In two recent posts on my blog I discussed the purpose and direction of current research in conceptual history. The Editors of „Contributions“ asked for an English summary of these two posts for the „Contributions„-website which I was happy to provide. This is a crosspost which is published on „Contributions“ and Rotsinn simultaneously.
“I certainly admire current conceptual history (c.h.) for the breadth of its research and the increasing dynamic of its institutionalisation as an academic discipline (conferences, summer schools, journals etc.). Its growing specialization results in more research that extends to more languages, more historical epochs and more social settings. This is great.
However, I sometimes miss a debate which binds together the various strands of c.h. on the one hand whilst bringing c.h. back into contact with a more philosophically inclined readership. This was certainly the case with Reinhart Koselleck and his project of the “Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe”. Koselleck not only wanted to understand the history of individual concepts. He also strove to describe how conceptual shift fits into the overall narration of social change.
Most contemporary conceptual researchers follow a different, Skinnerian approach. They think of historical thought as something radically contingent. They would probably fully agree with Quentin Skinners approach that there is nothing lying beneath of behind the uses of concepts and ideas (cf. Rhetoric and Conceptual Change, 1999, 61). Kari Palonen refers to this as a ‘desubstantialisation of concepts’ (Entzauberung der Begriffe, 2004, 11).
Is this radical contingency everything there is to c.h.?
Conceptual history is certainly a critical discipline. It calls into question our presuppositions, notions of order and preferences for conceptual canon. But I think c.h. is more than an ongoing critique. Conceptual history should aim towards an understanding of more long-term processes in the history of ideas. Only if we regard concepts and ideas as ‘objects’ with continuity, can we properly understand them as being historical, despite their use within specific rhetorical situations.
Conceptual history helps us to look for the deeper layer of purpose (“Sinn”) within fluctuating social and political contexts. This might smell of old fashion German “Geschichtsphilosophie”. However, if we want to tell a more complex story of the meaning of our language and the reality it reflects, c.h. must go beyond the current state of conceptual case-studyism.”