Review History

Concepts in Life: Reflections on Writing History

About: J. F. Sebastián (ed.), Political Concepts and Time, Cantabria University Press, 2011.

by Cesare Cuttica , 10 January 2012

The methodology of the historians of this volume is centred on the polysemic nature of concepts, which are read as “‘vehicles for thought’” studied in their pragmatic and communicative applications in society. Their aim is to remind historians that their toolkits are put together on the basis of choices made at different times in history.

Reviewed: Javier Fernández Sebastián (ed.), Political Concepts and Time, Santander: Cantabria University Press, 2011.

‘The human being continues to live and be active only in the realm of ideas’ (Novalis)

That historians carry out their research in archives might be obvious. What is less so is the content of their toolbox: what kind of instruments do scholars use? What type of material do they work on? How do they ‘go about their business’ of trying to make sense of that foreign country that the past often is? The answers to these questions are generally provided by methodological studies. Javier Fernández Sebastián’s edited collection of essays on conceptual history represents an instance of how fruitful such an activity can be. To present it briefly, conceptual history centres on the idea that concepts ‘do not actually have a history, but rather are themselves history’. It connects linguistic sources with political and social reality. It is not only a history of concepts and their evolution, but it is also an investigation of the relations concepts have to words and objects. History is reflected in concepts and as such it can be understood. The history of concepts can be traced through time – as reminded by Hans Erich Bödeker. This ambitious work has as its two kernels of analysis “language and time” as “essential” interpretative historical categories. Relying on the monumental oeuvre of the important German historian Reinhart Koselleck’s (1923-2006) [1] and his historiographical edifice of Begriffsgeschichte (history of concepts), [2] Political Concepts and Time illustrates the intellectual wealth of conceptual history by focusing on “contingency” and “acceleration” in conjunction with the temporal dimension of modern politics; modernity-shaping concepts such as “power,” “ideology” and “self”; semantic change; “iconology” and “memory” as hermeneutical devices with which to decode the past; “comparative” and “cultural” history. Another hallmark of this project is its being “interdisciplinary” (or “transdisciplinary”), “transnational” and chronologically unconventional.

A European-wide History of Concepts

The thirteen essays (divided into three parts) have the merit to offer an account (sometimes a restatement) of problems, questions and debates on the interplay of words and concepts, meaning and historical change, context and discourse. They endeavour to clarify the complex and perennially unresolved issue of the relationship between theory and practice, interpretations and factual world, linguisticality and historical experience. A valuable addition to them is Christian Meier’s intellectually and biographically informative commemorative speech dedicated to Koselleck. This piece is followed by a second appendix detailing the goals of the European Conceptual History Project in which some of the contributors are involved. Underscoring the central role of categories such as “contingency,” “indeterminacy,” “fragility” and “openness” against all meta-narratives and teleological drives towards “rationalization,” “modernization” and “progress,” one of the principal objectives of conceptual history is to illuminate “the complex relationships between social and political change and semantic innovation” in diachronic and synchronic terms. [3] Concepts are thus seen as factors of change as much as indicators of such change: they are read as “‘vehicles for thought’” studied in their pragmatic and communicative applications in society.

Shaped by the claim that history is essentially open to composite interpretations and multiple connections, Political Concepts and Time sets forth an informative body of theoretical reflections on the multifaceted interactions between “language, politics and history.” As Kari Palonen puts it, “[c]onceptual history not only stresses the role of politics for history; it also provides an insightful framework for political thinking.” And it is through “the contingency of activity,” whereby politics is an activity made of actions which in themselves could have been different, that Koselleck’s conceptual history approach to political thinking might be thoroughly captured.

Offering an inevitably partial selection, I think four essays deserve particular attention. Pim den Boer tackles the relationship between national cultures and transnational concepts, warning of the risks entailed by nationalistic agendas through time (our own post-nation-state times too). Arguing that Begriffsgeschichte can be an excellent bridge between different conceptual horizons, den Boer suggests to abandon Koselleck’s famous “predestined saddle-time” (Sattelzeit) [4] perspective in favour of a “flexible periodization and a plurality of conceptual ridges.” Equally insightful is den Boer’s call for attention to the fact that, whilst “formal empires have disappeared” (and with them the language(s) which accompanied colonial enterprises), “informal empires [class, unwritten social codes, societal conventions etc.] remain or are even built-up openly by economic developments and social networks.” Den Boer persuasively shows how conceptual comparative studies are extremely useful in order “to understand contemporary political sensibilities” such as the value and meaning of democracy, constitutional arrangements in the EU, class-divisions and more. In this respect, Koselleck’s lesson emerges in its full strength in that it reminds us that to study concepts created by men and women not only in relation to past and present experiences but also in conjunction with “expectations for the future” holds great importance not only in the sometimes rarefied scholarly world but also in the larger framework of society. Likewise, João Feres Júnior defines Koselleck’s idea of “community” as “post-metaphysical” in that it is founded on realism (how communities are) and not on abstract normativism (how communities ought to be). Thus, this definition of community entails some anchoring in a here and now made of political, social and cultural interaction between concrete agents through “language and institutions.” The mooted point – and one much pertinent to current talks of crisis (end?) of the EU – is, however, to establish whether such a unity has at its centre the horizon of the nation-state or a more transnational dimension as argued by den Boer.

