Begriffsgeschichte’s Methodological Neighbors and the Scientification of Concepts

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

Jonas Knatz: The critical potential of your attempt to historicize Begriffsgeschichte lies not only with its contextualization within political discussions but also in the destabilization of Begriffsgeschichte’s conservative canon. What methodological gains do you hope to attain by reintroducing figures such as Siegfried Kracauer and Richard Koebner, who are commonly less associated with Begriffsgeschichte’s genealogy, into the canon?

Siegfried Kracauer (1889–1966) (Source: Wiki Commons).

Falko Schmieder: We indeed wanted to crack open Koselleck’s genealogy of Begriffsgeschichte and challenge it with another one that pays more attention to approaches that have commonly been omitted. There are multiple epistemological gains from this. On the one hand, it becomes evident that several of Koselleck’s categories have very heterogeneous origins and were developed within theoretical frameworks and meant to address questions that were simply disregarded by Koselleck. Take, for example, the research on symbols and slogans (Schlagwörter) by authors like Wilhelm Bauer or Richard Koebner. Through the process of historicization, alternative development paths surface that illustrate the limitations of Koselleck’s Begriffsgeschichte. From this perspective, it also becomes apparent that a lot of what has been perceived as novel or lacking in more recent historical semantics has historically already been worked on but was forgotten. A significant part of the more recent cultural studies and the new history of sciences, which have been developed in opposition to the more traditional humanities, goes back to thinkers of the 1920s and 1930s – for example, Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer or Ludwik Fleck. For contemporary Begriffsgeschichte, the re-appropriation and consideration of these thinkers is also important because they worked prior to the specialization and emergence of strict disciplines in science, which deeply impacted and constrained later research. They often subverted the dichotomies between natural and cultural studies, high and popular culture, arts and sciences, textual and visual media–think, for example, of Benjamin’s Arcades Project or Ludwik Flecks comparative theory of thought styles, which combines sociology of science with art theory and media history. In this way, they caught sight of phenomena that gained new attraction with the new medial developments and the push for inter- and transdisciplinary research. Finally, they also had an acute sense for the tendency towards crisis within capitalist society, which sets them apart from the more complacent forms of post-Koselleckian Begriffsgeschichte and makes them all the more relevant.

Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) (Source: Wiki Commons).

JK: Towards the end of his professional life, Koselleck called Begriffsgeschiche a “theoretical straight jacket” (337). His writings on iconography indicate that he even started developing a historiography that was markedly distinct from the methodology of the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe. What is the relationship between Koselleck’s iconographic studies and his works in Begriffsgeschichte, and to what extent does his engagement with visual sources represent a desideratum in the latter?

FS: With the end of the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe, Koselleck’s interest changed from linguistic to visual semantics, which he had already occasionally engaged with previously. He never developed a systematic theory of how these two semantics relate to each other, even though he used some heuristic concepts from his earlier works on language in his analysis of political iconography. This applies, for example, to the concepts of “optical space of experience,” “optical change of experience,” to his thesis of the non-contemporaneity of historical developments in social relations, mentalities, and styles, his ideas about time layers in pathos formulas or the use of the coordinates of his dichotomous transcendental Historik (above – below, victor – vanquished). There are certainly parallels to Begriffsgeschichte with regard to his epistemological interest in decisive intersections and metamorphoses of iconological developments. The relative autonomy of Koselleck’s iconographic works and their tension to his Begriffsgeschichte results, I think, from his understanding of the distinct efficacy and expressiveness of images. Already in his first text “On political iconology,” written in 1963, he points out the asymmetrical relationship between language and image, which he would hold onto for the rest of his life. Koselleck emphasized that a social history of political sensuousness has to integrate the manifold paralingual forms of tradition. For him, this seems to have implied a continuous reflection on the methodological boundaries of verbalization and of transference of experience, and thus also on the limits of Begriffsgeschichte—which, in this regard, becomes just one of many ways to trace the transformation of societal horizons of meaning and cultural forms of perception. The difference between Begriffsgeschichte and iconography also became evident when, in his later years, Koselleck seemed to assign the history of monuments a privileged access to uncovering signatures of epochs and ruptures in the culture of memorialization. And there is one more very important difference: While the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe only briefly touch upon the 20th century and instead focus on the Sattelzeit, the semantic transformation of which in the space of meaning is supposed to lead into our present, Koselleck’s history of monuments engages with multiple ruptures in experience and grants National Socialism and its aftermath a central position. In the reception of Koselleck, this tension between iconography and Begriffsgeschichte is often reproduced in two complementary ways: the attempt to apply methodological elements of Begriffsgeschichte to the visual sphere and the attempt to extend, transgress, and critique Begriffsgeschichte from the perspective of visual history.

