Begriffsgeschichte’s History: Between Historicization of Concepts and Conceptual Politics

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This is the first installment of a two-part interview with Falko Schmieder about his book Begriffsgeschichte and Historical Semantics (2016). You can read the second part here.

Falko Schmieder is a cultural theorist and research associate for the Theory and Concept of an Interdisciplinary Conceptual History project at the Leibniz-Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung in Berlin. In 2016, he and Ernst Müller published Begriffsgeschichte und Historische Semantik. Ein kritisches Kompendium with Suhrkamp, which will be released in English translation with DeGruyter in 2021. Falko Schmieder works on Begriffsgeschichte and the theory of modernity, with particular interest in the dynamics of concepts of time.

Jonas Knatz is a graduate student of history at New York University. His work is situated at the intersection of modern European intellectual history and the history of science. He also works on the history of emotions. 

Jonas Knatz: The title of your book is Begriffsgeschichte and Historical Semantics. What is the relationship between these two terms? And what was your and Ernst Müller’s motivation to write a compendium of Begriffsgeschichte and, as you put it in the introduction, subject the methodology of Begriffsgeschichte to its own methodological instrumentarium?

Falko Schmieder: We partly chose the title because the boundary between Begriffsgeschichte and historical semantics is far from distinct. Both history and cultural studies have used the terms Begriffsgeschichte and historical semantics pars pro toto, conversely. Sometimes the term Begriffsgeschichte has subsumed historical semantics, and other times there has been an understanding of Begriffsgeschichte as a specialized field in historical semantics.

Falko Schmieder (Image credit: Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung)

Instead of establishing a new umbrella term, such as the (far from neutral)history of ideas,” we decided to heuristically use historical semantics as the genus for methodological approaches that concern themselves with diachronic changes in meaning, regardless of whether it is from an onomasiological or a semasiological perspective. In this understanding, Begriffsgeschichte is just one of many possibilities to engage with historical semantics, a method that has been modified through its interaction with neighboring methodologies. Thus, Begriffsgeschichte cannot be perceived as a method that is itself atemporal or a mere technique that slowly converges with some kind of abstract ideal; or put differently, it is not a method that could be described as independent from the specific historical precondition in which it was developed and from the respective aims it tried to pursue. By contrast, our book’s main premise is that Begriffsgeschichte has a historical index that has not yet been explored. And it is this historicity that we wanted to reveal. From a historical perspective, one can identify the historically varying epistemological interests of Begriffsgeschichte as well as its different practical and disciplinarily forms of realization, its shifting institutional links, and the methodological animosities and alliances that shaped the methodology. And because Begriffsgeschichte was always intimately connected with other strands of historical semantics, such as the neo-Kantian history of problems (Problemgeschichte) as well as histories of ideas, of mentalities, and of discourse, metaphorology, research on topoi and thought forms or, in more recent times, iconography and media history, we had to cover a wide field.

JK: In 2006, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht proclaimed the end of Begriffsgeschichte when he described the then just finalized dictionary projects of Begriffsgeschichte as “monumental testimonials from a concluded historiographical epoch.” Yet, it was the supposed finitude of the projects in question that seems to have stimulated much of the discussion about Begriffsgeschichte in recent years. What has caused this renewed interest, und what is Begriffsgeschichte’s potential for contemporary historiography?

FS: Gumbrecht is one of the very few—in total only three, I think—authors that contributed articles to all three big dictionary projects in Begriffsgeschichte (Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie, Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe und Handbuch politisch-sozialer Grundbegriffe in Frankreich 1680-1820). Later on, he confused his own departure from Begriffsgeschichte with the general termination of the latter. His verdict, I think, was premature. By contrast, the end of these projects revitalized the debate about Begriffsgeschichte for several reasons. On the one hand, the recent interest in Begriffsgeschichte is stipulated by a realization of the methodology’s boundaries, its epochal constraints, and the thematical selectivity of the dictionary entries. On the other hand, the outdifferentiation of cultural studies and history of science, as a result of the crisis of the humanities, gave rise to topics that had been largely ignored by classical Begriffsgeschichte and historical semantics: pre- or non-conceptual (vor- und nichtbegriffliche) discourses, iconographic semantics, the unconscious, institutions, practices, emotions, gestures, diagrams or materialities. This fundamentally changes historical semantics, leading to a new emphasis on interdisciplinarity and, especially, the integration of the natural sciences and the arts. Another dimension is provided by the internationalization of Begriffsgeschichte, including the formation of new international forms of organizations and networks, which finds expression in multilingual publications. And finally, digital media opened up new possibilities for research and visualization that the editors of the great dictionaries could only dream of.