New Proposals for the Concepts of Modernity

Another highlight in the volume comes from Faustino Oncina Coves’ incisive piece on memory, iconology and the role of conceptual history in defining their complex association with modernity. Taking the delicate controversies (in which Koselleck became involved) of the Neue Wache – the Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for the Victims of War and Tyranny – and the monument to the victims of the Holocaust in Berlin, Oncina Coves delineates how collective memory, its aesthetic representation and the issue of national celebrations of the dead (victims and perpetrators) are deeply intertwined not simply as subjects of historical research, but most importantly as key features of what he calls “a public acceptance of historical reasoning.” Especially fascinating is Oncina Coves’ argument that the visualisation of death presents “a restricted range of [sculptural, aesthetic] motifs” through which memory can be illustrated. Insightful and thematically rich is then Javier Fernández Sebastián’s account of the interplay between ‘crisis of time’ and ‘crisis of language’ as characteristics of modernity. Through an analysis of various eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sources, Fernández Sebastián shows how changes in the perception of time occurred together with changes in the terminological realm of political and social concepts. The acceleration of time caused by revolutionary events mirrored a proliferation of new words employed to address political and social issues. Revolutionaries transgressed “the normal rules of semantics” causing “‘a complete change’ in meanings,” which in turn altered “the pace of social, political and legislative transformation.” In the aftermath of the French Revolution and the subsequent uprisings across several parts of the globe (including the often ignored Spanish-speaking contexts), the new “‘imperious celerity of time’” opened up a novel outlook onto the future, so that the making of history became interwoven with the experience of writing history. With regard to the emergence of a new contemporary historical time in the Atlantic world, Fernández Sebastián argues how “secular manifestations” coexisted with theological marks: “Progress” and “Providence” were seen as reconcilable elements. Furthermore, Fernández Sebastián explains that many thinkers in the mid-nineteenth century deemed the pace of change so rapid and so decisive that an overnight occurrence determined a cataclysmic shift in the chronology of civilization. This consideration serves him to set out Fernández Sebastián provides a penetrating interpretative grid through which to read our own time shaped by a constellation of events (from September the 11th to the Arab Spring) whose essence is precisely to modify people’s existence following the facts of one day.

For all their positive assessment of Koselleck’s historical interpretations and theoretical positions, some essays do not refrain from a healthy critique of his theory of modernity. The latter turns out to be an overarching historiographical category that risks neglecting history’s inescapably contextual dimension. Koselleck’s well-known meta-concept of Sattelzeit as well as the four key concepts fixing the semantic changes engendered by the advent of the modern, namely “temporalization,” “ideologization,” “democratization” and “politicization,” advance a reductive reading of the processes of modernisation occurred in and to different societies at various times in history. It is by considering them as “hypotheses” and not as “truths” that they become useful ways of thinking about historical change [5].

Conceptual History Versus Intellectual history: Overcoming the Gap

The criticism of the methodology of intellectual history, [6] especially of its alleged lack of engagement in connecting the thoughts of the authors studied with social historical features of a specific period is ubiquitous in the volume. [7] Sceptical of all attempts to reconstruct the authorial intentionality of texts, various contributors privilege a path of investigation centred on the polysemic nature of concepts. And yet this view of intellectual history ignores that accurate accounts of ideas in context(s) have become an indisputable trait of works whose methodological perspective belongs in it. From monographs on political theories to intellectual biographies, from analyses of Western notions of race to explorations of gender in extra-European cultures, intellectual historians are now contributing to excitingly new and significantly innovative ways of addressing the perennial problem of connecting theory and practice, high-brow reflection and ‘popular’ mindset. [8] Moreover, the hackneyed assumption that the history of ideas primarily concentrates on the great (male and white) thinkers and ignores sources such as pamphlets, parliamentary debates, petitions and so forth paints a distorting picture of what scholars have actually been doing in the last two decades. To testify to the flourishing plurality of research-angles pursued in intellectual history stands its engagement not only with verbal texts, but also with non-verbal traces as means to seize how a society mainly expresses itself. Perhaps one way of bringing the two approaches – both the products of the so-called “linguistic turn” [9] – closer is to ask whether the historian is an antiquarian or a rescuer of the past or, rather, a shaper of its cultural codes. Is studying history in its multifarious manifestations a reproductive effort or does it imply a creative endeavour to reconstruct fragments far away from us in time and space? Should historical research be guided by the unachievable goal of telling what really happened? Or – more humbly – should it consist in a search for understanding through the fallible instruments at our disposal, the meanings of signs left behind on that distant horizon? Animated by the spirit of critical enquiry, conceptual history and intellectual history (should) keep alive a manifold sense of possibility to shed some always-changing light into the night of ideas and their origins. This helps to rethink many of the values informing our present manners of life and the ways in which we comprehend them. It might also remind all types of historians that their toolkits are put together on the basis of choices (to the exclusion of other legitimate ones) made at different times in that endlessly finite stream of events which we call history (our own history too).

