Contact Information

Concept Africa
Department of World Cultures
P.O. Box 59
Unioninkatu 38 B
00014 University of Helsinki


KeynotesTowards a global conceptual history by Bo Stråth

Meditations on Eikones by Valentin Mudimbe



Theory, Method, Literature

The point of departure of Conceptafrica is the experienced need for a new world history. However, such a new world history must be something else than just an updated version of the conventional Western narrative with a starting point and a goal, where everything is measured in terms of backwardness and progress. The most recent example in this vein is the globalisation narrative since the early 1990s. A new world history must integrate perspectives formulated in academic discourses in non-Western cultures.

The target of the project is the conceptualisations and imaginations of the social and the economic in various African languages. The semantics of these two spheres are conventionally departing from Western conceptualisations with an origin in the Antique World. This Western provenience is arguably problematic in a global world without a Western centre. On the other side, we cannot easily do away with this fact. Our solution is to explore the translations of the semantics around the social and the economic to various African languages. Thereby the crucial question is on what native etymological resources the translations draw. We want to establish a transnational epistemological horizon, towards which European and African conceptualisations of the social and the economic are related on an equal basis. On this point the project connects to and draws to experiences and results in an earlier project on conceptualisations of the social and the economic in Asian languages (see The History of the Project). The final output will thus be a comparative European, Asian and African comparative approach.

The horizon we want to establish is not one where the Asian or African conceptualisations are played off against the European but one where European, Asian and African semantics are entangled in historical processes. A frequent argument in the postcolonial critique deals with a continuous Eurocentric agenda and that therefore full autonomy must be based on interruption of communication under development of indigenous discourse. The project wants to challenge this argument and search for possibilities of a non-Eurocentric transcultural dialogue. However, recent approaches in postcolonial studies emphasise entanglement rather than rupture (Majumdar 2010). The project wants to connect to and contribute to this debate between rupture and entanglement.

Is it then possible to compare concepts in various languages? Something is lost in every translation. Reinhart Koselleck argued that comparison of concepts would require a kind of neutral meta language (Koselleck 1991). He referred to the citizen example. If one translates the French citoyen into German the term is Staatsbürger. However, according to Koselleck, these two concepts cannot be compared to one another because they represent two very different histories. One could add on citizen and argue that citizen has a rather different history than both citoyen and Staatsbürger. If we add the corresponding terms in the Scandinavian and Finnish languages – medborgare and kansalainen – the complexity increases even more. Medborgare means literally co-citizen and connotes a linke to the bürgerliche civil society whereas kansalainen is derived from a link to the state concept. One should not exaggerate these inter-Nordic differences, however, since society and state are very closely related, almost synonymous concepts. The prefix civil was added to society in the Scandinavian languages only during the incorporation of the neo-liberal language in the 1980s and was used to create the demarcation between state and society that was missing, and bring society closer to the market concept. One could to this collection of European examples add the comparison of Volk in German and folk in Scandinavian languages, peuple in French, populus in Italian, demos in Greek, kansa in Finnish, or folk or people in English and many other languages. They all represent very different realities and histories.

However, is Koselleck’s resignation in the front of an impossible undertaking necessary? Could not the disadvantage be turned into an advantage? Is not exactly the different histories represented by the different concepts the source of a rich historical understanding based on comparison of difference?

An assumption of the project is that this is the case. The comparison is not only between concepts but also between histories. And the utmost aim is not the concepts per se in a kind of lexicographic approach, but to discern the different histories which the languages convey through an analytical focus on the key concepts and their counter concepts and semantic fields. The research target is the historical dynamics. Since there is no exact translation the goal can only be approximate interpretations and converging understandings of difference.

Conceptual history as outlined by Reinhart Koselleck departs from the understanding that politics in democratic societies or in societies with a minimum of public debate require shared concepts and at the same time disagreement about the meaning of these concepts. The shared conceptualisation provides the arena of the political struggle, and the attempts to appropriate positions of interpretative power of the key concepts, constitute the political process. Since history with the enlightenment philosophy and the French revolution got a direction and imaginations of a past that was different and a future that can become different through human agency the core of the conceptual struggle has dealt with the interpretation of experiences and the translation of the experiences into expectations. The search for political positions between experiences and expectations was underpinned by the constant tension between social critique and political crisis (Koselleck 1988).