Ernst Cassirer (1874–1945) (Image credit: Wiki Commons).

JK: You identify the period between the late 18th and early 19th century, Reinhart Koselleck’s Sattelzeit, with the first significant historiographic interest in concepts. Yet, by reference to Ernst Cassirer’s Philosophy of the Enlightenment, you argue that his new interest in the historicity of concepts was dialectically related to a new interest in conceptual politics – the dehistoricization of certain concepts. Generalizing this observation, Otto Gerhard Oexle, the former director of the Max-Planck-Institute for History, argues that Begriffsgeschichte is often inconsequent – a historiography that ultimately avoids a full embrace of historicism and sometimes even replaces historicization with political ambitions regarding the conservation of certain concepts. What motivated the initial interest in the historicity of concepts and what role does the tension between historicization and conceptual politics play in this scenario?

Title page of Denis Diderot’s and Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie (1751). Source: Wiki Commons.

FS: The Enlightenment is indeed a liminal moment in which we find an amplified interest in the interrelationships between sign, word, meaning, and thing, and this interest was always also political. The French Enlightenment in particular produced a form of language politics that included a politically motivated critique of the abuse of words (abus de mots) and the contradiction between words (mots) and things (choses), which resulted from the ever-accelerating change of social conditions. It is no surprise, then, that there was a rising production of dictionaries during this time in which the historical dimension of concepts gained increasing importance. See, for example, Dennis Diderot’s dictionary entry on “Encyclopédie” in the famous Encyclopédie. In this article, he self-critically reflects on the project at large and its historical boundaries: he acknowledges that the linguistic side of the project remained too weak, which in turn resulted in the incompleteness of the dictionary. Diderot’s diagnosis of an accelerated language development, caused by development in the arts, techniques, and work methods, was aimed against the conservative character of dictionaries within French academia. The critique of an anachronistic use of language always carried a political dimension: the delegitimization of authorities that perceived themselves as God-given, natural or eternal. Yet, the turn to the history of concepts could also be inspired by diametrically opposed political interests; it could and did become the instrument of conservatives and counter-revolutionaries, who used it to emphasize tradition and continuity.

JK: The sub-title of your book is “critical compendium,” and in the introduction you specify the two forms this critical impulse takes: the aforementioned historicization of Begriffsgeschichte and a discussion of its relations with other disciplines. Let us first talk about the critical potential of historicizing Begriffsgeschichte. In the introduction to his book Historische Semantik und Begriffsgeschichte from 1979, Koselleck hails the 1920s and 1930s as a time when Begriffsgeschichte underwent significant developments and “more precise instruments for researching the past” (9) were developed. In this context, he mentions Erich Rothacker, Werner Jäger, Johannes Kühn, Carl Schmitt, Walter Schlesinger and Otto Brunner by name – a list of exclusively conservative and reactionary thinkers, among whom only Walter Jäger had no political proximity to National Socialism. Oexle contrasts this assertion by claiming that Begriffsgeschichte had become an established practice not just in Germany but in all of Europe by this point in time. Accordingly, he accuses the previous reflection on the history of Begriffsgeschichte of suffering from a peculiar form of amnesia and decontextualization (396). What was the standing of Begriffsgeschichte among progressive and liberal thinkers in the 1920 and 1930s and which potential do you see in questioning and supplementing Koselleck’s intellectual ancestry?

