antiquity with whom we have become infatuated, and…use them to judge the whole world” (Herder, Against Pure Reason, 44; 42).  In fact, Herder maintained that even human nature is “a pliant clay which assumes a different shape under different circumstances, needs, and burdens”:

Human nature, even at its best, is not some independent deity: It must learn everything, be shaped through continuous processes, advance further through gradual struggle.  Naturally it will develop mainly, or exclusively, those aspects which are given occasions for virtue, struggle, or process.  Each form of human perfection is, in a certain sense, national, time-bound, and most specifically, individual. (43; 40)

With iconoclastic views on universality, historical judgement, and human nature, Herder is rightly aligned with the general principles of historicism outlined above.  But it is important to note that he was no pure relativist, and did not think that history unfolded without a design; on the contrary, his understanding of human experience emerged from a thoroughly providential framework.  He thus did not actually deny the existence of “universal perspective,” but merely maintained that it “is bound to lie beyond the grasp of the human race”—for it is the “Creator alone,” he suggested, “who conceives the entire unity of one and all nations, conceiving them in all their diversity without losing sight of the unity” (47; 40).  Herder, then, was not only a critic of the Enlightenment, but also reflected some of its intellectual orthodoxies; we see this tension, for example, in his representative position that “the human Race is destined to proceed through various Degrees of Civilization, in various Mutations; but the Permanency of its Welfare is founded solely and essentially on Reason and Justice” (Herder, Outlines, 2:291).

As one of the “godfathers of historicism,” Herder helped set an historical agenda that would be taken up in earnest by his countrymen in the nineteenth century (Beiser, “Historicism,” 156).  Historicism, as it is now known, owes considerably to German thinkers of the time, who made it a central focus of their intellectual endeavors; indeed, it has been said that “almost all German philosophy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century…grew out of a reaction to historicism” (155).  This tradition has been well-documented by modern scholars, and there are ample resources that survey the work of important historicists such as Friedrich Savigny (1779-1861), Johann Gustav Droysen (1838-1908), and Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911).[6]  For the current purposes, it will suffice to treat the thought of Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886), arguably the most enduring figure to be associated with the nineteenth-century historicists, and the man who “provided the ground for the modern academic discipline of history” (Davaney 27).    A “founding father of the German tradition of historiography,” Ranke famously “sought to differentiate history from other areas of endeavor by defining history as a science whose goal was supposed to be the disinterested pursuit of objective truth”; as such, he maintained that a methodologically-aware historian must both undertake archival research and maintain a critical attitude towards sources (Davaney 27; Cheng 71; Beiser, German Historicist Tradition, 254).  This scientific approach meant repudiating the Enlightenment fashion for historical judgement.  “History has had assigned to it the office of judging the past and instructing the present for the benefit of the future ages,” Ranke famously observed in the preface to his first publication, History of the Latin and Teutonic Nations, 1494-1535 (1824)—but “to such high offices the present work does not presume: it seeks only to show what actually happened [wie es eigentlich gewesen]” (Ranke 58).  Though twentieth-century thinkers, of course, have fiercely questioned the historian’s ability to access to “what actually happened,” this notion nonetheless became a cornerstone of Ranke’s commitment to scientific objectivity.  It also helped underpin his global outlook. Like Herder, Ranke’s historical understanding ultimately emerged from a providential, theological framework, but it was one that similarly allowed him to honor the diversity and uniqueness of human experience.  In a series of lectures in 1854, Ranke memorably declared that “every epoch is immediate to God, and that its value consists, not in what follows it, but in its own existence, its own proper self” (159).  God, he continues,

existing in no particular time, gazes over the whole historic humanity in its totality and finds them all equally valuable.  Although the idea of the education of humanity has some truth in it, from God’s point of view all the generations of mankind have equal rights, and this is the way the historian too must regard them. (160)

For Ranke, then, “historical individuality was already not only the starting point and the foundation, but also the ultimate end of historical knowledge”—he “did place the individual life in a universal-historical context, but as a direct relation to the divine, which cannot be comprehended and historically transmitted” (Berding 45).

Because a full treatment of German historicism lies beyond the scope of this essay, it is enough for now to note its profound influence on contemporary and subsequent philosophical inquiry; besides the names listed above, the thought of Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and Heidegger has all been linked to historicism in one way or another.[7]  Like all things, however, it had its time of ascendency; historicism “ceased to be a dominant force in German intellectual life after the 1920s,” when it became common to worry that an alleged historicist relativization of values had occasioned a “crisis of historicism.” (Beiser, German Historicist Tradition, 24).   But there is no denying that the central tenets of historicism—insistence on contextualization and skepticism of universality—had made their mark, and they would continue to do so as they became integrated into twentieth-century Anglo-American literary scholarship, to which we’ll now turn.


