Conceptual history

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Conceptual history (also the history of concepts or, from German, Begriffsgeschichte) is a branch of historical and cultural studies that deals with the historical semantics of terms. It sees the etymology and the change in meaning of terms as forming a crucial basis for contemporary cultural, conceptual and linguistic understanding. Conceptual history deals with the evolution of paradigmatic ideas and value systems over time, such as "liberty" or "reform". It argues that social history – indeed all historical reflection – must begin with an understanding of historically contingent cultural values and practices in their particular contexts over time, not merely as unchanging ideologies or processes.

Description and history[edit]

Interest in conceptual history was given a particular boost in the 20th century through the publication of the Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie, the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe, and the journal Archiv für Begriffsgeschichte.

Conceptual history is an interdisciplinary methodology. Alongside the philosopher Joachim Ritter, the historians Otto Brunner and Reinhart Koselleck, and the sociologist Erich Rothacker are viewed as its pioneers in the German-speaking world and internationally. Raymond Williams was the leading scholar in the English-speaking world. Since the Eighties, a relevant development of the history of concepts (storia dei concetti), has been promoted by a numerous group of Italian scholars, counting among them Alessandro Biral, Giuseppe Duso, Carlo Galli, and Roberto Esposito, founders of the Centro di ricerca sul lessico politico europeo.[1] Outlets of the Italian debate on conceptual history have been the short-lived Centauro (1981-1986)[2] and Filosofia Politica, founded in 1987. Today, conceptual history is promoted also by the History of Concepts Group and its peer-reviewed journal Contributions to the History of Concepts under the lead of Margrit Pernau, Jan Ifversen, and Jani Marjanen. Examples of conceptual histories include a genealogy of the concept of globalization drawing on the approach of Williams written by Paul James and Manfred B. Steger:

Although keywords represent a critical mass of the vocabulary of any given era, the history of their meaning construction often remains obscure. "Globalization" is no exception. While the meanings of other seminal "keywords" such as "economics", "culture", or "modernity" evolved rather slowly and built upon a relatively continuous base, "globalization" has had a very short and discontinuous history.[3]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ "Centro Interuniversitario di Ricerca sul Lessico Politico e Giuridico Europeo (CIRLPGE)".
  2. ^ Gentili, Dario (2007). La crisi del politico: antologia de il Centauro (1981-1986). Napoli: Guida. ISBN 9788860422897.
  3. ^ James & Steger 2014, pp. 418–419.


  • Bödeker, Hans Erich, ed. (2002). Begriffsgeschichte, Diskursgeschichte, Metapherngeschichte (in German). Göttingen, Lower Saxony: Wallstein-Verlag.
  • Duso, Giuseppe (Beppe) (1997). "Storia concettuale come filosofia politica". Filosofia Politica (3): 393–426. doi:10.1416/10827. ISSN 0394-7297.
  • Dutt, Carsten, ed. (2003). Herausforderungen der Begriffsgeschichte (in German). Heidelberg: Winter.
  • Goering, Timothy (2013). "Concepts, History and the Game of Giving and Asking for Reasons: A Defense of Conceptual History". Journal of the Philosophy of History. 7 (3): 426–452. doi:10.1163/18722636-12341260. ISSN 1872-2636.
  • Gumbrecht, Hans Ulrich (2006). Dimension und Grenzen der Begriffsgeschichte (in German). Paderborn, North Rhine-Westphalia: Wilhelm Fink Verlag.
  • Hjørland, Birger (2009). "Concept Theory". Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology. 60 (8): 1519–1536. doi:10.1002/asi.21082. ISSN 2330-1643.
  • James, Paul; Steger, Manfred B. (2014). "A Genealogy of Globalization: The Career of a Concept". Globalizations. 11 (4): 417–434. doi:10.1080/14747731.2014.951186. ISSN 1474-774X.
  • Koselleck, Reinhart, ed. (1979). Historische Semantik und Begriffsgeschichte (in German). Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta.
  •  ———  (2006). Begriffsgeschichten (in German). Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.
  • Müller, Ernst, ed. (2004). Begriffsgeschichte im Umbruch? (in German). Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag.
  • Müller, Ernst; Schmieder, Falko (2016). Begriffsgeschichte und historische Semantik. Ein kritisches Kompendium (in German). Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag.

External links[edit]