There is a clear link from this approach of Koselleck to Michael Freeden’s approach to politics and ideologies with an emphasis on the conceptual, and where ideologies, rather than being long-term consistent and separated chains of thought, are seen as depositories or arsenals of arguments which can be collected and combined in various ways from various ideological origins contingent on the specific historical situations (Freeden 1996, 2005). Historical processes and politics are open and contingent and nothing is predetermined its formulation. This focus on the conceptual struggle and the mutating shifts of meaning of key terms in crucial historical moments, or the introduction of new concepts of a different provenance, provide the methodological approach of the project. There is also in our conceptual methodology a clear connection to the Cambridge speech act school with Quentin Skinner as protagonist. They began to rewrite the history of Western political thought by reconstructing the precise context and meanings of words and ideas in the past, and showing how they had changed their shape and connotations over time, like chameleons, so as to adapt to new circumstances and new deeds (Skinner 1978, 1998 and 2008).

In the vein of Koselleck, Skinner and Freeden we are not only interested in concepts as single constructs but as crucially informed by their proximity to other concepts that define, or decontest, them in different ways at different points of time and space. Concepts develop counter concepts in semantic fields. The combination of, for instance, liberty, private property and personal initiative means something different than when liberty is connected to human welfare and social development, to use an example from a Western vocabulary.

A comparison of the conceptual situations or moments diachronically or synchronically will result in an understanding of continuities and discontinuities and of the dynamics of translation. What are the relationships between translated concepts and to what extent are they inscribed in similar semantic fields and metaphoric languages? From what metaphoric fields are key concepts in, for instance, the fields of the social and the economic derived? Biologic or mechanic metaphors, for instance? In what periods have conceptual shifts and mutations occurred and to what extent and how have they been translated? What are the sequences in a comparative perspective? What transfer of words and meanings occurs under development of what counter concepts and relationships between symmetric and asymmetric concepts? Such and similar questions in a comparative perspective can show how concepts mutate with and travel between different metaphoric languages and semantic fields. What similarities and differences in terms of interpretations of experiences and outlines of expectations are there between various cultures? What differences and similarities as to styles of politics?

Reinhart Koselleck made his remark on the impossibility of comparison across languages without a meta-language before the acceleration of a European academic network community in social sciences began. One can and should have many critical comments on the EU-financed research projects in social sciences, but one good thing they have in common. They have intensified the communication across language borders and increased the mutual understanding of difference. Through rich comparison in trans-European research projects the academics know that citoyen is not Staatsbürger and they also know a lot about why it is so. Exactly the growing insight of difference and the attempts to develop a language to describe the differences and approximations has brought new important historical knowledge.

However, the aim of a world history is much more complex than a European history based on comparison of the conceptualisation of society. The social, the economic, politics, democracy, progress, development, modern, traditional, religion, civil, civilisation, culture, empire, and so on are all Western concepts. Although the translation of them between the European languages show important differences, they are much more narrow to each other than to Chinese, Japanese, Indian and African languages, for instance. There is a Western bias in the conceptualisation of social life.

The challenge of the project on a new comparative conceptual world history under the key word of “global translation” is the search for positive answers to Koselleck’s problem of comparability and translation, but at an even more complicated level in terms of linguistic differences. The problem in going beyond Europe is that, despite the European diversity, our conceptualisation of the political, the economic, the social, the religious, and so on, and the semantic fields, which this conceptualisation has built up, in many respects rely on a Greek and Roman origin, and this reliance makes communication across the diversity relatively easier than when we move beyond Europe. How are Western concepts like civilisation, culture, democracy, community, union, class, religion, salvation, utopia, and so on translated into Chinese, Indian, Swahili or other languages? Is the communication only a monologue of Western values, or is there a potential for the development of more dialogical reflection on similarities and differences? Can the European experience of Europeanisation of the understandings of the differences (between e g citoyen and Staatsbürger) also be used and adopted at a global level? The challenge of this project is to answer these questions affirmatively.

The crucial question is to what extent the European or Western view can be relativised. Dipesh Chakrabarty in his postcolonial critique seems to argue that this is a rather impossible undertaking (Chakrabarty 2001). Although he recognises the Enlightenment values as a European achievement for the world, and that no Indian history can be written without integrating the colonial experience, his prescription for “provincialising Europe” is to focus such a history on how the translation of the Western experiences into colonized and post-colonized cultures has occurred. Europe might be the origin, but the interpretations and the translations of the European experiences are externalized. In this process the Europeans can only act as bystanders. The developments in Maghreb since the spring of 2011 is a case in point.

