Particularism and universalism in the work of Reinhart Koselleck and Quentin Skinner: A descriptive and normative approach

Remeseira, Claudio

Historicism, a term originally applied to the German historiographical school of the 19th century, exceeded over the past century the disciplinary boundaries of history to become a byword that encompasses, oftentimes in confusing and contradictory ways, tenets shared by several different approaches in the humanities and social sciences to philosophical, epistemological, and, broadly speaking, cultural problems concerning the nature and limits of human knowledge and the justification of moral and political life. The basic cartography of these problems was laid out between the 1870s and the 1920s in connection with methodological issues raised by historical research, at a time when German historiography had become the academic model for all social sciences. Starting in the 1960s, a second wave of historicism, not directly related to the original one but nevertheless interwoven with it in fundamental ways, swept through the humanities and social sciences in the United States, adding new layers to the discussion (Novick 1993: 523 ss). Despite the differences in the problems, assumptions, and theoretical frameworks involved, the common denominators between the “first” and “second” waves of historicism allow us to use this word—with the corresponding caveats—to conceptualize ongoing arguments in political and social theory.

In the first part of this article, I will try to establish the conceptual grid of the discussions prompted by the term “historicism” across the humanities and social sciences, and the main descriptive and normative issues at stake. In the next sections, I will describe how two of the most important representatives of late 20th-century historiography (and historicism), Reinhard Koselleck and Quentin Skinner, addressed some of those issues. As two major examples of contemporary historicism, BG and linguistic contextualism offer a rich comparative view into the methodological and theoretical challenges presented by historical research and history writing. Working within different but somewhat overlapping intellectual traditions, their two main representatives, Koselleck and Skinner, addressed with similar philosophical zeal the descriptive and normative issues prompted by perspectivism, epistemic relativism, and the epistemological conflict between particularism, or the historicist principle of individuality, and universal concepts. Despite their distinct approach to these issues, they both arrived at the same conclusion, affirming the primacy of politics over theory and describing social and political concepts as the rhetorical locus of particular historical struggles. They also arrived at fairly comparable normative solutions, developing non-substantialist justifications for the preferability of certain values over others and avoiding the nihilist incommensurability of ethical and political concepts. Those solutions constitute an invaluable tool-kit to address old and new problems in political practice and theory, both at a national and international, comparative level.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
American Studies
Published Here
November 18, 2020


This essay was presented for the promotion of an independent studies seminar on quantitative methodology (Conceptual history) that I took as part of my doctoral program at the School of Social Sciences, University of Buenos Aires, Argentina, under the direction of Prof. Casey Blake, director of the Center for American Studies, Columbia University.