At the turn of the twentieth century, the study of literature in English was characterized by an emphasis on philology and literary history—an emphasis which, in the larger sense, was an inheritance of the nineteenth-century German thought discussed above.  But there soon emerged an alternate agenda—often designated criticism, as opposed to scholarship—which eschewed the historical concerns of contemporaries, and in doing so, brought issues of universality back into the foreground (Graff 121).  Lamenting the dominance of “grammatical criticism and philological exegesis,” critics like Henry E. Shepherd (in a PMLA article of 1891) advocated instead a focus on the “aesthetic brilliance of literary culture” (Shepherd 41).  Four years later, Martin W. Sampson argued that “the study of literature means the study of literature, not of biography nor of literary history…nor of anything except the works themselves, viewed as their creators wrote them, viewed as art, as transcripts of humanity”;  the proper method of analysis, he concluded, is to “systematically approach the work as a work of art, find out the laws of its existence as such, the mode of its manifestation, the meaning it has, and the significance of that meaning” (Sampson 96).  Unsurprisingly, such dehistoricization efforts naturally allowed some critics to resituate literature within an ostensibly timeless, universal realm of aesthetic consideration. We see this manifest, for example, in The Teaching of English in England, a report released by the British Board of Education in 1921:

There is a tendency in some quarters to treat Literature as a branch of History or Sociology. This is in our view a dangerous mistake.  All great literature has in it two elements, the contemporary and the eternal.  On the one hand, Shakespeare and Pope tell us what Englishmen were like at the beginning of the 17th and at the beginning of the 18th centuries.  On the other hand they tell us what all men are like in all countries and at all times.  To concentrate the study of literature mainly on the first aspect, to study it mainly as history, is to ignore its nobler, more eternal and universal element…Great literature is only partly a reflection of a particular year or generation: it is also a timeless thing, which can never become old-fashioned or out of date, or depend for its importance upon historical considerations.  (Board of Education 205)

In subsequent decades, the rise of text-privileging methodologies such as New Criticism in the US and Practical Criticism in England further codified (relatively) ahistorical approaches to literary analysis, which could be adopted for universalist ends.  In The Great Tradition (1948), for example, F.R. Leavis famously declared that “major” writers are those “significant in terms of the human awareness they promote; awareness of the possibilities of life”—and the “essential interest” of literature, it follows, entails a “concern with human nature” (Leavis 2; 4).

It is at this point that we return to historicism. Because, contra the textualist critics, there came to be a group of influential scholars who insisted on the primacy of historical context to literary analysis—and who would, decades later, become retrospectively known as the “Old Historicists.” The 1940s, which saw the publication of E.M.W. Tillyard’s The Elizabethan World Picture (1943) and Shakespeare’s History Plays (1944), Theodore Spencer’s Shakespeare and the Nature of Man (1942),  John Dover Wilson’s The Fortunes of Falstaff (1943), and Lily B. Campbell’s Shakespeare’s Histories: Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy (1947), was a banner decade for scholarship in this mode.  Recalling the teachings of nineteenth-century German historicism, such scholars understand literature as the product of a precise moment in history, and generally aim to demonstrate how literary artifacts can be seen to reflect the conditions of this historical “background.”  The rationale of Tillyard’s The Elizabethan World Picture—which has become enshrined today as the quintessential example of “Old Historicism”—suggests this method:

This small book has come out of an attempt to write a larger one on Shakespeare’s Histories.  In studying these I concluded that the pictures of civil war and disorder they present had no meaning apart from a background of order to judge them by.  My first chapter set out to describe that background.  When it was finished, I found that it applied to no more than to the rest of Shakespeare or indeed than to Elizabethan literature generally.  I also found that the order I was describing was much more than political order, or, if political, was always a part of a larger cosmic order.  I found, further, that the Elizabethans saw this single order under three aspects: a chain, a set of correspondences, and a dance. (Tillyard, Elizabethan World Picture, vii)

For Tillyard, Elizabethans “had in common a mass of basic assumptions about the world, which they never disputed,” and establishing the orthodoxies of historical thought was the key precondition of proper literary analysis: “my object then is to extract and expound the most ordinary beliefs about the constitution of the world as pictured in the Elizabethan age and through the exposition to help the ordinary reader to understand and to enjoy the great writers of the age” (4; viii).  As Spencer argued, writers—especially great writers—both shaped and were shaped by the intellectual spirt of their age, which in turn became the ultimate key to unlocking their thought:

