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KeynotesTowards a global conceptual history by Bo Stråth

Meditations on Eikones by Valentin Mudimbe



Towards a Global Conceptual History

By Bo Stråth

Key note at the Seminar “National and Transnational Notions of the Social” in Helsinki 21 August 2008 organised jointly by Concepta (International Research School in Conceptual History and Political Thought” and NordWel (The Nordic Centre of Excellence: the Nordic Welfare State – Historical Foundations and Future Challenges)

The title of this seminar is “National and Transnational Notions of the ‘Social’”. As a title of my talk in that framework I have put “Towards a Global Conceptual History”. I will develop two lines of argument: 1. a plea for a new social history through conceptual history, and 2. a plea for a new world history through conceptual history and new ways of research organisation transgressing the conventional Western bias.

My talk will depart from the work on a new project “Comparative Conceptual History and Global Translations”. It began with a focus on the conceptualisation of “the social”. With this approach the normative underpinning of the project is indicated. The backdrop is the economistic reductivism of the globalisation rhetoric since the early 1990s. The social disappeared in that narrative and this seems to mean an ever bigger political problem today. One implicit target of the project is a critical deconstruction and destabilisation of the globalisation narrative. However, the project is more ambitious than so. The aim is to develop alternative understandings and to contribute to the development of a new meta narrative based on a more realistic historical understanding than the a-historical Hegelian and teleological globalisation rhetoric. We want to do so from clear methodological positions.

There is thus a need for a new narrative. However, it would be a mistake to let the narrative end up in a kind of social reductionism instead of economistic. The crucial question is the tension between the social and the economic, not their harmonious relationships or their mutual exclusiveness. The tension has been there all the time since the French revolution when for a short moment the concepts of égalité and liberté were kept together into what seemed to be a cohesive Denkfigur, but soon split up into the ideologies of socialism and liberalism with the fiction of the state and the fiction of the market respectively as their icons.

The ambition of the project is to thematise the tensions between the social and the economic at a global level, not just in a lexicographic way to map out the semantics of the social. After the start with a focus on the social, the project expanded during its initiating phase to the interactions between the languages of the social and the languages of the economic. In terms of research organisation the project expanded from its origin at Helsinki University to a joint venture with Århus University where Hagen Schulz-Forberg is in charge of the research agenda. We will organise the first conference here in Helsinki at the beginning of October and the second in Bangkok in March next year.

The project is not only about conceptual history but also about world history.

Departing from the argument that academic historiography to an eminent degree is based on methodological nationalism, the question emerges whether this is an adequate state of the art for the 21st century. The answer to that question is for many reasons, which I have no possibility to develop here, a clear no. There is a 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.

My second argument is that the optimal methodology to establish an alternative world history is through a focus on the conceptualisation of the social, the economic, the political, the religious, the cultural, and so on, and the semantic fields around these conceptualisations, in various languages of the world. A history that departs from a focus on the languages would not prioritise one (Western) language but compare world languages.

Is it then possible to compare concepts in various languages? As Walter Benjamin and many before as well as after him observed, a translation cannot be made 1:1. 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 link to the bürgerliche civil society whereas kansalainen is derived from a link to the state or the nation concept. One should not exaggerate these inter-Nordic differences, however, since society and state are very closely related, almost synonymous concepts in the Nordic languages. A good illustration of how close to each other they are is the fact that there was until the 1980s no concept of civil society. There was society, samhälle, but one never talked about civilsamhälle. The prefix civil was added to society in the Scandinavian languages only with the neo-liberal language in the 1980s in order to create the demarcation between state and society, to break up their tight entanglement, 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 front of what he sees as 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?

I would argue 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.

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 constitutes 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).

I will illustrate what I have said about both politics and conceptual history as a matter of agreement and disagreement at the same time with an example:

In August, 1938 some 25 people, among them the history philosopher Raymond Aron and the economists Wilhelm Röpke, Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich von Hayek, Jacques Rueff and Alexander Rüstow met for a colloquium on the crisis of liberalism. They did so, on the eve of World War II, at the Institut International de Coopération Intellectuelle on rue Montpensier in Paris next to Palais Royal where once the French revolution had begun. The discussions dealt with chances and preconditions of a liberal renaissance, it dealt with markets and crises, with the liberal state and an agenda of liberalism. They struggled for a new mobilising concept for the intellectual movement they planned and which they defined as liberal, although under demarcation to the conventional liberalism, which since the 1870s had fallen into ever more disrepute. The meeting discussed several concepts, among them neo-capitalism and constructive liberalism. At the end the participants agreed on neo-liberalism.