Founding of Bielefeld University’s faculty for history and philosophy in April 1980. From left: Prof. Dr. Neithard Bulst (dean of the faculty) Prof. Dr. Friedrich Fulda, Prof. Dr. Reinhart Koselleck , Prof. Dr. Erich-Christian Schröder, Prof. Dr. Jürgen Kocka, Prof. Dr. Ulrich Wehler and Prof. Dr. Karl Peter Grotemeyer (Rector of Bielefeld University) (Photographer: Seutter; source: Archive of Bielefeld University).

JK: Because of its institutional anchoring in Bielefeld and the influential role of Otto Brunner, Begriffsgeschichte’s methodology has always been tightly interwoven with social history. In this collaboration, concepts became indicators for societal transformations as well as active factors that contributed to the latter. Because of this emphasis of the efficacy and partial autonomy of concepts, leading social historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler once predicted that Begriffsgeschichte would sooner or later “lead into a historiographical dead end.” (725) With the emergence of the new cultural history and its suspicion towards social history’s structural focus, however, the relationship between social history and Begriffsgeschichte changed: in 1996, Wehler even lauded Begriffsgeschichte as a language-focused method that had, in contrast to other methodologies, the benefit of recognizing a reality outside of the text. How would you describe the relationship between concept and referent (‘thing’) in Begriffsgeschichte, and how does the latter position itself vis-à-vis cultural studies?

FS: The irresolvable tension between words and things is constitutive for Koselleck’s social-historical Begriffsgeschichte. He always understood history, in surprising similarity to Theodor W. Adorno by the way, to be more, and at the same time always less, than what could be conceptually said about it. In an analogous manner, language could capture both more and less than what actually constitutes “real” history. Koselleck repeatedly circled around this problem and developed different ideas about how to capture the relationship between language and reality more precisely. Yet, his comments on this matter remain contradictory and vague: he writes that words and things ‘refer to each other’, ‘converge’, or ‘correspond’ (in the threefold sense of accompany, register, and induce), ‘are in a tense relationship, but are not congruent’, or that ‘words are cues’. Other approaches by Koselleck, meanwhile, dismiss the idea of an external relation between words and things as autonomous and individually identifiable factors altogether. Here, Begriffsgeschichte operates beyond the contradiction between factor and indicator, and the reflection on its mediating function, which cannot be solved in either direction, is central. Begriffsgeschichte supplies the nexus through which the textual and linguistic level of the sources and the social reality are connected.

More generally, the cultural turn produced a strong tendency to portray the question about the referent of concepts as naïve or obsolete. Yet, this rids Koselleck’s Begriffsgeschichte of its (ideology-)critical thrust. From the beginning, Koselleck tried not to dissolve history into language. Without its partial autonomy from language, history would become a sequence of changes in mentalities. At the same time, he aimed to establish Begriffsgeschichte as a conditio sine qua non of social history à la Wehler. Koselleck perceived Begriffsgeschichte’s independence as a distinct advantage to permeate the nexus between concept and reality, or to be more precise: to investigate the reciprocal relationship between language and political-social reality through concepts in a methodologically highly self-reflexive way. Because invariable words are not sufficient criteria for invariable referents (and vice versa), social history is reliant upon Begriffsgeschichte if it wants to avoid anachronisms in its engagement with linguistically mediated sources. Methodologically, Koselleck thus considered Begriffsgeschichte an inevitable means without which no experience of and knowledge about the world could be attained.