I do not suggest…that Shakespeare made deliberate use of any of the particular authors or books which are quoted from or referred to in the first two chapters.  We are in no way concerned with Shakespeare’s specific knowledge of Ptolemy or Copernicus, Sabunde or Montaigne, Cicero or Machiavelli.  Whether he knew them or not is of no importance to our argument.  These writers are discussed because they give the clearest articulation to what Shakespeare’s age was thinking and feeling….In order to best express his time, and the general truths with which its best minds, like himself, were concerned, Shakespeare did not have to spend his days turning pages in a library. (Spencer x)

Despite their commitment to historical context, historicists of this era were not—as the reference here to “general truths” suggests—opposed entirely to transcendent notions of universality.   Spencer concludes his book by considering “Shakespeare’s work not merely against the background of his own time, but in the larger perspective of general human experience,” and Jürgen Pieters has argued that Old Historicists see figures like Shakespeare as “both eternal and of his own time” (Spencer xi; Pieters 28).  But by seeing literary works as historical productions, historicists of the mid-twentieth-century offered a valuable alternative to the universalist, ahistorical tendencies of the New Critics—who, as Douglas Bush put it in the 1948 MLA Presidential Address, were most likely to analyze literature “in vacuo as a timeless, autonomous entity” (Bush 14).[8]

And it is at last that we arrive at the New Historicism, a movement enabled by the theoretical revolution of the 1970s—which, in dethroning the New Critical formalism of the intervening decades, entailed a “shift away from a criticism centered on ‘verbal icons’ to a criticism centered on cultural artifacts” (Greenblatt, Learning to Curse, 3).  This “New” Historicism took historicist work of the 1940s as both a point of origin and a point of departure.  “Set apart from both the dominant historical scholarship of the past and the formalist criticism that partially displaced this scholarship in the decades after World War Two,” New Historicism (as it came to be known) emerged in the 1980s as a loose coalition of scholarship that, aided by the insights of the modern theoretical revolution, insisted on the importance of cultural and historical context to the analysis of literature (Greenblatt, “Introduction,” 5).  Unsurprisingly, there are points of deep continuity between this theoretical “practice” and both nineteenth-century German historicism and mid-twentieth-century Anglo-American historicism—but there is, as the name suggests, something undoubtedly new about this approach, which didn’t hesitate to set itself in direct opposition to its historicist ancestors (Greenblatt, “Towards a Poetics of Culture,” 1).  Traditional literary historicism—writes Stephen Greenblatt, New Historicist par excellence— had “a vision of high culture as a harmonizing domain of reconciliation based upon an aesthetic labor that transcends specific economic or political determinants”; it “tends to be monological,” concerned “with discovering a single political vision, usually identical to that said to be held by the literate class or indeed the entire population” (Greenblatt, Learning to Curse, 168-69; Greenblatt, “Introduction,” 5).  By imposing such a “schematic order on the historical real,” Old Historicists like Tillyard found in past eras a “stable, coherent, and collective” worldview “lucidly reproduced in the canonical literary works of the age” (Pieters 30; Montrose, “Professing the Renaissance,” 18).  Scholars of the 1980s, however, rejected this presumption of ideological unity:

New historicism tends to distance itself from historicism on the grounds that historicist critics often viewed the past in terms of epochal trends and orders, and that the Renaissance period, or the Reformation period, for example, was characterized by a single dominating system of explanation and belief; whereas new historicist critics, on the other hand, tend to view the past as consisting of very diverse configurations of beliefs, values and trends, often coming into conflict and contradiction with each other.   (Brannigan 31)

Furthermore, Old Historicists “not only reduce the heterogeneity of a given historical reality to a homogeneous, monolithic and compact framework,” they also “assume that this framework is a historical fact in its own right, not the product of the historian’s interpretation”—a critical naiveté untenable for the New Historicists, who maintained a heathy skepticism about the historian’s ability to ultimately access historical truth (Pieters 28).  In short, New Historicism thus came to radically reinvent the historicist project as they found it, upending the old assumptions that “that history is knowable; that literature mirrors or at least by indirection reflects historical reality; [that] historians and critics can see the facts of history objectively” (Howard 18).  In fact, in a famous passage, Greenblatt surveyed The American Heritage Dictionary’s three definitions of historicism—1) “the belief that processes are at work in history that man can do little to alter”; 2) “the theory that the historian must avoid all value judgements”, and 3) “veneration of the past or of tradition”—only to conclude that “most of the work labelled new historicist, and certainly my own work, has set itself resolutely against each of these positions” (Greenblatt, Learning to Curse, 164).