FS: By historicization, we meant more generally the application of Begriffsgeschichte’s methodological approach to itself. Yet, an important second dimension of this historicization is indeed to chronologically and comparatively present both the realized and the aborted projects, both currently virulent and long-time forgotten debates of Begriffsgeschichte and historical semantics. On this level, historicization produced a critique of Koselleck’s genealogy of Begriffsgeschichte, which is rather one-sided in the sense that it ignores not only international approaches (such as the Annales School) but also German-speaking alternatives that were violently terminated by National Socialism. The 1920s and 1930s were characterized by a fundamental crisis of language and experience, which Ludwik Fleck poignantly called a ‘crisis of reality’, across various disciplines. This experience of crisis radicalized and politicized thought. On the one hand, upheaval and crisis strengthened the desire to historically investigate reified concepts to make them more malleable or potentially discard them if they had become historically untenable. On the other hand, they also motivated a decisionist and more or less violent search for ahistorical constants (such as values, archetypes, ontologies, anthropologies, races). Contemporary oppositions such as Sigmund Freud vs. Carl Gustav Jung, Walter Benjamin vs. Carl Schmitt, Karl Mannheim vs. Robert Curtius or Siegfried Kracauer vs. Martin Buber/Franz Rosenzweig must be understood against this specific historical background. To put it bluntly, it was only in this moment that the historicity of concepts began to constitute an emphatic problem for Begriffsgeschichte. In his genealogy, Koselleck omits the entire left-wing spectrum, even though engaging with them would have been all the more important since their approaches were developed in critical and contentious engagement with the thinkers that Koselleck lists. What is more, these left-wing attempts to historicize concepts served as an important inspiration for Koselleck’s conceptual apparatus of Begriffsgeschichte: categories such as ‘politicization’, ‘repurposing’, ‘contemporaneity of the non-contemporaneous’, ‘space of experience’, ‘horizon of experience’, ‘thought form’ (Denkform) or slogan (Schlagwort) were all developed within left-wing theoretical frameworks. A history of Begriffsgeschichte that recollects and re-appropriates these forgotten or repressed approaches also allows for a deeper understanding of the historical diversity and synchronous rivalry of various approaches in Begriffsgeschichte and thus contributes to a better understanding of the theoretical and conceptual presuppositions of Koselleck’s variant.

JK: According to your estimate, Erich Rothacker, Joachim Ritter and Hans-Georg Gadamer were the three historical figures that were institutionally the most important proponents of German Begriffsgeschichte in the immediate postwar period. They also emblematically stand in for the seamless continuity with which the postwar philosophical Begriffsgeschichte could carry on discussions started during the Weimar Republic while turning a blind eye on their own implication in National Socialism. How do you arrive at your argument that postwar German Begriffsgeschichte embodied the spirit of defense against international collaboration and a repression of the most recent past?

Cover of Begriffsgeschichte and Historical Semantics. Source: Suhrkamp.