Within the thematic plurality and theoretical richness of Koselleck’s teachings unveiled by Fernández Sebastián’s volume, the most important and somehow reassuring is that “[t]here always occurs in history more or less than is contained in the given conditions. Behind this ‘more or less’ are to be found men, whether they wish or not.” To bear this in mind is what the self-defined “‘professional layman’” Reinhart Koselleck did so thoroughly throughout his oeuvre. Under the equally eloquent pens of conceptual and intellectual historians, ideas are thus deprived of their spiritualist, divine and metaphysical aura: instead, they are plunged into the more earthly ground of human criticism, dialogue, interpretation, scepticism. The rest is faith, not history writing.

by Cesare Cuttica, 10 January 2012

To quote this article :

Cesare Cuttica, « Concepts in Life: Reflections on Writing History », Books and Ideas , 10 January 2012. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL :

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[1Koselleck’s work extends to a variety of topics and fields (history, historiography, linguistics, historical semantics, anthropology of history). One of his main research interests regarded Prussia and Germany in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. His doctoral thesis Critique and Crisis (1954) was strongly influenced by the ideas of his mentor Carl Schmitt (1888-1985), the highly controversial and nowadays much-in-vogue jurist, philosopher and political theorist.

[2Together with Koselleck, Otto Brunner and Wener Conze were the other two historians behind this late 1960s historiographical school.

[3Concepts mean something for people and their audiences, and are connected to authors’ goals and vocabularies (synchronic approach). Concepts also change over time and patterns of new meanings intervene at different historical phases (diachronic approach).

[4According to Koselleck, the period 1750-1850 saw a fundamental conceptual crisis in Europe, which corresponds to the advent of modernity. At this time political and social concepts ceased to be exclusively descriptive and began to exert an influence on political and social reality, so that they became concerned not only with the past but also with the future.

[5It is a pity that the book lacks an index of names and subjects to help readers navigate through what is virtually an ocean of notions, concepts, and philosophical interpretations. As for its prose, this is sometimes unduly obscure (there are, however, notable exceptions: the piece by Peter Burke is a rather illuminating instance). It is almost as if readers were reminded of the distance separating the moments when historians write history and those when they write about history. Unfortunately, clarity often deserts the latter enterprise.

[6As a discipline, intellectual history originates from the old history of ideas (e.g. Arthur O. Lovejoy), notably in the UK and the US, whilst it is still very much off the academic radar in France. It studies concepts, thoughts and texts in the specific (linguistic) contexts in which they formed, developed and were employed in debates, disputes, dialogues between authors, philosophers, political theorists. Rejecting all readings of past intellectual efforts as timeless and permanently valid as well as dismissing interpretations conditioned by scholars’ contemporary concepts and preoccupations, intellectual historians underline the role of human agency in the formulation of opinions and principles. They also criticise(d) the exponents of the Begriffsgeschichte for their tendency to detach concepts from their particular historical settings by way of referring to terms and families of terms (the English ‘keywords’). In this respect, the risk implied in the Begriffsgeschichte is that of identifying a text as the emblem of a static mentalité which, in turn, is the expression of a given social formation.

[7One is puzzled by seeing the works of two of the ‘founding fathers’ of the so-called Cambridge School of the history of political thought (1960s), Quentin Skinner and John Pocock, unflatteringly (and deeply unjustly) referred to as informed by “studied ignorance and […] empty clichés” (sic). At one – rather un-gentlemanly – point the former is depicted as misleading in his dialogue with Koselleck with words which reveal more about a grumpy critic than their scholarly target.

[8As historian Donald Kelley has pointed out, intellectual history has moved in new directions: from thought to discourse, from conscious to the unconscious, from creation to imitation, from intention to meaning, from authorship to readership, from the history of ideas to the social history of ideas, from the sociology of knowledge to the anthropology of knowledge.

[9Born in the 1960s philosophical reflection inspired by the theories of Martin Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer, the linguistic turn refers to the notion that reality is not transparent but can only be seized through and by language.

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