Beyond Koselleck: Conceptual History Today

AHA Session 102
Friday, January 8, 2016: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Room A602 (Atlanta Marriott Marquis, Atrium Level)
James V. Melton, Emory University
Is “Russia” a Basic Historical Concept?
Nikolay Koposov, Georgia Institute of Technology
Tracie M. Matysik, University of Texas at Austin

Session Abstract

Over the last decades, Reinhart Koselleck’s history of concepts has become one of the leading trends in international historical research. It has proven to be a highly productive approach for exploring political and social vocabularies of various languages and countries. However, the expansion of the Begriffsgeschichteto new topical areas poses problems for the classical theory developed by Reinhart Koselleck. The session will investigate three possibilities for such expansion.

First, Koselleck’s theory of historical concepts crucially depends on the notion of Sattelzeit, or the period of formation of the modern conceptual system in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Unsurprisingly, the canonical lexicon, the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe, was focused on those concepts that were “invented” or radically reinterpreted during the Sattelzeit period. To be sure, Koselleck and his co-authors carefully examined the changes, which occurred to these concepts in the nineteenth and twentieth century. But they paid less attention to the new concepts that were coined over the course of the twentieth century to account for its tragic experience, such as for example the notions of “totalitarianism” or “genocide.” Anson Rabinbach will discuss the following questions: How did these new concepts emerge? What kind of historical temporality is reflected in them? What does their study reveal about the historical concepts’ semantic structures? Are the notions of “horizon of expectations” and “space of experience” still relevant for understanding them?

Second, Begriffsgeschichte has been traditionally focused above all on political and social concepts. Concepts referring to intellectual and religious history only occasionally appear in Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe. However, such concepts as “mind,” “Geist,” and “Weltanschauung” are hardly less “basic” for the modern conception of history than the concepts of “Friede” (peace) or “Macht” (power). Indeed, from the eighteenth through the twentieth century the notion of mind has been not only a philosophical concept, but also a political (or at least a highly politicized) one. Theories of mind served as powerful ideological tools that were used to justify political philosophies, including Marxism, liberalism, and social democracy. Todd Weir will discuss the relevance of the concept of Weltanschauung for the program of conceptual history as it could be reformulated today.

Thirdly, all concepts included in Geschichtliche Grundbegriffeare expressed by common names. But the historian’s vocabulary also encompasses other kinds of names, for instance, proper names such as names of countries, etc. Arguably, proper names can have a meaning. Names of countries or other geographical entities (such as Europe) can be seen as historical concepts. For instance, Buckle’s concept of England or Guizot’s notion of France could “stand for” the idea of civilization. Nikolay Koposov will discuss the following questions: Which geographical denominations belong to the category of historical concepts? How do their semantic structures differ from those concepts, which are designated by common names? Did the relative importance of historical concepts expressed respectively by common and proper names change over time?

We believe that reflecting upon all these questions would expand and enrich the program of conceptual history.

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