FS: First of all, a “communicative silencing of the past” (Hermann Lübbe) was consensus among conceptual historians and functioned as a prerequisite for their adaption to democracy. With few exceptions, most of the reflection on the semantic consequences of Nazism for the postwar period happened outside of German academia. On a theoretical level, Begriffsgeschichte renewed interpretative schemes from the Weimar Republic. Philosophers and sociologists picked up theories of alienation, which had been potent theorems under National Socialism, propagated by ‘conservative revolutionaries’ like Hans Freyer, and continued them in the attenuated form of compensation theory (Kompensationstheorie). Self-declared Volk historians made their postwar careers by merely changing the terminology of their concepts and methods: Volk history became structural history (Strukturgeschichte), ‘race’ became ‘elite’ (Führungsschicht) and the ‘Germanic Europe’ was now the ‘occident’ (Abendland), which had to be defended against ‘Communism’. In this way, German academia arrived in the West, or at least conceited itself to have arrived. The book’s thesis that ‘German Begriffsgeschichte’ was born in the spirit of a defense against international collaboration and the repression of the immediate past is developed by analyzing one specific postwar incident, which is nevertheless symptomatic for the German philosophical Begriffsgeschichte after 1945. Against the background of vivid debates about UNESCO’s formulation of human rights that occurred right after the war, the American philosopher Richard McKeon, the mentor of Susan Sontag and Richard Rorty, initiated a broad-scale international research program, aimed at investigating the use of key political concepts in different linguistic traditions. In collaboration with prominent international intellectuals (among them Mahatma Gandhi, Benedetto Croce, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Aldous Huxley and Harold J. Laski) the project was a response to the catastrophic experience of the Second World War and the war of extermination and wanted to clarify the meaning of concepts of Western democracy to facilitate a new and better international understanding. Within this framework, McKeon also approached Gadamer and asked him to convene a meeting of renown German philosophers. This meeting, prominently cast by Gadamer, took place in late summer of 1954 in Jugenheim. Yet, it ultimately failed due to the incapacity of the German side to engage with the issue of multilingualism and, more generally, McKeon’s attempt to steer the discussion away from a narrow philosophical discourse to a communicative meta-level. These discussions illustrate a rupture between the political-social and the philosophical language in postwar Germany. German philosophy understood itself as an apolitical discipline that communicated with the great historical thinkers in diachronic analysis in the history of philosophy but abstained from current topics as well as social and legal concepts and thereby decoupled itself from the international debate. Only four years later, Gadamer again chose Jugenheim to hold the first meeting of the senate commission (Senatskommission) for Begriffsgeschichte, which was of utmost importance for the institutionalization of German Begriffsgeschichte. Hence Begriffsgeschichte appears as a German response to the Allied demand to deal with the causes and consequences of the political catastrophe of 1933. Indeed, this particular episode illustrates vividly how Begriffsgeschichte and the humanities in general unburdened themselves by refusing to work through the immediate past.

JK: Precisely because your book points out how postwar Begriffsgeschichte symbolizes the suppression of an intellectual engagement with National Socialism and represents the personal lines of continuity between National Socialist and postwar humanities, it is rather perplexing that it became the German “success story” within the international academy. Even more so, you argue that “decorated with the insignia of self-reflexivity and plurality, it theoretically legitimized democratic modernity” (24) and thereby helped Germany to regain its international standing in academia and politics. How do you explain this shift?

FS: Begriffsgeschichte’s success is partly due to its self-reflexivity and its self-explication, which make it an outstanding and, first and foremost, highly controllable method to capture meaning and its change. Especially against the background of an increased demand for historical orientation, Begriffsgeschichte becomes an important instrument for research. German Begriffsgeschichte, which owed most of its methodological development and sophistication to Koselleck, also became an international success because it tied into a theory of modern society and a theory of historical time. Moreover, important theorems and key concepts of Koselleck’s theory are able to transgress the disciplinarily boundaries of Begriffsgeschichte and allow for Begriffsgeschichte to influence other fields. And, with regard to his project Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe, it was exactly its widespread neglect of National Socialism and its simultaneous reference to long-standing traditions of Western modernity that was very conducive to the establishment of an international frame in which a common historic heritage was emphasized and comparative studies were encouraged.

JK: Despite the “communicative silencing,” which encapsulated the personal involvement of Begriffshistoriker in National Socialism, the book identifies moments when Begriffsgeschichte actually became a medium of implicit debates about National Socialism. One of these moments is the German Congress for Philosophy in 1962 at which Hans Blumenberg and Hermann Lübbe, a member of Joachim Ritter’s conservative Collegium Philosophicum, debated about the concept of secularization and the place of metaphorology in Begriffsgeschichte, to implicitly negotiate the continuing theoretical proximity between Begriffsgeschichte and thinkers of the conservative revolution. What was the role of this debate about secularization, and how did Blumenberg position himself vis-à-vis the unfettered personal links between National Socialism and postwar Begriffsgeschichte?

