The Historicists, who include the postmodern multiculturalists, claim that to understand any cultural artifact, you have to understand the historical and cultural situation in which the artifact was created. One cannot understand the works of Sophocles without understanding the ancient Greek world in which he wrote. And since we are not ancient Greeks ourselves, we cannot really ever understand Sophocles' works.
Historicism is a Romantic idea, and was in part a reaction against Enlightenment Universalism. The Romantics -- particularly the German Romantics -- favored more regional arts that would reflect the local language and culture. German poets should write German poetry -- which went well beyond the poems simply being written in German -- meaning, with German thoughts and German ideas and reflecting Germanness itself. The Germans thus studied the ancient Greeks as a model of a radical Other to the German. Without understanding this, one cannot understand the German obsession with the Greeks, or what the German Romantics were getting at in writing about the Greeks.
Gunther Heilbrunn, in a review of a book on esotericism, has an extended discussion of Historicism in which he provides several good definitions:
[Historicism] meant that even the greatest philosophers and thinkers were the intellectual hostages of their own era’s conventions. Consider the dwellers in Plato’s famous image of the cave. Shackled so that they can only look ahead, they confuse the images cast on the wall before them with real beings. Only a few ascend to descry the real world, lit by the sun, not artificial fires.The Historicism of the German Romantics also worked its way into 19th Century German economics. The "Austrian School" was a derogatory term created by the German Historicist economists for those who opposed Historicism and embraced, rather, more universalist ideas in economics. Ludwig von Mises' praxeology, for example, is applicable to all people at all times in all places. This is the very opposite of Historicism.
The historicist denies that anyone can escape. Hegel, for instance, taught that the most profound thinkers are those that best captured the spirit of their own age, or rather of the age just past—the owl of Minerva takes flight at dusk. Hegel helped usher in das historische Jahrhundert, the century devoted to history. Timeless truths made way for such as were possible within a certain historical horizon. Plato’s ideas could be studied as a historical artifact; they were no longer live options. The Ideas had become just ideas. Implicit was the notion that progress, with the rise of Nazism and Stalinism, had suffered a pounding from which it could not recover.
One of the problems with Historicism -- and one of its strengths -- is the insistence on relativism. If everything is always only ever historically and culturally situated, then there is no universal truth -- there are not even patterns which one can detect -- rather, there are only truths that are truths in their times and places. Truth is, thus, relative. And not just truth. Beauty, morals, human nature itself. All is relative.
The problem with relativism is that it ends up corroding the boundaries between truth and myth, between virtue and vice, etc. If my truth is as valid as your truth, then if I believe that Aristotle stole his ideas from the Great Library of Alexandria, then I am entitled to my truth. You may then complain that the Great Library was built only after Alexandria was founded, and Alexandria was founded only after Alexander the Great took over Egypt, and that therefore the tutor of Alexander the Great, Aristotle, was dead well before the Great Library was built. But if all truth -- ALL truth -- is relative, then your facts don't matter. Of course, this is the most extreme form of relativism, but there have been people who have argued precisely for this approach. Again, Heilbrunn points out that,
The corrosive relativism of historicism threatened to destroy such pockets of virtue that remained. But historicism, it turned out, was itself vulnerable to attack: for one thing, it relied on a circular mode of argument. Suppose that you could understand Sophocles only if you had a firm grasp of the Greek culture from which he emerged. But the tragedies were themselves an integral part of Greek culture. Absent an understanding of the plays, Greek culture was impenetrable.So, we cannot understand Sophocles without understanding Greek culture, but we cannot understand Greek culture without understanding Sophocles. Of course, for strong Historicists/multiculturalists, this isn't a problem -- it is the point. One could counter, instead, that it seems unlikely that one human being couldn't understand a fellow human being, but this leads us into arguments for universalism, which the Historicist denies to be valid. Yet, there is another problem:
Historicism also suffered from self-reflexivity. Historicists may claim that the thought of all previous eras was confined by the historical conditions that produced it, but from where could a thinker derive suppositions of his thought if not from the world about him? Obvious examples were the Greek polis, the Roman Republic and Empire, and the mental world of feudalism. Yet this insight impales the historicist on the horns of a dilemma. Either he has to claim an exemption from his discovery that all thought is merely an expression of its age, thereby landing in a mass of contradictions, or he has to admit that this insight is as time-bound as any other. Case closed.The Historicists' world view may itself be a product of his/her time and culture, and thus is just as valid/invalid as is universalism.
