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Whither Conceptual History?

From National to Entangled Histories

Margrit Pernau

The last decade has witnessed a remarkable internationalization in conceptual history. Research covers more countries and languages than ever before, and there have been a number of very good comparative studies. This article reflects on the possibility of taking conceptual history beyond comparison. Like nations, languages can no longer be considered as naturally given entities, but have to be viewed as profoundly shaped by historical exchanges. This brings conceptual history into a dialogue with translation studies in a common attempt to unravel how equivalents between languages have been created by the actors.

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Quentin Skinner

This article is a response to Robert Darnton's comments on the relations and tensions between intellectual history and the history of books. The author comments on three arguments presented by Darnton. One is that intellectual historians often pay little attention to a question that seems to be of central importance to historians of the book: diffusion. Skinner argues that, to intellectual historians, the wide diffusion of a particular work is not a sure sign of its importance. Conversely, many of the greatest books of the past were not best-sellers. Another point made by Darnton is that intellectual historians often study books that are read and understood only by a small handful of people, a practice that constitutes a form of elitism. Skinner denies the charge of elitism by arguing that intellectual historians also study lesser-known works, and that this criticism can only be made from a philistine viewpoint. Finally, Skinner comments on the issue of the purpose of intellectual activity, defending the position that it plays the role of critically illuminating the moral and political concepts that are nowadays used to construct and appraise our common world.

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Towards a Comparative History of Concepts

Civilisation and beschaving

Pim den Boer

Building upon an introductory discussion on linguistic exchange - the problem of missing words - and the emergence of transnational concepts, this article consists of a comparative study of the history of the concept of civilisation in some major European languages and the concept of beschaving in Dutch, the closest translation to civilisation in that language. According to the author, the particular and independent conceptual evolution of beschaving should be in part explained by the early development of a modern socio-economic structure in Holland.

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Kari Palonen

The author argues that conceptual history is becoming increasingly indispensable due to the historical trend in political practices to move from a politics of answers to given questions to a politics of thematizing the questions themselves, that is, of agenda-setting. The very understanding of a certain question as contingent and controversial marks a politicizing change in the agenda. From the perspective of the history of concepts, the formulation of questions themselves become politically key issues, given that rhetorical problems of the renaming and reinterpretation of the meaning, significance and normative color of concepts play a key role in the decisions regarding inclusion and exclusion. Assuming that concepts function as “pivots” in the contemporary controversy, there is at least some possibility for change in terms of rendering the controversy intelligible by means of the instruments of conceptual history. If conceptual history were ever to play a direct political role, it might concern teaching politicians the styles of both a conceptual reading of politics and a political reading of the uses of concepts.

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Max Stille

This review article provides an overview of important, recent approaches to conceptual history from scholarship on South Asia. While conceptual history is not a consolidated field in South Asia, the colonial encounter has greatly stimulated interest in conceptual inquiries. Recent scholarship questions the uniformity even of well-researched concepts such as liberalism. It is methodologically innovative in thinking about the influence of economic structures for the development of concepts. Rethinking religious and secular languages, scholars have furthermore stressed the importance of smaller communicative units such as genre or hermeneutical practices to shape ideas e.g. of the political. As part of global and imperial formations, scholars are well aware of the link between power and colonial temporalities. Lastly, they have suggested new sources for conceptual history, such as literature, film, and sound.

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Conceptual History in the United States

A Missing "National Projec"

Martin J. Burke

The author addresses the question of why there has been no national project on the history of political and social concepts in the United States analogous to those which have appeared in many countries in the wake of the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe, the Handbuch politisch-sozialer Grundbegriffe in Frankreich and, the Historisches Wöterbuch der Philosophie. Nevertheless, by listing and explaining how to use a number of available internet resources, the author suggests ways for scholars to develop histories of central concepts in American public discourse

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Rudolf Valkhoff

This article traces the main methodological and substantial similarities between Reinhart Koselleck's notion of Begriffsgeschichte and J. G. A. Pocock's approach to the history of political thought. Both approaches are responses to the shift in the unit of analysis in the study of human historical consciousness. Rather than focusing on ideas, Koselleck and Pocock concentrate on how language articulated heightened awareness of historical change. Concepts and paradigms reflect in varying manners the intensity of historical sedimentation. The more sedimentation, less space there is for innovation, and political action tends to be conservative. Conversely, unstable concepts or obsolete paradigms, reflect historical change and space for linguistic innovation.

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Conceptual History in Korea

Its Development and Prospects

Myoung-Kyu Park

This article explores the development of Korea's conceptual history from the perspective of sociology of knowledge by focusing on the intellectual environment since the early 1990s, pioneers and areas of conceptual research, the kinds of expectations that Korean scholars have of conceptual research, data archiving and methodology, works and tasks of conceptual history in Korea. The article finds that the conceptual research on Korea's modernization is a good approach to construct a reflexive history beyond the false dichotomy of Western influence and nationalistic response.

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For a Critical Conceptual History of Brazil

Receiving Begriffsgeschichte

João Feres Júnior

The author argues that the development of a critical history of concepts should be based on a programmatic position different from that of original Begriffsgeschichte, or of its main interpretations. By drawing upon theoretical insights of Axel Honneth, he reassesses the basic assumption of Begriffsgeschichte regarding the relationship between the history of concepts and social history, and calls attention to the problems that spring from focusing analysis almost exclusively on key concepts. According to Feres, special attention should be paid to concepts that are socially and politically effective, but, at the same time, do not become the subject of public contestation. Based on this programmatic position, he ends the article proposing a sketch for organizing the study of conceptual history in Brazil along three semantic regions.

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Helge Jordheim

The article singles out one dimension of the history of concepts in general and of Koselleck’s work in particular, the “theory of historical times,” which at present is both contested and simply overlooked. After discussing some of the arguments for and against the necessity of such a theory for the practice of conceptual history, the article moves on to suggest an alternative context for grasping its originality, the so-called linguistic turn, manifest in French structuralist thought and especially in the works of Michel Foucault. In Koselleck’s works key structuralist ideas like structure and the diachronicsynchronic opposition are developed in ways that open them to questions of historicity and multiple times.