JK: At the beginning of the 20th century, German Begriffsgeschichte was just one attempt among many to investigate the historicity of concepts. For example, Lucien Febvre’s “Le Mots and les choses en histoire économique” from 1930 contained a strong call for research on the history of social-economic key concepts. Yet, only in the last years, historians began to use insights from the Annales School to innovate Begriffsgeschichte (see, for example, Fritz Herrmanns, Rolf Reichardt, Volker Sellin). What potential and possible problems do you see in these attempts? How compatible are Begriffsgeschichte and, say, the Annales’ history of mentalities?

FS: For a long time, there was no reception whatsoever of the Annales School in Germany, which is certainly related to the latter’s strong materialist impulses that stood in contradiction to the traditional approach in the German historiography of ideas. Later on, this collaboration with Begriffsgeschichte was very productive. Mutual interests between the two can be found in the analysis of collective, repetitive, and automated dynamics in semantics, which manifest themselves below the level of consciousness, or to be more precise, below the self-reflexive formation of concepts in form of cultural codes, pathos formulas or topoi, and which are very difficult to trace with traditional methods. With the emergence of discourse analysis, this level has become even more accessible for investigation, and computerized quantitative methods to evaluate historical sources in particular provide new possibilities for research. Especially the more recent corpus-oriented approaches in historical semantics have legitimately high hopes that this new technique will generate enormous insights because of its ability to process big quantities of text and produce serially evaluable results. A potential problem in political-social Begriffsgeschichte is that these methods neglect the semantic contestedness and controversiality as well as the perspective of longue durée. There is also the danger that this digital evaluation will become an end in itself and lose sight of the friction with material history.

JK: In 1940, Arthur O. Lovejoy founded the Journal of the History of Ideas and thereby institutionalized a form of American history of ideas that he had previously developed in works like The Great Chain of Being and, analogous to Begriffsgeschichte, also drew inspiration from neo-Kantians like Ernst Cassirer and Wilhelm Windelband. What are the differences and similarities between German Begriffsgeschichte and the American history of ideas, and when did the former begin to appear as a point of reference in American academia?

FS: Lovejoy’s history of ideas is shaped by many influences. Among the most important are the pragmatism of his teacher William James and Wilhelm Windelband, whose history of philosophy was influential for his methodological figure of ‘unit-ideas’. Finally, though, it is the ahistoricality of his history of ideas that connects him to Windelband. For him, the history of human reasoning was a mere phenotypical manifestation of a transformation and re-configuration of a few basic elements, which he considered themselves essentially invariable and ahistorical. In fact, he turned his ideal model of history of ideas into the object of his research: it was the continuously traceable, sometimes vanishing, and then reappearing infinite chain, which could be identified in different discourses, cultures and disciplines. Lovejoy’s history of ideas is specific in the sense that it is decidedly interdisciplinary. He criticized the elitist philosophical history of ideas, which only had interest in the ideas of prominent philosophers, and he also subverted the dichotomy between natural sciences and humanities. The Journal of the History of Ideas provided many German emigrants, including Ernst Cassirer, Paul O. Kristeller, Karl Löwith, Kurt Riezler, Leo Spitzer and Edgar Zilsel, with an opportunity to publish their works. With the exception of Zilsel, however, these works were, strictly speaking, not Begriffsgeschichte. A more systematic engagement with Begriffsgeschichte only happened in the 1980s. Arguably, the breakthrough was achieved with an issue in 1987, after Donald R. Kelley had become executive editor, in which not only John Pocock published his first articles in the journal, but which also contained Melvin Richter’s essay on the relationship between Begriffsgeschichte and the history of ideas and engagements with Blumenberg’s metaphorology and Foucault’s history of discourse.

JK:  The Cambridge School, with which John Pocock was associated, became synonymous with one of the most influential methodologies in historical semantics. In 2007, Quentin Skinner, one of its leading proponents, called the relationship between Koselleck’s Begriffsgeschichte and the Cambridge School a “mine field” (114) and thereby took up a metaphor that Koselleck had previously used to describe the methodological discussions between both methodologies. What are the main differences between these two methodologies?

