R. G. Collingwood

Hayden White

The distinctly modern awareness that our knowledge of the past is in fact inseparable from our ever developing knowledge of ourselves and about the world, the realization that there may in fact be a "meta" dimension to historical study, the new knowledge that history is not just a neutral playing field but the ground out of which human consciousness has sprung--these have produced an increasing self-consciousness, an historicism, governing the writing of history in this century, whether the author be R. G. Collingwood or Hayden White.1 "We have witnessed the dim dawning of a sense that history is to be grasped as something substantial, as something essential to the being of man, as an 'existential encounter,'" Barfield writes in "The Son of God and the Son of Man."

The phenomenon has been called "historicism," and it has been called "historicity"; the Germans call it "Historismus." It was R. G. Collingwood who remarked that this historicism can almost be regarded as a revolution. He compared it to the sudden awakening of interest in natural phenomena which occurred at the time of the Scientific Revolution in the seventeenth century. (RM 255)

As a philologist, Barfield is anxious to remind that our historicism must not neglect--as it tends to do--the place of language in our understanding of history:

As to the history of language, it had always seemed to him to be the key to history itself. He recalled the late birth . . . of his own interest in history, which at school had somehow passed him by. It was a different matter altogether when you saw that history was still immanent, still present in so many words in everyday use. Incidentally it had always seemed to him that this was where Oswald Spengler had gone astray. His picture of a series of successive civilizations each starting afresh from scratch left out the seed-corn of language. (UV 70)2

See in particular History, Guilt and Habit, passim, "The Son of God and the Son of Man" (RM 249-61).
1In History in English Words, Barfield offers the following capsule summary of the growth of historicism.
    The Greek 'historia' could mean practically any kind of knowledge; in the same way, when 'periodos' (literally 'way round') was used of time, it means a cycle, one of a recurring series; it was not till the eighteenth century that a period of history acquired its modern sense of an indefinite portion cut from a continuous process. Labels like Middle Ages, Renaissance, . . . are none of them earlier than the eighteenth century, which also saw the new expressions develop and development, and the fact that the significant words anachronism, evolution, and prehistoric, with the new perspective they denote, only appeared during the nineteenth century may make us doubtful whether the mists of time have even yet fallen wholly from our eyes. (162).
2Language plays an especially important role in our investigation of prehistory. "If we wish to cross the darkness which separates us from [prehistory]," Barfield observes, "we must lay down a little plank of words and step delicately over it" (HEW 19).