What is “conceptual history”?

The post-war German historian Reinhart Koselleck made important contributions to the theory of history that are largely independent from the other sources of Continental philosophy of history mentioned elsewhere in this blog. (Koselleck’s contributions are ably discussed in Niklas Olsen’s History in the Plural: An Introduction to the Work of Reinhart Koselleck (2012).) Koselleck contributed to a “conceptual and critical theory of history” (The Practice of Conceptual History: Timing History, Spacing Concepts (2002), Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time (2004)). His major compendium, with Brunner and Conze, of the history of concepts of history in the German-speaking world is one of the major expressions of this work (Staat und Gesellschaft im Deutschen Vormarz 1815-1848 (Industrielle Welt I Schriftenrihe des Arbeitskreises fur Moderne Sozialgeschichte) (1972-97).

Koselleck believes there are three key tasks for the metahistorian or philosopher: to identify the concepts that are either possible or necessary in characterizing history; to locate those concepts within the context of the social and political discourses and conflicts of the time period; and to critically evaluate various of these concepts for their usefulness in historical analysis.

Here is how Koselleck distinguishes between social history and conceptual history in The Practice of Conceptual History:

The claim to reduce all historical utterances concerning life and all changes in them to social conditions and to derive them from such conditions was asserted from the time of the Enlightenment philosophies of history up to Comte and the young Marx. Such claims were followed by histories that, methodologically speaking, employed a more positivistic approach: from histories of society and civilization, to the cultural and folk histories of the nineteenth century, up to regional histories that encompassed all aspects of life, from Moser to Gregorovius to Lamprecht, their synthetic achievement can aptly be called social-historical.

By contrast, since the eighteenth century there have also been deliberately thematized conceptual histories (Begriffigeschichten) — the term apparently derives from Hegel — which have retained a permanent place in histories of language and in historical lexicography. Of course, they were thematized by disciplines that proceeded in a historical-philological manner and needed to secure their sources via hermeneutic questioning. Any translation into one’s own present implies a conceptual history; Rudolf Eucken has demonstrated its methodological inevitability in an exemplary fashion for the humanities and all the social sciences in his Geschichte der philosophischen Tenninologie. (21)

A large part of Koselleck’s work thus involves identifying and describing various levels of historical concepts. In order to represent history it is necessary to make use of a vocabulary that distinguishes the things we need to talk about; and historical concepts permit these identifications. This in turn requires both conceptual and historical treatment: how the concepts are understood, and how they have changed over time. In “The critical theory of history: Rethinking the philosophy of history in light of Koselleck’s work” (link) Christophe Bouton encapsulates Koselleck’s approach in these terms: “[It is an] inquiry into the historical categories that are used in, or presupposed by, the experience of history at its different levels, as events, traces, and narratives” (164).

What this amounts to is the idea that history is the result of conceptualization of the past on the part of the people who tell it – professional historians, politicians, partisans, and ordinary citizens. (It is interesting to note that Koselleck’s research in the final years of his career focused on the meaning of public monuments.) It is therefore an important, even crucial, task to investigate the historical concepts that have been used to characterize the past. A key concept that was of interest to Koselleck was the idea of “modernity”. This approach might seem to fall within the larger field of intellectual history; but Koselleck and other exponents believe that the historical concepts in use actually play a role as well in the concrete historical developments that occur within a period.

A good example of this kind of historical-conceptual treatment is Koselleck’s account of the history of the German concept of “bund” in Futures Past (87-88). “A history of the meanings of the word Bund is not adequate as a history of the problems of federal structure “conceptualized” in the course of Reich history. Semantic fields must be surveyed and the relation of Einung to Bund, of Bund to Bündnis, and of these terms to Union and Liga or to Allianz likewise investigated” (88).

