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  • Thinking about Politics beyond Modern Concepts
  • Giuseppe Duso (bio)
    Translated by Stephen Marth (bio)

1.Conceptual History as Political Philosophy

After a twenty-year period of work in the field of conceptual history, which had as its point of reference the German Begriffsgeschichte but immediately found its own autonomous course, the time has come for a deliberation that avails itself of the results obtained while incorporating the changes that have occurred along the way, and of the evolution of our understanding of the history of concepts, of its necessity, and of its limits for a philosophy of politics.

In an initially theoretical reflection on the specificity of my practice of conceptual history, the history of concepts and political philosophy were closely intertwined, to the point of conflation, as is evident in the title of an essay on the subject, "Conceptual History as Political Philosophy" (1997). My more recent reflections, taking advantage of the stimulus offered by critics, have allowed me to move ahead, not by overturning the proposal but [End Page 73] by modifying it in the sense expressed by the title of another essay, "From Conceptual History to Political Philosophy" (2007a).

My goals in the present article will be: (1) to clarify the sense of the initial proposal and the work carried out in these years, while attempting to dispel a series of misinterpretations that still persist; (2) to indicate some modifications of the prospective that may assist in understanding the relations among thought, politics, historical work, our approach to the sources, and the relevance of our considering the present; (3) and finally, to indicate—but not more than indicate—in which direction one might specify the meaning of a political philosophy without a normative dimension or an interest in building models, whose aim is to understand reality while attempting to orient the common practices and the actions of people.1

To avoid reducing my current reasoning to mere methodology,2 I must rely on the results of previous research. In regard to the meaning of the theoretical proposals just mentioned, I am obliged, for the sake of clarity, to return to some points that have already been the object of previous treatment and argumentation. Above all, I am compelled to reiterate once again the that the common understanding and practice of the history of concepts3 in Italy, and not only in Italy, but also by those who claim to follow in the tradition of the German Begriffsgeschichte of Brunner and Koselleck, tend to retrace the various declinations and transformations that a concept has had in its historical development, interchanging in many cases the concept with the word. I have repeatedly attempted4 to show not only how detached this tendency is from my practice of conceptual history, but in fact how it contradicts the intentions of Brunner and Koselleck themselves, risking in fact identification with the very method they criticize and define as "the history of ideas." One could really only retrace the differences in meaning that have historically been attributed to a concept if the latter has always remained the same concept, even in its various declinations. From this perspective, the modifications implicate a nucleus of identity, without which we would not observe the modifications of a concept, but simply the description of different contents unrelated with one another. If one were to analyze this unitary nucleus, which a certain way of practicing a history of concepts implicates, one could demonstrate without great difficulty that this approach consists [End Page 74] in little more than the hypostatization of the modern concept, which by now connotes the word we use, "?" (Chignola and Duso 2005).5 This is certainly not the point of view of conceptual history, which, on the contrary, is well aware that the hypostatization of modern concepts does not allow for a comprehension of past sources and, at the same time, tends to consider as universal truths concepts that are in fact determined depending on their epoch, leading in this manner to a misinterpretation in historical analysis and an uncritical dogmatism in philosophical reflection.

A conceptual history approach6 is in no way associated with the determination of an all-inclusive historical frame in which...


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