About Conceptual History

What is conceptual history?

Sami Syrjämäki

Though the field of conceptual history is heterogeneous conceptual historians usually share two common ideas:

The first is the recognition that in political discussions concepts are used as tools or as weapons. This is characteristic especially in the case of value-laden concepts such as democracy, terrorism, freedom etc. These concepts are used in various ways to meet the ends of the political actors using them. Concepts are part of the world and the world is accordingly changed by the use of concepts. This is a theoretical insight and leads to explanations of conceptual change and its relation to social changes, and serves to dissolve the sharp distinction between theory and practise. Accordingly, to study conceptual history is to study a form of cultural, political and social change.

The second shared idea is that concepts acquire their meaning from their uses in their respective historical contexts. This has got a kind of methodological point that leads to considerations concerning the question: how we are to study concepts in order to understand them? To grasp the meaning of a given concept in its context means to understand not only its literal meaning but also how it can be applied to the world and what is done by it. All these dimensions of the meaning of a concept are deeply rooted in the respective diachronic and synchronic contexts, and that is why a conceptual historian should be radically prepared to change her or his expectations considering the meaning of any concept under study.

Among the conceptual historians probably the two most discussed figures are Reinhart Koselleck and Quentin Skinner. Practitioners of conceptual history are many a time using philosophical and methodological ideas from both of them, acknowledging the differences in the thinking of these two scholars. Multivolume project Geschichthlichen Grunbegriffe lead by Koselleck stand as major exemplary of conceptual history in a social theory perspective sensitive for how the logic of conceptualisation changes in the process of modernisation. Quentin Skinner’s studies of history of concepts such as the state and liberty alongside his emphasizes on analysing language in terms of linguistic actions offer also an influential model of doing conceptual history. The impact of Koselleck and Skinner on conceptual history is strong but conceptual historians are by no means dedicated followers of these two eminent historians. Current practises of conceptual history are moving to different directions within individual, national and international projects.

Even though history of concepts and conceptual history are often used as synonyms there can also be seen differences between them – at least intuitively. In narrow sense the term history of concepts refers only to such studies in which the aim is to follow the history of a given concept through times. Term conceptual history might also refer to studies, which have focus on certain events the viewpoint being the role of a concept or a set of concepts in the changes taking place in events under study. However this demarcation cannot be taken as granted, but it should be noted that e.g. Quentin Skinner uses rather the term conceptual history or even such an expression as “history of uses of concept in argumentation” than history of concepts.

Conceptual history is characteristically interdisciplinary field of study. It both gains from and benefits other fields of study e.g. intellectual history, sociology, philosophy and political studies.

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