29 May 2017

Conceptual History and Genealogy

by :

Pragmatism and the history of ideas had many moments of encounters. Conceptual history and genealogy may serve to better understand how ‘power’ means and does today and how this came to be. It also creates open spaces for other conceptions and perspectives. The practice of authority over the development and diffusion of concepts affect the construction of knowledge. If constructivist analyses de-naturalise the status quo, a genealogical approach to conceptual history also questions the performative effect of pragmatic developers of concepts. This form of analysis goes beyond studying the usages of a concept in different times and places; meanings most be considered in terms 0f the performative dimension of these propositions as political language. Conceptual history here remains at the crossroad of power politics, social history, and conceptual history. At this intersections can be found several groups of historians.


On Power Politics and Historiography: Historiography at War

Historicism can be understood in two ways in the English language that conflate two ideas better distinguished in German: as Historismus, which understands all political order as historically developed and grown, and Historizismus, based on the notion that history develops according to predetermined laws towards a particular end. The encounter between pragmatism and the history of ideas gives fruits under the former understanding of the English term. In this line of thought Sellin argues that two traditions regarding the Western understanding of politics compete to inform conceptual history with one, anchored in the Machiavellian tradition grounded in the reason of state, and the other, in the neo-Aristotelian tradition stressing the common good:

  1. Dufort, P. (2017). ‘The Influence of Changing Understanding of Power over Strategy: A Genealogical Essay.’ Revista Científica General José María Córdova, (2017) 15(19): 29–81.
  2. Foucault, M. (2003). Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975–76. London: Penguin Books.
  3. Sellin, V. (1978). ‘Politik’, in Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe. Historisches Lexikon zur politisch-sozialen Sprache in Deutschland, Band 4, eds. Otto Brunner, Werner Conze, and Reinhart Koselleck. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 789-874.


19th Century and Early 20th Century German Historical Schools: Concepts at War

While entangled in nascent or totalising nationalist lens many German historians embraced a pragmatic approach to historiography. Many show how the various forms of rhetoric aimed at concepts can reveal historically sedimented and naturalised patterns of legitimacy:

  1. Delbrück, H. (1982). History of the Art of War: Within the Framework of Political History.Vol. 3: The Middle Ages (trans. by Walter J. Renfroe, Jr.). London: Greenwood Press.
  2. Koselleck, R. (1979). Vergangene Zukunft: Zur Semantik geschichtlicher Zeiten. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag.
  3. Farr, J. (1989). ‘Understanding Conceptual Change Politically’, in Political Innovation and Conceptual Change, eds. Terence Ball, James Farr, and Russell L. Hanson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 24-49.
  4. Meinecke, F. (1970) [1907]. Cosmopolitanism and the National State. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  5. Meinecke, F. (1977) [1906]. The Age of German Liberation, 1795-1815 (trans. P. Paret & H. Fisher). Berkeley: University of California Press.
  6. von Ranke, L. (1973). ‘On the Character of Historical Science’ (Wilma A. Iggers trans.), in The Theory and Practice of History. Eds. Georg G. Iggers & Konrad von Moltke. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.
  7. Sterling, R. W. (1958). Ethics in a World of Power. The Political Ideas of Friedriech Meinecke. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton Legacy Library.


The Cambridge School of Historical Thought: Fighting over the Audience

Heirs of the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe in many ways the Cambridge Schoolof Historical Thought analyses concepts from the distinct historical meaning contexts of the audience its use wanted to address:

  1. Brunner, O., W. Conze, R. Koselleck (Eds.). (1978). Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe. Historisches Lexikon zur politisch-sozialen Sprache. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta.
  2. Geuss, R. (2002). History and Illusion in Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  3. Geuss, R. (2002). ‘Genealogy as Critique.’ European Journal of Philosophy, 10(2), 209-15.
  4. Geuss, R. (2008). Philosophy and Real Politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  5. Pocock, J. G. A. (1985). Virtue, Commerce, and History. Essays on Political Thought and History, Chiefly in the Eighteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  6. Skinner, Q. (1995 [1989]). ‘Language and Political Change.’ in T. Ball, J. Farr and L. Hanson Eds. Political Innovation and Conceptual Change, 6-23. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  7. Skinner, Q. (1988). Political philosophy. In Schmitt, Ch. B., Q. Skinner, E. Kessler & J. Kraye (Eds.). (1988). The Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy, 389-452. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  8. Skinner, Q. (2002). Visions of Politics 1: Regarding Method. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  9. Tully, J. (1988). ‘The Pen is a Mighty Sword: Quentin Skinner’s Analysis of Politics’, in Meaning and Context: Quentin Skinner and His Critics, ed. James Tully, 7-25. Cambridge: Polity Press.


Foucault and Effective Histories

The legacy of Michel Foucault is of special interest for understanding what is at stake at the intersection of power and history. It also suggests many stimulating propositions regarding methodologies for excavating past (and often suppressed) understanding of concepts:

  1. Dean, M. (1994). Critical and Effective Histories: Foucault’s Methods and Historical Sociology. London: Routledge.
  2. Foucault, M. (1981). ‘Questions of Method’, I&C: 3-14.
  3. Foucault, M. (1977). ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.’, In D.B. Bouchard (Ed) Language, Counter-memory, Practice, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
  4. Foucault, M. (1972). The Archaeology of Knowledge, London: Tavistock.