Here is how Koselleck opens chapter 5 of  Futures Past, “Begriffsgeschichte and social history”:

According to a well-known saying of Epictetus, it is not deeds that shock humanity, but the words describing them. Apart from the Stoic point that one should not allow oneself to be disturbed by words, the contrast between “pragmata” and “dogmata” has aspects other than those indicated by Epictetus’s moral dictum. It draws our attention to the autonomous power of words, without whose use human actions and passions could hardly be experienced, and certainly not made intelligible to others. This epigram stands in a long tradition concerned with the relation of word and thing, of the spiritual and the lived, of consciousness and being, of language and the world. Whoever takes up the relation of Begriffsgeschichte to social history is subject to the reverberations of this tradition. The domain of theoretical principles is quickly broached, and it is these principles which will here be subjected to an investigation from the point of view of current research.

The association of Begriffsgeschichte to social history appears at first sight to be loose, or at least difficult. For a Begriffsgeschichte concerns itself (primarily) with texts and words, while a social history employs texts merely as a means of deducing circumstances and movements that are not, in themselves, contained within the texts. Thus, for example, when social history investigates social formations or the construction of constitutional forms—the relations of groups, strata, and classes—it goes beyond the immediate context of action in seeking medium- or long-term structures and their change. Or it might introduce economic theorems for the purpose of scrutinizing individual events and the course of political action. Texts and their attributed conditions of emergence here possess only a referential nature. The methods of Begriffsgeschichte, in contrast, derive from the sphere of a philosophical history of terminology, historical philology, semasiology, and onomatology; the results of its work can be evaluated continually through the exegesis of texts, while at the same time, they are based on such exegesis. (75)

So Koselleck has in mind a methodology that focuses on the formal semantics of historical concepts — what he refers to here as “the sphere of a philosophical history of terminology, historical philology”.

It is worth noticing that history comes into Koselleck’s notion of Begriffsgeschichte in two ways. Koselleck is concerned to uncover the logic and semantics of the concepts that have been used to describe historical events and processes; and he is interested in the historical evolution of some of those concepts over time. (In this latter interest his definition of the question parallels that of the so-called Cambridge School of Quentin Skinner, John Dunn, and John Pocock.) More generally, Koselleck’s aim is to excavate the layers of meaning that have been associated with key historical concepts in different historical periods. (Whatmore and Young’s A Companion to Intellectual History (2015) provide extensive and useful accounts of each of the positions mentioned here.)

Numerous observers emphasize the importance of political conflict in Koselleck’s account of historical concepts: concepts are used by partisans to define the field of battle (Pankakoski 2010). Here is a passage in Futures Past that makes this point clearly:

The semantic struggle for the definition of political or social position, defending or occupying these positions by deploying a given definition, is a struggle that belongs to all those times of crisis of which we have learned through written sources. Since the French Revolution, this struggle has become more acute and has undergone a structural shift; concepts no longer serve merely to define given states of affairs, but reach into the future. (80)

Conceptual history may appear to have a Kantian background – an exploration of the “categories” of thought on the basis of which alone history is intelligible. But this appears not to be Koselleck’s intention, and his approach is not apriori. Rather, he looks at historical concepts on a spectrum of abstraction, from relatively close to events (the French Revolution) to more abstract (revolutionary change). Moreover, he makes rigorous attempts to discover the meanings and uses of these concepts in their historical contexts.

Christophe Bouton also argues that Koselleck also brings a critical perspective to the concepts that he discusses: he asks the question of validity. To what extent do these particular concepts work well to characterize history?

More precisely, its methodology lays claim to an autonomous sphere which exists in a state of mutually engendered tension with social history. From the historiographic point of view, specialization in Begriffsgeschichte had no little influence on the posing of questions within social history. First, it began as a critique of a careless transfer to the past of modern, context-determined expressions of constitutional argument; and second, it directed itself to criticizing the practice in the history of ideas of treating ideas as constants, assuming different historical forms but of themselves fundamentally unchanging. (81)

Koselleck’s work defines a separate space within the field of the philosophy of history. It has to do with meanings in history, but it is neither teleological nor hermeneutic. It takes seriously the obligation of the historian excavate the historical facts with scrupulous rigor, but it is not empiricist or reductionist. It emphasizes the dependence of “history” on the conceptual resources of those who live history and those who tell history, but it is not post-modern or relativist. Koselleck provides an innovative and constructive way of formulating the problem of historical representation and knowledge.

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