From this point onwards the term neo-liberalism began a remarkable career. Neo-liberals at the Paris meeting like Wilhelm Röpke and Alexander Rüstow, and with them Walter Eucken, who was not among the participants, became the Vordenker of the German soziale Marktwirtschaft. Friedrich von Hayek developed a theory for liberalisation and deregulation of the world economy where regulation of the social life would emerge through the market without the mediation of the state which was described in suffocating terms.

The participants could not imagine the mobilising force – pro and contra -- of the concept they agreed on. At the end of the 20th century it was a salvation word that would heal the world economy from its sclerosis. At the beginning of the 21st century it has become an invective, even an insult, a synonym of a ruthless competition economy which penetrates all areas of life and divides the world into rich and poor, a synonym of predatory capitalism. However, even if they could not imagine these developments in Paris in 1938 there were already there contrary positions. They all agreed on private property of the means of production and freedom to enter contracts as the necessary basis of a functioning market economy. They also agreed on market economy as the precondition of democracy. The contentious point was the role of the state and the location of responsibility for the social. This contention has been there ever since.

The example is an illustration of how a transnational conceptual history in the entangled semantic field of the social and the economic could be addressed. Conceptual history is about agreement and disagreement at the same time and about the variety of approaches that emerge out of this point of departure.

In my reading 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.

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 has brought new important historical knowledge. The point is not to find one final and definitive answer but to develop approximations and convergences of interpretation. I would moreover argue that as a matter of fact the meta-language is already there. It is English. This is the practical language of academic negotiation of differences and mutual understandings.

In such a methodological framework the focus of our project is the various approaches to the linking of the social and the economic, to the fiction of the state and the fiction of the market, and the great variety in terms of implementation of key concepts like Keynesianism, mixed economy and soziale Marktwirtschaft. Vast majorities agreed on the concepts as such but they imagined and interpreted them in very different ways. A second key question is, in our world historical approach, to what extent these concepts are valid at all outside the West.

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 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 in an affirmative way.

It is important to emphasise that a new world history must have a much more polycentric approach than being just a matter of Europe or the West and the rest. Eurasian or Eurafrican entanglements in the conceptualisation of the social and the economic are certainly important, but we should not forget about Sino-Japanese transfers in both directions independent of Europe, or complex Euro-Indian-African interrelationships and mutual influences.

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 reject such a history and write an alternative story independent of Europe which would mean a communicational rupture. 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. 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. The challenge is to develop this kind of communication that Chakrabarty is sceptical to.

In the 19th century the terms culture and civilisation were used for demarcation between Us and Them. I have no time here to go into the interesting differences between these key concepts, but they became together with nation and class key terms of demarcation. Culture and civilisation were in particular key concepts in academic ethnology and anthropology. Although the concepts were used in plural they radiated European superiority. Against the backdrop of de-colonialisation after World War II critical anthropology and postcolonial studies operated with the term cultural relativism where each culture or civilisation should be analysed and evaluated according to its own gauges. This attempt to find an exit out from the colonial power discourse proved to be illusive, however (Höfert Forthcoming). The putative objective categories of knowledge which continued to be the norm of European academic reflection carried on the European-Western hegemony. In particular postcolonial studies critisised the conceptual apparatus of the Western cultural sciences, which used terms like modernity, modernisation, religion, nation, democracy and time conceptualisations of linear progress universally without questioning whether these categories were applicable in the non-Western world. The term religion, for instance, has since the 19th century emerged as a key term in the narratives on an occidental Sonderweg in all its variety. The European project of modernity as it emerged in the enlightenment philosophy proclaimed itself as the opposite pole of religion. The accomplished secularisation, the domesticisation of religion was and is in this vein seen as an outstanding marker of the modern Europe. Non-European cultures were and are, as Almut Höfert has argued, confronted with the Gretchenfrage of how they then had and have it with religion, and this question was and is linked to the question of how modern they really were and are. This situation is fully visible in the ongoing master narrative on Islam (Höfert Forthcoming). The postcolonial critique has rejected the use of universal concepts in the study of non-Western societies.

