The Concept of Despotism and l'abus des mots

in Contributions to the History of Concepts
Author: Melvin Richter1
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  • 1 City University of New York
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In this article, the author applies the methodology of Begriffsgeschichte to the study of the concept of despotism in France, focusing mainly on the eighteenth century and the Revolution. During this period despotism became a basic concept (Grundbegriff), and thus highly contested. At the same time, the concept's long history, which stretches back to antiquity and includes the semantic boundaries that previously made it indistinguishable from "tyranny," created a diachronic thrust against which anyone seeking to add a new meaning or application had to work. Finally, as other key concepts, despotism produced political consequences unanticipated and undesired by those using it, not only major theorists but also pamphleteers, in a number of intensely fought conflicts which helped bring down the monarchy.


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