Cover of Pocock’s The Machiavellian Moment (1975) (Source: Princeton University Press).

FS: There are various commonalities between the Cambridge School and Begriffsgeschichte but also multiple differences, even though one should not rely solely on the arguments of the protagonists from both schools to evaluate them. With regard to Pocock, one can say that he is primarily interested in the synchronic reconstruction of entire languages of political theories with all of their elements, while Koselleck focuses on the diachronic change in meaning of distinct concepts. A second difference is that Pocock focuses on synchronic co-existence and amalgamation of individual languages in one epoch; Koselleck, by contrast, teases out the epochal, long-term, and supra-personal changes in meaning that affects all languages (in Pocock’s sense) to some extent. Because Skinner takes inspiration from Ludwig Wittgenstein and John Austin’s speech act theory, he has a stronger interest in language pragmatism, the linguistic political maneuvers, ideological nubs, and rhetorical strategies of persuasion and cajoling of individual actors whose speech acts he always interprets as politically motivated practices. Another important difference to Koselleck is that the Cambridge School has no great interest in the extralinguistic context and sometimes tends to collapse the boundary between ‘reality’ and discursivity, while Koselleck’s social-historical Begriffsgeschichte not only emphasizes the tension between both dimensions, but, more profoundly, is connected to a theory of modern society and a theory of historical temporality.

JK: In addition to the Cambridge School and Begriffsgeschichte, a Foucauldian history of discourse is perhaps the third major methodological influence in contemporary intellectual history. How does it differ from Begriffsgeschichte à la Koselleck?

FS: First, I want to say that the history of discourse was practiced in various forms by Foucault and his successors; some of these ways intersect with Begriffsgeschichte while others are markedly different. Foucault developed his history of discourse with its constitution of novel epistemological objects in stark contrast to hermeneutical approaches and with a very technical terminology (matrix, code, element, dispersion, formation, etc.) that finds no expression in Koselleck’s conceptual apparatus. The interest of the history of discourse in the illumination of the realm in which unconscious rules and constrains constitute the possibility and impossibility to make certain statements, and its methodological principles of abstraction from subjects and from referents as well as its focus on the eventfulness of discursive facts, are in stark contrast to Begriffsgeschichte. Similarly, key concepts in Begriffsgeschichte, such as experience, expectation or meaning, are in direct conflict with the anti-hermeneutical impetus in Foucault. Nevertheless, there have been many attempts in Germany to establish a fusion of Begriffsgeschichte and history of discourse. Against this background, Koselleck saw no fundamental contradiction between these two. According to him, the overlap between them was self-evident: a discourse needs key concepts to gain coherence and to set topics and a conceptual analysis, in turn, requires attention to the extra-lingual context in order to clarify the substance, polyvalence, and contestedness of concepts. Both approaches intersect when Koselleck investigates ‘structures’ (or rather structures of conceptual repetitions) and larger semantic paradigms, or when he tries to capture conventionalized layers of meaning that are inaccessible for the contemporaries themselves, that exceed their intentions, and are identifiable as a collective dimension of knowledge or change in meaning only ex post. For me, however, Foucault’s understanding of discourse as monument instead of document marks a big difference. By adopting the concept of the monument, Foucault made all questions about the exterior or the Other of discourse impossible. The problem of material reference and thus the question of the tense relationship between conceptual and factual history, which Koselleck considered central for historical semantics, becomes irrelevant. By abstracting from things and the intentions of subjects, Foucault rids himself of the possibility to not just detect discursive change but also explain it: for Foucault, this change is not a process or transition but a supersession of dispositifs or tableaus, and he has remarkable little interest in finding its causes. Thus, processes of transformation and transitions from one form of knowledge to another cannot be captured by Foucault’s methodology.

