Understanding Others: Cultural Anthropology with Collingwood and Quine

On one meaning of the term “historicism” to be a historicist is to be committed to the claim that the human sciences have a methodology of their own that is distinct in kind and not only in degree from that of the natural sciences. In this sense of the term Collingwood certainly was a historicist, for he defended the view that history is an autonomous discipline with a distinctive method and subject matter against the claim for methodological unity in the sciences. On another interpretation historicism is a relativist way of thinking which denies the possibility of universal and fundamental interpretations of historical or cultural phenomena. In the following I argue that at least in this second sense of “historicism” Collingwood was everything but a historicist. Quine, on the contrary, was nothing but a historicist. The goal of the comparison, however, is not to establish just who, on this definition, was or was not a historicist, but to draw a few conclusions about what a commitment to or rejection of historicism in this sense, tells us about the nature of understanding.