Much ink has been spilled on the governing tenets of New Historicism, which do not need to be elaborated here.[9]  The important matter is the New Historicists’ deep suspicion toward notions of universality, which were attacked for their apparent ahistoricity, and for their alleged tendency to homogenize the cultural and historical diversity of human experience.[10] As we saw above, scholars of the 1980s critiqued their historicist ancestors for imagining past eras as ideologically monolithic; despite their insistence on the primacy of historical context, the Old Historicists still viewed those precise contexts in largely totalizing terms, as if historical subjects inevitably shared a single outlook. But the New Historicists became even further hostile to notions of universality, eventually embracing an “anti-humanist belief that individuals have few natural characteristics and are simply the products of their social conditions” (Parvini, Shakespeare and Contemporary Theory, 4).  Indeed, it was declared in 1986 that “one of the most striking developments of contemporary thought is the widespread attack on the notion that man possesses a transhistorical core of being”—and like many theoretical schools of their time, New Historicism similarly “overthrew the tyranny of human nature” from their methodological agenda (Howard 20; Belsey xi).  This owed largely to the theorists who influenced it most: thinkers such as Louis Althusser, Raymond Williams, Michel Foucault, and Clifford Geertz are “united by their commitment to anti-humanism,” a rejection of “the belief that there is such a thing as a universal human nature and that individuals have innate traits and characteristics” (Parvini , Shakespeare and Contemporary Theory, 48).  Anti-humanism, with the anti-universalism it entails, accordingly became a central component of much New Historicist thought.  In 1986, Jean Howard observed that one of the two “starting points” for the “new historical literary criticism” is “the notion that man is a construct, not an essence” (Howard 23).  In 1989, H. Aram Veeser remarked that a “key assumption” of New Historicism is that “no discourse, imaginative or archival, gives access to unchanging truths nor expresses inalterable human nature” (Veeser, “Introduction,” xi).  And in 1990, Stephen Greenblatt exclaimed that “the very idea of a ‘defining human essence’ is precisely what new historicists find vacuous and untenable”—for him and the likeminded, “interest lies not in the abstract universal, but in particular, contingent cases” (Greenblatt, Learning to Curse, 165; 164).

It is crucial to note that the new historicists also explicitly treated matters of literary universality, notions of which were said to obscure the social and material conditions that underpin literature in the first place.  Howard surmised that the rise of New Historicism in early modern studies owed partly to the fact that “teachers of Renaissance literature simply have grown weary…of teaching texts as ethereal entities floating above the urgencies and contradictions of history and of seeking in such texts the disinterested expression of a unified truth rather than some articulation of the discontinuities underlying any construction of reality” (Howard 15).  Louis A. Montrose similarly rejected the notion of “an autonomous aesthetic order that transcends the shifting pressure and particularity of material needs and interests” (Montrose, “Renaissance Literary Studies,” 8).  Greenblatt confronts this matter directly, arguing that cultural forces are responsible for the apparent timelessness that some scholars have found in King Lear:

Modern critics tend to assume that Shakespearean self-consciousness and irony lead to a radical transcendence of the network of social conditions, paradigms, and practices in the plays.  I would argue, by contrast, that Renaissance theatrical representation itself is fully implicated in this network and that Shakespeare’s self-consciousness is in significant ways bound up with the institutions and the symbology of power it anatomizes. (Greenblatt, “King Lear,” 239)

“The ideological and historical situation of King Lear,” he claims,produces the oscillation, the simultaneous affirmation and negation, the constant undermining of its own assertions and questions of its own practices—in short, the supreme aesthetic self-consciousness—that lead us to celebrate its universality, its literariness, and its transcendence of all ideology” (242).[11]

