Historicism and Contingency in Sociology

George Steinmetz, University of Michigan

This paper discusses the evolution of the concepts of contingency and historicism and their significance for social science. The paper briefly examines the evolving meanings of contingency (and its counter-term, necessity), and then turns to the newer word, historicism (and its counter-term, positivism). It then traces the ways these ideas were brought into discussions of social science philosophy. Kant reaffirmed the ancient dualism between the necessary and the contingent; Positivism suggested that human action was governed by strictly deterministic laws; historicists Windelband and Dilthey rejected the idea of human action as causally determined. Rickert and Weber overcame the dualism between contingency and necessity in social science, arguing that unique events can be explained, that interpretation and explanation were not alternatives but should be combined in the human sciences. Later philosophers of social science defined contingency in terms of the uncoordinated, joint activity of heterogeneous social actors. The paper concludes that contingency and historicism are crucial for imagining, analyzing, representing, and explaining social processes.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 175. What is the "Historical" In Historical Sociology?