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The Birth of International Conceptual History

Jan Ifversen

Abstract

In March 2020, Melvin Richter, one of the founders of international, conceptual history passed away. This sad occasion makes it timely in our journal to reflect on the process that turned national projects within conceptual and intellectual history into an international and transnational enterprise. The text that follows—published in two parts, here and in the next issue—takes a closer look at the intellectual processes that led up to the founding meeting of the association behind our journal, the History of Concepts Group. It follows in the footsteps of Melvin Richter to examine the different encounters, debates and protagonists in the story of international, conceptual history. The text traces the different approaches that were brought to the fore and particularly looks at Melvin Richter's efforts to bridge between an Anglophone tradition of intellectual history and a German tradition of Begriffsgeschichte.

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Part 2: After the Big Bang

The Fusing of New Approaches

Jan Ifversen

Abstract

In part one, I followed the debates and the scholars involved in the big bang of international Begriffsgeschichte. Part 2 takes us from the first encounters between the German and the Anglophone tradition within intellectual history to the more formalized efforts of establishing conceptual history on the international, academic scene. With more scholars joining the debate, the understanding of concepts in language and in context were both broadened and deepened. Case studies from a wider range of European languages added a stronger comparative and transnational perspectives to conceptual history, which would prepare the ground for a conceptual history beyond Europe.

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Time Bandits, Historians, and Concepts of Bad Times

Jan Ifversen

ABSTRACT

Within the history of concepts, the conceptualization of time is central. Historical actors rely on their experiences for orientation in the present, and they produce expectations about the future. To imagine their horizons of expectation they need concepts about the future. When the future becomes difficult to conceive of for a variety of reasons, they take refuge in concepts describing unruly and uncertain times such as crisis or chaos. Times when the future is completely out of reach because the present seems unbearable might be termed catastrophic. Also, historians in general make use of temporal concepts to narrate their histories. They are like time bandits that manipulate time. Following last year’s conference organized by the History of Concepts Group on key concepts in times of crisis, this article takes issue with the discussion of concepts describing bad times within conceptual history.

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About Key Concepts and How to Study Them

Jan Ifversen

The article explores the object and the methodology of conceptual history, by elaborating on Reinhart Koselleck's idea of key concepts, and proposes to study them according to two different aspects of meaning: The representational aspect, which touches upon the relations between words and concepts and studies words and concepts within semantic fields, and the referential aspect, which brings in both the social history reflected in semantic changes and the contexts in which the concepts serve as factors, and which make the use of the concepts possible. The article concludes with a methodological suggestion for the use of digitized textual databases for diachronic as well as synchronic histories of concepts.

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Traveling Concepts

On the Road with Margrit Pernau

Jan Ifversen

In 2023, Margrit Pernau stepped down as editor of Contributions to the History of Concepts. She first took up the position as editor in 2009, and, with her fifteen years on the editorial team, she has been by far our longest serving editor. Over the years, Margrit Pernau has played an invaluable role for the journal and for international conceptual history. I guess it would be correct to say that she was born international. She followed her family when her father got a job in New Delhi and lived in the city for part of her childhood. Her international journey continued to Paris where she spent almost ten years of her youth. After longer detours around Erfurt and Heidelberg where she did her PhD in 1991, she stayed another six years in New Delhi with her spouse and children. After defending her habilitation in Bielefeld in 2007, she took up the position of Senior Researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin in 2008. Many of us who have been involved in her several projects through the years know the renowned expressionist style building at Lentzeallee.

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Groping in the Dark

Conceptual History and the Ungraspable

Jan Ifversen and Christoffer Kølvraa

Abstract

While Reinhart Koselleck articulated the limits of conceptual history in relation to social history, and the limits of historiographical understanding in his discussion of the event, his thinking about the limits of the conceptual as such is harder to trace. However, a close reading of key texts where he discusses situations or events marked as “meaningless” or absurd, allows us to uncover both his ethics and analytics of the limit of meaning, of what we call “the ungraspable.” It is further argued that Koselleck's conceptual mapping of European modernity can be fruitfully extended by bringing it into contact with the ideas of thinkers such as Michel De Certeau, Edourd Glissant, and Francis Affergan who have contemplated how especially “the colonial” both represents the outside to and is the site from which the limit of European modernity and its conceptual universe might be (re)thought.