Some, of course, have thought that the New Historicists protest too much: Edward Pechter, for example, argued in 1987 that “they are not less ‘monological’ than the old historicists,” in the sense that they “view history and contemporary political life as determined, wholly or in essence, by struggle, contestation, power relations” (Pechter 298; 292).  Graham Bradshaw has similarly claimed that, in rejecting the ideological implications of older historicism, the anti-essentialism of New Historicist and Cultural Materialist scholars actually replicates the critical method of Tillyard— the “habit of giving particular characters and speeches a supradramatic significance”—while John Lee likewise argues that “New Historicism is only able—at the level of theory—to make coherent distinctions between itself and previous extrinsic literary historicism at the expense of alerting the reader to the many continuities it shares with ‘old’ historicism” (Bradshaw 9; Lee 16).  Other critics have interrogated New Historicism’s relationship to essentialism and universality on different grounds.  Judith Newton suggested that New Historicist skepticism towards universality and ahistoricity was largely anticipated by feminist criticism—a debt “barely alluded to in most of the histories” of New Historicism (Newton, 90).  James Holstun discussed the “new historicists’ tendency to claim a premature totalization of early modern culture on the basis of an immanent analysis of canonical literary works” (Holstun 192).  And Katharine Eisaman Maus influentially challenged the fact that the anti-essentialism of “new-historicist and cultural-materialist critics of early modern English literature [has] tended to deny or downplay the significance of a rhetoric of inwardness in early modern England” (Maus 26).  But whatever the case, the point remains that the New Historicists and their allies represent the most radical historicist rejection of universality that we’ve seen in this essay, and it was one that would have a lasting influence.  As Andy Mousley observes, “historicism has taken a variety of different forms in the last thirty to forty years (cultural materialism, new historicism, material feminism, the new economic criticism, presentism)”—but what largely unites these forms is a “scepticism about universals” (Mousley, Re-Humanising Shakespeare, 76).


In the introduction to Historicism, Psychoanalysis, and Early Modern Culture (2000), Carla Mazzio and Douglas Trevor declared that historicism had become the “default mode of critical practice” in early modern studies (Mazzio and Trevor 1).  Nearly two decades later, the underlying assumptions of historicism still inform a great deal of new scholarship—but, at the same time, there is no doubt that we, for some time now, have been in a critical landscape that is “post” New Historicist.  What, then, has come after historicism?  Though no single paradigm has yet achieved a new supremacy, there are signs that the critical terrain is becoming ever more welcoming to the notion of universality, via a renewed interest in the potential affordances of (a theoretically-informed) humanism:  Andy Mousley thus speaks of “a return to the human subject, not only in literary studies, but across a range of disciplines” (Mousley, “Introduction,” 137).  Frustrated that historicist orthodoxy has “empt[ied] history of its human interest, scope, and scale,” Mousley has been a vanguard in this movement; because “the pervasive anti-essentialism of contemporary theory had meant that…literature’s human significance has remained under-theorized,” his work aims to “rescue for the academic study of literature, literature’s human significance, interest and appeal” (Mousley Re-Humanising Shakespeare, 76; Mousley, Literature and the Human, 5, 2).  (He also, quite importantly, “underscores the need for a way of talking about universals with a degree of subtlety, such that their existence is neither dismissed out of hand as ideological claptrap nor triumphantly assumed” [Mousley, Literature and the Human, 78]).

And Mousley is not alone.  An increasing number of literary critics are now embracing fields like cognitive and evolutionary studies—partly because, as Paul Cefalu, Gary Kuchar, and Bryan Reynolds have recently noted, “seeming bogeys like universalism, essentialism, and eliminative materialism” are becoming ever more detached from their more “odious” implications (4).[12]  Indeed, Neil Rhodes observes that scientists “have by no means given up on the possibility of identifying essential human-ness”—and that “many of the identifying characteristics proposed are of striking relevance to literary criticism” (Rhodes 23).  In Shakespeare’s Humanism (2005), for example, Robin Headlam Wells argues for the “centrality of human nature in Shakespeare’s mental universe,” suggesting that “criticism can move on from an outdated anti-humanism that has its intellectual roots in the early decades of the last century to a more informed modern understanding [of] human universals” (Wells 5).  In Shakespeare and the Nature of Love: Literature, Culture, Evolution (2007), Marcus Nordlund assumes a “biocultural perspective” based “on the Darwinian interaction between genes and environments” in attempt to “recognize what is universal as well as particular to human beings” (Nordlund 5).  And in Emotion in the Tudor Court: Literature, History, and Early Modern Feeling (2018), I draw on theories of emotion from the modern affective sciences in my interrogation of the emotional past, asking how the transhistorical and transcultural can be brought to bear on the historically and culturally contingent (Irish).[13]  These are just three examples, but they reflect a growing critical trend, and I suspect that scholarship in the coming years will be increasingly tolerant of universalist sentiment.[14]