JK: Koselleck’s concepts of temporalization, ideologization, democratization, and politicization constitutes a heuristic framework for analyses of the Sattelzeit. In 2010, Christian Geulen argued that a Begriffsgeschichte of the 20th century requires an altered analytical framework as well as a discussion about metaphorology and a productive engagement with the historiography of discourse in order to handle the enormous proliferation of sources, the emergence of new source types, and the internationalization of conceptual semantics. Is Koselleck’s analytical framework suitable for a conceptual history of the 20th century, and where do you see the most urgent need for methodological innovation in Begriffsgeschichte?

FS: In the discussion about the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe of the 20th century, the limits of Koselleck’s approach became very apparent. However, there is a lack of more systematic evaluations of existing works of 20th-century conceptual history in order to develop a new instrumentarium. What seems obvious to me is that Koselleck’s heuristic conceptual apparatus needs to be modified and supplemented. Thus, we should not just try to continue Koselleck’s project, but to rewrite and overwrite it from the perspective of a changed present. This also means modifying Koselleck’s approach from the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe, which was conceived half a century ago, and altering the methodology with which we look at concepts. For example, this applies to the use of wider and, thanks to digital technology, more easily evaluable source material, a focus on metaphors, which Koselleck had already called for, as well as a new emphasis on interdisciplinarity because more recent key concepts, such as ecology, climate, biodiversity or sustainability either originated in the natural sciences or are firmly grounded within them. Among the new heuristic categories that have been proposed since, such as scientification, anglicization, popularization, medialization, spatialization, fluidization, emotionalization, and aestheticization, I find scientification especially plausible. With the development of new media and their international or even global range, we have to methodologically account for the accelerated processes in which concepts are disseminated. Furthermore, a conceptual history of the 20th century would have to distinguish between different forms or types of concepts and pay particular attention to what sociologists call “middle-range concepts”. These exemplify the tendency of a declining stability or, put differently, faster expiration of concepts, which testifies to the accelerated historical dynamic. However, it could also be that these problems with Koselleck’s conceptual apparatus become even more fundamental and that, as a result, Begriffsgeschichte loses its historical plausibility as concepts forfeit their long-term stability and thus their status as the most important medium for political struggles.

JK: In your introduction, you call for a Begriffsgeschichte that understands the “formation of the referent” as a historical process and therefore also needs to investigate the metaphorical and semantic sub-structures that already existed prior to the explicit formation of the concept. This, in turn, requires a search for the “impure origins” of concepts across disciplinarily boundaries; an investigation that needs to pay particular attention to the circulation and metaphorical potential of concepts. You already mentioned that you consider scientificifaction a promising heuristic category for a Begriffsgeschichte of the 20th century and devote considerable space in your book to Begriffsgeschichten of science. Following from what Niels Bohr, reflecting on quantum mechanics and how it destabilized the dualism between subject and object, called an unsettling of “the foundations underlying the building up of concepts” (101), you recount the interesting methodological reflections on concepts in the history of science. What connects Gaston Bachelard’s historical epistemology, Ludwik Fleck’s sociological history of science, and the attempts by Critical Theorists like Max Horkheimer and Franz Borkenau? How do they differ from Koselleck’s Begriffsgeschichte?

Niels Bohr (1885–1962) and Albert Einstein (1879–1955) (Source: Wiki Commons).

FS: The approaches of these authors are very different, but they all concur in that they apply the methodology of Begriffsgeschichte to the natural sciences. They thereby subvert what C.P. Snow has called the “two cultures” of the natural sciences and the humanities – an understanding that is engrained in the dictionary projects of Begriffsgeschichte.  Today, the massively increased significance of natural sciences makes it anachronistic to write a history of social-political key concepts without recourse to the natural sciences. This integration of Begriffsgeschichte and history of science, however, cannot be simply completed by applying Begriffsgeschichte’s methods to scientific phenomena. Instead, the focus on the natural sciences changes Begriffsgeschichte itself, which is now required to reflect on the material interwovenness of concepts and to demonstrate how a change in meaning within concepts is connected to culturally hegemonic ideas, media techniques, processes of experimentation or rules in the laboratory. Against this background, it is only consequential that the more recent history of science has drawn on works by Ludwik Fleck or Gaston Bachelard because here they found conceptual instruments (e.g. phenomenotechnique, thought collective, thought style) that transgress the narrow frame of research in the humanities. To me, Ludwik Fleck’s and Franz Borkenau’s interest in the history of art also seems relevant for contemporary discussion. It is revealing that Koselleck’s key concept of temporalization already played a role in Lovejoy’s work and, taken here in a far wider perspective, managed to integrate the history of science. That is just another example of how Koselleck’s Begriffsgeschichte contributes, in some regards, to a methodological narrowing and onesidedness that becomes apparent when compared with approaches from the 1920s and 1930s.