On this point it is interesting to listen to the Syrian scholar Aziz al-Azmeh who opposes the postulation a priori of a principle cultural difference between European and non-European societies. Al-Azmeh argues here with the concept of postmodern obscurantism (al-Azmeh 2003). He is one of the sharpest critiques of an academic proceeding, which particularise and isolate the multiple phenomenon of one well demarcated world religion called Islam, and the instrument thereby is the postulated instead of empirically demonstrated cohesion and unity of this religion called civilisation, and its sharp demarcation to other civilisations, which are less defined in religious terms. The postulation of cultural difference encloses and “over-islamises” the Islamic history. One could here ask why we use a religious category of analysis instead of geographical and historical. Chinese history is not called Buddhist history and Indian history not Hindu history. The distinction between European and Christian history is also clear since the 17th century. The method of over-islamisation is culturalistic and essentialising, and has in that respect connections to racism.

A conclusion of the arguments of Almut Höfert and Aziz al-Azmeh is that transcultural comparison must avoid the two pitfalls of universalism and particularism and integrate both dimensions: one the one hand a generalising perspective with general historical categories like the economic, the social and the political and with a view on similarities, a perspective which confronts postulates of demarcations between civilisations, and on the other hand an individualising perspective, which critically reflects on the hegemonic genesis of modern Western categories of classification and on the idea of an occidental Sonderweg.

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”, or, as I just said, religion, which are implicitly or explicitly presented as the subjects and not the products of history. Dirlik does thus in this sense support Chakrabarty, although his conclusions are less negative.

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 I 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.

Dominic Sachsenmaier has emphasised that “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. He looks for solutions in the direction of ecumenic historiography. Historical scholarship certainly must become more multi-angled in its confrontation with the challenges of a more global world, but this in fact, in the eyes of Sachsenmaier, requires more than a paradigm change. There is a need for new kinds of world historical 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 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).

One implication of such an approach would be that academic energy is mainly invested in the development of competing as well as overlapping perspectives rather than in finding the exclusive and absolute truth in a positivist or monotheist sense. The main task of social sciences is reflection and orientation. A conceptual history is a matter of communication and deliberation of difference and diversity. The shared interpretative framework means a growing understanding of how different our experiences are, but difference is described in alternative ways to what is understood in the civilisation bloc paradigm.

Lynn Hunt has argued that, at least for the US, the fervour of methodological debates has started to fade away in recent years (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 (Sachsenmaier 2007).

Lynn Hunt’s scenario is certainly a more long-term one for us and it will probably take some time to get there. The same can be said about the view of Dominic Sachsenmaier, although I think that it is fair to say that we are further on that road than on Lynn Hunt’s. In order to approach the scenario of Lynn Hunt I think that one should begin rather concentrated in theoretical and methodological terms with a clear intellectual focus and in that way provoke alternative and competing views. The way of the project in Helsinki and Århus goes through a series of meetings with a European-Asian-African working group of some 25 people focussing on the conceptualisation of the social and the economic. In the Western tradition these Western concepts and their semantic fields are conventionally analysed along two parallel tracks representing two different academic disciplines, sociology and economics. We want to study the concepts in their inter-dynamic entanglements, however. We will meet twice a year over the next three or four years before we will be able to publish anything, but by then we should hopefully have something interesting to say. In a couple of years we plan to connect the analyses also to the concepts of development and progress, which are far from synonymous concepts, although this is what they often are argued to be.

The horizon of a new kind of encompassing non-Western world history indicates, rather than one world history in singular, new world histories in plural written from the perspective of cross-cultural comparison of the conceptualisation of social life in key areas of political activity. The question of the possibility of communication across cultural and civilisational borders is at the centre of such an enterprise.

I agree very much with Sachsenmaier that the task is much more than a methodological or theoretical problem, because individual researchers have limited capacity to develop the kind of comparison I am arguing for. The environment of the research is as important as the theoretical problem. The environment is a matter of building global academic communities with the task of overcoming a comparison of everything with an implicit or explicit Western standard and develop more fluid points of reference where non-Western languages are as crucial reference points in the communication.

The task does not start fully from scratch. Since a decade there is a kind of global academic movement in conceptual history. The approach is spreading beyond Europe. Last year there was a big meeting in Istanbul and before that there was a convegno in Rio de Janeiro, and this year there will be the next meeting in Seoul, for instance. Jan Ifversen is the secretary general of this loosely organised network. The academic community meeting there is not very tight in communicative terms, but something is nevertheless about to happen. The meetings are certainly too big to be very well structured or have a clear focus. They provide a source to draw upon in the establishment of smaller and more targeted global research units, however. And they do transgress the Western bias.


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Chakrabarty, Dipesh. (2001). Provincialising Europe. Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton: Princeton U P.

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