When the New Historicists gazed into the past, they generally found, in the famous words of Greenblatt, “a stubborn, unassimilable otherness”—and indeed, the scholarship they produced relentlessly emphasized a “sense of distance and difference” (Greenblatt, Learning to Curse, 169).  But this is not the only way to approach historicist scholarship.  Perhaps what’s needed, as we increasingly recognize that some aspects of human affairs are “fundamentally trans-historical and trans-cultural,” is what Gail Kern Paster calls a “heuristics of similarity, even perhaps of sameness”—a historicist method that can account for universality, literary or otherwise (Paster 247).  As Patrick Colm Hogan reminded two decades ago, to “argue for the study of universals is not at all to argue against the study of culture and history”: like “laws of nature, cultural universals are instantiated variously,” and we can’t properly understand universals without considering the cultural and historical contexts in which they manifest (Hogan 226).  As historicists themselves would readily admit—and I count myself among them—historicism’s traditional antipathy to universality emerges from, and indeed reflects, a particular set of historical, cultural, and intellectual moments.  But our collective understanding of universality today is not the same as it was in 1880 or 1980.  And, as the work on this website suggests, the contemporary research program on literary universals, based on the insights of cognitive science and related disciplines, obviates many of the traditional historicist objections to universality, and demands that historicist scholars reconsider how the universal may feature in their explorations of the past.  It is thus my hope that historicism of the future, in whatever form(s) it takes, will be daring enough to attend to both the particular and the universal.



I would like to thank Patrick Colm Hogan and an anonymous reader for their very valuable feedback on this essay.


Works Cited

Antoni, Carlo. From History to Sociology: The Transition in German Historical Thinking. Trans. Hayden V. White. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1959.

Baumbach, Charles R. Heidegger, Dilthey, and the Crisis of Historicism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995.

Beiser, Frederick C. The German Historicist Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

—. “Hegel’s Historicism.” The Cambridge Companion to Hegel. Ed. Frederick Beiser. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, 270-300.

—. “Historicism.” The Oxford Handbook of Continental Philosophy. Ed. Brian Leiter and Michael Rosen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, 155-179.

—. “Historicism and Neo-Kantianism.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 39 (2008), 554-64.

Belsey, Catherine. Culture and the Real: Theorizing Cultural Criticism. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Berding, Helmut. “Leopold von Ranke.” The Discovery of Historicity in German Idealism and Historism. Ed. Peter Koslowski. New York: Springer, 2005, 41-58.

Bertland, Alexander. “Giambattista Vico (1668—1744).” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ISSN 2161-0002, http://www.iep.utm.edu/.

Board of Education. The Teaching of English in England. London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1921.

Bolingbroke, Henry St. John. Letters on the Study and Use of History. 2 vols. London, 1752.

Bradshaw, Graham. Misrepresentations: Shakespeare and the Materialists. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Brannigan, John. New Historicism and Cultural Materialism. New York: Palgrave, 1998.

Bush, Douglas. “The New Criticism: Some Old-Fashioned Queries.” PMLA 64.1 (Part 2 supplement) 1949: 13-21.

Campbell, Lily B. Shakespeare’s Histories: Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy. San Marino: The Huntington Library, 1947.

Cefalu, Paul, Gary Kuchar, and Bryan Reynolds. “Tarrying with the Subjunctive: An Introduction.” The Return of Theory in Early Modern English Studies: Tarrying with the Subjunctive. Ed. Paul Cefalu, Gary Kuchar, and Bryan Reynolds. New York: Palgrave, 2011, 1-20.

Cheng, Eileen Ka-May. Historiography: An Introductory Guide. London: Continuum, 2012.

Davaney, Sheila Greeve. Historicism: The Once and Future Challenge for Theology. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2006.

Gallagher, Catherine and Stephen Greenblatt. Practicing New Historicism. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Goldberg, Jonathan. “The Politics of Renaissance Literature: A Review Essay. ELH 49.2 (1982): 514-42.

Graff, Gerald. Professing Literature: An Institutional History. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Greenblatt, Stephen. “Introduction.” The Power of Forms in the English Renaissance. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. Norman, OK: Pilgrim Books, 1982, 3-6.

—. “King Lear and Harsnett’s ‘Devil-Fiction.” The Power of Forms in the English Renaissance. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. Norman, OK: Pilgrim Books, 1982, 239-42.

—. Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture. New York: Routledge, 1990.

—. “Towards a Poetics of Culture.” The New Historicism. Ed. H. Aram Veeser. New York: Routledge, 1989, 1-14.

Hamilton, Paul. Historicism. 2nd Ed. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Herder, Johann Gottfried. Against Pure Reason: Writings on Religion, Language, and History. Trans. Marcia Bunge. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993.

—. Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man. 2 vols. London, 1803.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan, or, the Matter, Forme, and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil. London, 1651.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. “Literary Universals.” Poetics Today 18.2 (1997): 223-249.

Holstun, James. “Ranting at the New Historicism.” English Literary Renaissance 19.2 (1989): 189-225.

Howard, Jean E. “The New Historicism in Renaissance Studies.” English Literary Renaissance 16.1 (1986):  13-43.

Iggers, Georg G. The German Conception of History: The National Tradition of Historical Thought from Herder to the Present. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1983.

Irish, Bradley J. Emotion in the Tudor Court: Literature, History, and Early Modern Feeling. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2018.

Jameson, Fredric. “Marxism and Historicism.” New Literary History 11.1 (1979): 41-73.

Kinney, Arthur F., and Dan S. Collins, eds. Renaissance Historicism: Selections from English Literary Renaissance. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987.

Leavis, F.R. The Great Tradition: George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad. New York: New York University Press, 1963.

Lee, Dwight E., and Robert N. Beck. “The Meaning of ‘Historicism.’” The American Historical Review 59.3 (1954): 568-77.

Lee, John.  Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the Controversies of Self. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000.

Maus, Katharine Eisaman. Inwardness and Theater in the English Reniassance. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Mazzio, Carla, and Douglas Trevor, eds. Historicism, Psychoanalysis, and Early Modern Culture. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Meinecke, Friedrich. Historism: The Rise of a New Historical Outlook. Trans. J.E. Anderson. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972.

Montrose, Louis A. “Professing the Renaissance: The Poetics and Politics of Culture.” The New Historicism. Ed. H. Aram Veeser. New York: Routledge, 1989, 15-36.

—. “Renaissance Literary Studies and the Subject of History.” English Literary Renaissance 16.1 (1986):  5-12.

Mousley, Andy. “Introduction: Shakespeare and the Meaning of Life.” Shakespeare 5.2 (2009): 135-144.

—. Literature and the Human: Criticism, Theory, Practice. New York: Routledge, 2013.

—. Re-Humanising Shakespeare: Literary Humanism, Wisdom and Modernity. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007.

Morris, Wesley. Toward a New Historicism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972.

Newton, Judith. “History as Usual? Feminism and the ‘New Historicism.’” Cultural Critique 9 (1988): 87-121.

Nordlund, Marcus. Shakespeare and the Nature of Love: Literature, Culture, Evolution. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2007.

Parvini, Neema. Shakespeare and Contemporary Theory: New Historicism and Cultural Materialism. London: Bloomsbury, 2012.

—. Shakespeare and New Historicist Theory. London: Bloomsbury, 2017.

Paster, Gail Kern. “The Pith and Marrow of Our Attribute: Dialogue of Skin and Skull in Hamlet and Holbein’s The Ambassadors.Textual Practice 23.2 (2009): 247-65.

Pechter, Edward. “The New Historicism and its Discontents: Politicizing Renaissance Drama.” PMLA 102.3 (1987): 292-303.

Pieters, Jürgen. Moments of Negotiation: The New Historicism of Stephen Greenblatt. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2001.

Pufendorf, Samuel. The Whole Duty of Man According to the Law of Nature. London, 1691.

Ranke, Leopold von. The Secret of World History: Selected Writings on the Art and Science of History. Ed. Roger Wines. New York: Fordham University Press, 1981.

Reill, Peter Hanns. The German Enlightenment and the Rise of Historicism. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1975.

Rhodes, Neil. “The Science of the Heart: Shakespeare, Kames, and the Eighteenth-Century Invention of the Human.” Posthumanist Shakespeares. Ed. Stefan Herbrechter and Ivan Callus. New York: Palgrave, 2012, 23-40.

Ryan, Kiernan. Shakespeare’s Universality: Here’s Fine Revolution. London: Bloomsbury, 2015.

Sampson, Martin W. “The University of Indiana.” English in American Universities. Ed. William Morton Payne. Boston, MA: D.C. Heath & Co., 1895, 92-98.

Semler, L.E. “The Renaissance Gets Emotional.” Metascience 16 (2007): 137-141.

Shepherd, Henry E. “Some Phases of Tennyson’s In Memoriam.” PMLA 6.1 (1891): 41-51.

Spencer, Theodore. Shakespeare and the Nature of Man. New York: Macmillan, 1949.

Strauss, Leo. Natural Right and History. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1965.