JK: You identify the Enlightenment not only as the first reflection on language but also as the starting point for a platonic-cartesian understanding of terminological rationality. This understanding won over other perspectives, such as Johann Heinrich Lambert’s, a student of Christian Wolff, who declared that there is an inevitable metaphorical dimension to scientific language. This centrality of metaphors is later taken up by Georges Canguilhem, who emphasizes the knowledge-generating potential of metaphors. What is the potential of metaphors to further subvert the dichotomy between the natural sciences and the humanities and to contribute to interdisciplinarity?

FS: Both the Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie and the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe consciously disregarded metaphors, even though they play a role in individual articles. At the same time that these projects were assembled, Hans Blumenberg developed his metaphorology to challenge this form of Begriffsgeschichte. He problematized the relationship between concept and metaphor, and the importance and status of nonconceptuality, in various essays and books. Yet, only with the emergence of the new cultural studies and the more recent history of science did the question attract more attention. Over the course of these discussions, traditional conceptualizations of metaphors were questioned with regard to all of their components and presuppositions (controllability, transitoriness, concept of metaphor) and critically revised. While previous discussions juxtaposed concepts and metaphors, today’s cultural epistemology and Begriffsgeschichte is more interested in their transitions. An important focus of these discussions is to reflect, under the umbrella concepts of transfer or circulation, on forms and practices of exchange, the movement of thoughts and translation. Therefore, metaphors are central for an interdisciplinary Begriffsgeschichte. Particularly inspiring are recent approaches to the history of science that have been decisively influenced by Hans-Jörg Rheinberger. The old questions about the relationship between concept and metaphor and their world reference are transferred here into the question of the interplay of technical and epistemic things within the framework of experimental systems and experimental cultures.

Cover of Rheinberger’s On Historicizing Epistemology (2010) (Source: Stanford University Press).

JK: Conceptual history is an anglophone offspring of the German Begriffsgeschichte. Where do you see differences between these two, and what potential do you ascribe to the internationalization of Begriffsgeschichte?

FS: The international reception of Koselleck has starkly increased over the last two or three decades and has taken many different forms, which makes it difficult to speak about general differences. Koselleck’s Begriffsgeschichte is shaped by very specific historical preconditions that, from the perspective of other national and cultural developments, appear questionable or alien. This applies, for example, to the philosophical dimensions of his methodology and its theoretical aspiration to contribute to a comprehensive theory of modernity or to at least become an indispensable reference for such a theory. This claim, and the methodological conjunction between social history and Begriffsgeschichte, make it appear specious in times of a general critique of grand narratives and post-structural constructivism. On the other hand, the heuristic apparatus of Begriffsgeschichte with concepts, such as temporalization, Sattelzeit, time layers or contemporaneous non-contemporaneity made Begriffsgeschichte very interesting for historiographical research. The internationalization of Begriffsgeschichte opens up an array of completely new problems that are related, in particular, to the (non-)translatability of concepts and the transfer of theoretical premises to other contexts. With regard to Koselleck’s notion of Sattelzeit, it has often been argued that it appeared earlier (England, France) or later (Italy) or in different forms that require a different heuristic instrumentarium. With the integration of non-European and non-Western languages and cultures these problems multiply because here the means such as historical language encyclopedias which are indispensable for conceptual historians are sometimes hardly available or because the relationship between written and spoken language is different, e.g. in cultures that build on the Chinese language. The research on these topics is just beginning but already promises a multiplicity of new perspectives that transgress the horizon of Koselleck’s Begriffsgeschichte.

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