It is easy to agree with Chakrabarty’s view that colonialism produced a world image where it became “normal” to think of England as a rich country and India as a poor country. This situation has changed in the post-colonized world, although only partly. His argument that he and other historians of Asia and Africa must pay attention to the academic production of their European colleagues, who must not consider the scholarly production in Asia and Africa, is a serious critique.

How are genuinely Western metaphorical fields around conceptualisations of the political, the economic, the social, the religious, etc translated into non-Western languages? What domestic linguistic linkages are there? What etymologies? These are the key questions that must be addressed. In the course of the 19th century, the Eastern Cape in present-day South Africa experienced a frontier situation. While a border between the Cape Colony and the “natives’” territories was created (and subsequently moved eastwards, encroaching on Xhosa lands), one important commodity was required from them: labour. In earlier times, work that was carried out was not understood as a service for which wage was expected. Work tasks for members of the Xhosa community were clearly associated with gender and age group, but not a paid service. By fulfilling one’s tasks, one pursued a valid biography, and you could therefore expect recompensation – in a more generalized way. Some commodities had been traded before, but not work. We are currently within the Eurafrican team looking into the question how notions and expectations of “accomplished service” influence, among others, early trade union discourses. This establishes a much longer-during continuity of concepts revolving around service and expectations in terms of a patronage system, clearly a highly relevant topic if one intends to understand current economic and social policies in South Africa.

A crucial problem in any world history is the issue of Eurocentrism. Arif Dirlik, for instance, has argued that world historical outlooks need to be basically understood as privileged, centric perspectives of the past (Dirik 2002, 2003). The purported desire to develop multi-angled world historical versions cannot overcome this situation since Eurocentrism can rather be described in terms of inclusiveness than exclusiveness, expansive inclusion one could add. According to Dirlik, the effort to fit different societies or regions into an overarching narrative is impossible without ranking and filing them according to allegedly universal standards. For example, world histories tend to operate with Western categories such as “nation”, “culture” or “civilisation”, which are implicitly or explicitly presented as the subjects and not the products of history.

As opposed to such views Jerry Benley has argued that historians can transcend their original limitations and that rather than being a static set of world visions their fields of construction are dynamic and open with a potential for self-correction (Benley 2003). This argument comes close to the European experience of growing approximation in the understandings of the differences among European languages just referred to. This is a statement that still has to be filled with substance, however. The gap to bridge is much bigger between the European and the non-European languages. However, this means that the problem is practical and empirical rather than principal and theoretical.

How are genuinely Western metaphorical fields around conceptualisations of the political, the economic, the social, the religious, etc translated into non-Western languages? What domestic linguistic linkages are there? What etymologies? These are the crucial questions that must be addressed. World in world history must not necessarily be understood as a Hegelian nexus requiring totalising narratives but should rather be seen as an open research field that encourages the pursuit of trans-local themes as much as comparison of nations and civilisations. Solutions should be looked for in the direction of oecumenic research in social sciences. There is a need for new kinds of world scholarship, which are more dialogical in nature and which can only be conceivable if new structures and patterns within the global academic landscape are developed. At the moment world historians, for instance, theorise a lot about trans-cultural spaces, but in their academic practices and communities national (or European) boundaries and public spheres remain the main point of reference. From a more long-term perspective, ecumenical world history is only conceivable within a more ecumenical scholarly community. This, in turn, requires more reflection on the global sociology of academic knowledge production (Sachsenmaier 2007).

Lynn Hunt has argued that, at least for the US, the fervour of methodological debates has started to fade away (Hunt 2002). However, in future it might well be, according to her, that world history or trans-cultural history will experience more disputes between rival research approaches, political positions and overall world views than conventional historiography centred on the national frameworks. The exploration of spaces beyond the nation states makes it urgent to critically reconsider the structures and guiding principles of historiography. Nationally organised scholarly communities may be ill-equipped to handle trans-national or global research geographies. The question of whose world history, what perspectives and historiographical traditions are being applied, will become more pertinent than in the case of more localised research orientations. World historians will hardly be able to distance themselves from intellectual and political questions that may be understood as the great themes of global civil society in the offing. There will be a need to debate the value-orders, experience bases and research traditions that underlie historical research and narratives at a global level. The calls for multi-perspectivity and ecumenical narratives certainly point in that direction, although behind these key words are very complex realities.


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