Thomas, Brook. The New Historicism and Other Old-Fashioned Topics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Tillyard, E.M.W. London: The Elizabethan World Picture. New York: Vintage Books, 1970.

—. Shakespeare’s History Plays. London: Chatto & Windus, 1944.

Wells, Robin Headlam. Shakespeare’s Humanism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Wilson, John Dover. The Fortunes of Falstaff. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1943.

Veeser, H. Aram. “Introduction.” The New Historicism. Ed. H. Aram Veeser. New York: Routledge, 1989, ix-xvi.

—., ed. The New Historicism Reader. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Vico, Giambattista. The New Science of Giambattista Vico. Ed. Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch. 3rd Ed. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1968.

Voltaire. An Essay on Universal History, the Manners, and Spirit of Nations. 4 vols. London, 1759.

Zunshine, Lisa, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Literary Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.


[1] See, for example, the following accounts of historicism: “the tendency to interpret the whole of reality, including what up to the romantic period had been conceived as absolute and unchanging human values, in historical, that is to say relative, terms” (Antoni xvii); “the assumption that there is a fundamental difference between the phenomena of nature and those of history…History thus becomes the only guide to an understanding of things human” (Iggers 4-5); “history is the means by which one acquires an understanding of the human condition” (Reill 213); “the prime importance of historical context to the interpretation of texts of all kinds” (Hamilton 1-2).

[2] In an earlier essay, Beiser argues that we might “define historicism not as a doctrine but as a programme,” united in its aim to “legitimate history as a science”: historicists “wanted history to enjoy the same status and prestige as the natural sciences; but they claimed that it had its own goals, methods, and standards of knowledge, which were unlike those of the natural sciences” (Beiser, “Historicism,” 156).  He goes on, however, to suggest that this programme entailed viewing human affairs in the contextually-dependent manner described in the quotation above.

[3] For more detail on the examples in this paragraph, see Hamilton, Chap. 2.

[4] Though the larger context of historicism’s emergence falls outside the scope of this paper, it is important to note that many scholars do not see it as a purely intellectual movement: it has been argued, for example, that the emergence of eighteenth-century historicism was “bound up with the attempts of political theorists to defend local rights and privileges against the encroachment of the centralizing Enlightenment state,” and that it was part of a pan-European “reaction and revolt of national traditions against French Reason and the Age of Enlightenment” (Iggers 6).

[5] It should also be mentioned that, for Vico, the development of human society had a literary correlate, as humans progress through imaginative modes of metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony; for this reason, he proved key to influential 20th century literary critics such as Northrop Frye and Harold Bloom (Vico 129-131).

[6] On German Historicism, see Antoni; Hamilton; Iggers; Davaney; Meinecke; Beiser, “Historicism”; Beiser, German Historicist Tradition.

[7] See Beiser, “Historicism and Neo-Kantianism” (Kant); Beiser, “Hegel’s Historicism” (Hegel); Jameson (Marx); Strauss (Nietzsche); Bambach (Heidegger).

[8] It is important to note, however, that both schools similarly grant literary works a sense of unity; as Pieters notes, “to traditional historicists the text’s unity is a reflection of the basic unity of the historical context out of which it emerged,” while “to New Critics, on the other hand, the text’s unity is the autonomous outcome of the organic growth of the creative process” (26).

[9] In addition to the works quoted throughout this section, see Parvini, Shakespeare and New Historicist Theory; Gallagher and Greenblatt; Veeser, New Historicism Reader; Kinney and Collins; Goldberg.

[10] Of course, as the articles on this website suggest, universality and historicity is a false binary, and universality need not be totalizing – but these assumptions have nonetheless informed much of contemporary critical theory.

[11] Greenblatt’s quotation, however, implies that the instantiation of a cross-cultural universal must necessarily entail the (in his mind, impossible) transcendence of ideology: but this is not the case, as universally consistent patterns are perfectly possible of emerging across different, contesting ideological contexts.  See also note 10.

[12] For a convenient introduction to work in this mode, see Zunshine.

[13] The rise of emotion studies in the last decade is potentially instructive: such work not only reflects “the post-1980 fashion for theorizing the body and affect, and the post-1990 fashion for inventing fresh paradigms for historicising subjectivity,” but it also is readily able to engage the universalist, transcultural/transhistorical insights of the sciences (Semler 137).

[14] Though he doesn’t approach the issue from a scientific perspective, see also Ryan, who argues that Shakespeare’s plays have a “revolutionary universalism” that reveals “the potential of all human beings to live according to principles of freedom, equality and justice” (9).