And this may in fact solve the problem. The dual validity of Historicism and Universalism is not necessarily a contradiction, but may rather be more of a paradox. The difference between a contradiction and a paradox is that the former results in a breakdown of the entire system, while the latter drives the system to new levels of complexity.
We can thus take an idea from the Historicist par excellance mentioned above, Hegel, to solve the problem -- dialectics. If the Enlightenment thesis of Universalism gave rise to the Romantic thesis of Historicism, then we should expect the emergence of a synthesis of the two. We would expect it to emerge once the contradictions of Historicism became too overwhelming. There are bound to be attempts to return to the older form -- Universalism -- as we see with Mises, but the most successful systems of thought will be those that synthesize the two ways of thinking. And we do see some degree of this in the works of such thinkers as Nietzsche, Hayek, M. Polanyi, J. T. Fraser, Frederick Turner, Clare Graves, et al.
For example, what happens when the universal laws of economics meet this or that particular culture? It turns out that cultural diversity affects the degree of entrepreneurship that takes place and thus the degree of wealth created. Cultures can also undermine entrepreneurship in other ways -- through myths that make heroes of liars and thieves, for example. Respect for entrepreneurial endeavors matters when it comes to wealth creation. At the same time, subjective valuation is a universal human trait, as is the law of diminishing returns and marginal utility. No matter how much you like something, you want less of it immediately after your desire for it is satisfied.
Thus, the synthesis of Universalism and Historicism into a pseudo-Universalism/pseudo-Historicism seems closer to the truth of the matter. Think of it as a solid core of truth with fuzzy edges. This suggests that truth is more like a strange attractor than a solid, unchanging Idea. The system of thought in which the truth is embedded comes closer to it and sometimes drifts farther away from it, but always circles around it as an absent center which cannot ever be reached. This is how knowledge works, and it is how memory itself works. Indeed, strange attractors are simultaneously attractors and repulsors, acting together in a paradoxical manner that keeps the system in place. The system is more stable by being both stable and unstable. A better understanding of truth is thus one that sees truth as simultaneously universal and historically/culturally contingent.
Some of the thinkers I mentioned above have demonstrated how this is possible and how it results in a kind of contingent progress. Fraser's theory of time and emergence shows us how it works out throughout the universe, across time. With the emergence of new levels of complexity, we can simultaneously get universalism in the less complex level and historicism in the emergence of the new level. Clare Graves' social psychology does this, too, for human psychology and social order. Plato and Aristotle are universal for their level of complexity (and any levels less complex than themselves they addressed), which would be included in any levels of greater complexity. At the same time, to be purposefully anachronistic to make my point, the Enlightenment thinkers such as Descartes, Locke, Smith, Hume, et al are not universal for Plato and Aristotle in the areas in which they have built on their ideas at greater levels of psychosocial complexity.
Complexity, strange attractors (chaos and bios theory), and emergence is thus the paradigm that allows us to synthesize Universalism and Historicism. With it, we are able to get a better understanding of the necessity of both. Further, we are given a model that allows for the simultaneous existence of Universalism and Historicism, of the enduring and the ever-changing. The enduring endures because it is ever-changing, and the ever-changing is prevented from dissipation by the presence of the enduring. Both, simultaneously. And thus we spin ever so slightly closer to the absent center truth of these matters.