FS: The concept of secularization can, in some regards, be considered the paradigm of 1960s Begriffsgeschichte. An important moment for its emergence was the Seventh German Congress for Philosophy in 1962, which took place in Münster and had, as suggested by Ritter, the theme of “Philosophy and Progress.” Lübbe and Blumenberg were asked by Ritter to give papers on secularization. This meeting can be considered the nucleus of a twenty-year long disagreement within Begriffsgeschichte. Blumenberg’s radical talk condensed in his conclusion, in which he considered it appropriate to “speak of secularization as the last theologoumenon, which seeks to blame the heirs to theology for the death giving rise to their succession” (quoted in Kroll, 141). It is remarkable that Blumenberg situates his radical and highly political thesis in the political nirvana of late Medieval gnosis and its second overcoming. One can only wonder if this followed strategic considerations to academicize the discussion and move it into a terrain where critics did not want to or simply could not follow him. That this was a covert discourse on the aftermath of Nazism and the Cold War, saturated with words like expropriation, guilt, injustice etc., was certainly as obvious for these thinkers so familiar with metaphors as it was made even more apparent by the fact that the gnosis was used by thinkers like Eric Voegelin and Hans Jonas to characterize the postwar period. Important political questions were not addressed in direct factual, let alone personal-biographical, discussions but via these sideways and detours. The importance of secularization in this debate was related to its potential to draw on the civilization-critical program of the conservative revolution while leveling the differences between National Socialism and communism. Thus, the concept of secularization could, on the one hand, confirm the political integration into the West as well as the technological progress of the economic miracle and, on the other hand, support the conservative program to hinder further secularization. While Carl Schmitt’s dictum that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts” constituted a paradigm in German Begriffsgeschichte, Blumenberg left this postwar milieu behind with his critique of the secularization thesis.

Reinhart Koselleck (1923 – 2006). Source: Wiki Commons.

JK: Koselleck is currently the most important point of reference for discussions in and about Begriffsgeschichte. While some argue that Koselleck’s project of the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe constitutes a rupture with the conservative and reactionary Begriffsgeschichte of the Weimar Republic, Anselm Haverkamp criticizes him for developing a methodology that encapsulates important moments of conceptual continuity between the conservative and reactionary milieu of the Weimar Republic and postwar Germany. Where do you place Koselleck within the political postwar discussion, and how did he negotiate the tension between a complete historicization of concepts and conceptual politics?

FS: Koselleck’s dissertation, published as Critique and Crisis (1954), is starkly influenced by his mentor Carl Schmitt and clearly based on a traditional and conservative understanding of history, which surfaces in his moralizing and personalizing critique of Enlightenment and the philosophy of history associated with it. Koselleck blames both for the threat of the absolute state and paints them as pathbreakers for what he dubs a world civil war (Weltbürgerkrieg)– the international confrontation between an Eastern and a Western bloc after the Second World War. However, when he starts working on Prussia, Koselleck adopts a social-historical perspective and eventually, under the influence of Werner Conze, turns towards Begriffsgeschichte. Following Willibald Steinmetz, one could speak of a historiographical reorientation in the late 1950s towards a form of social history that is understood as structural history and underpinned by Begriffsgeschichte. Despite this turn towards Begriffsgeschichte, the question about his conceptual politics—or, if you will, the legacy of Carl Schmitt—is not obsolete. But it acquires a different weight. Within Begriffsgeschichte, it remains relevant for Koselleck’s perspective on the political character of language: his ideas about the essential contestedness, controversiality and ideologicity of concepts and their interrelationship with an authoritative societal structure (herrschaftsförmige Gesellschaftsstruktur), which is shaped by various systemic and structural coercions, power asymmetries, and social inequalities. To capture this dimension in terms of conceptual history, Koselleck emphasized language pragmatism and developed a variety of concepts that are indispensable for a social-historical Begriffsgeschichte, such as enemy-concept, counter-concept, opposition-concept, party-concept etc. Especially in his analysis about asymmetrical counter-concepts and about the friend-enemy-concepts, the influence of Schmitt is evident. With regard to social history, it is Koselleck’s theory of acceleration and the insight into its costs and the rising pressure of political problems that reintroduces the question of his conceptual politics. This skepticism or critique towards modernity, which can also be found in the late Koselleck, is often avoided in contemporary literature. Koselleck saw a massive potential for conflict in the ecological crisis in particular, which he used to renew theorems that trace back to Schmitt’s understanding of crisis as a final decision (Letztentscheidung). Koselleck was always aware that Begriffsgeschichte reconstructs the linguistic development of a social system, the future of which is far from unquestionable.

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