- The Practice of Conceptual History. Timing History: Spacing Concepts
Reinhart Koselleck, as Hayden White points out in the foreword to this volume, is “one of the most important theorists of history and historiography of the last half-century.” His fame rests on the seven-volume Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe: Historisches Lexikon zur politisch-sozialen Sprache in Deutschland (1972–1992), which established him as the foremost practitioner of conceptual history (Begriffsgeschichte). The handbook, which he originally co-edited with Otto Brunner and Werner Conze, analyses fundamental concepts in history. But Koselleck, who celebrated his eightieth birthday in 2003, is also the author of numerous articles on conceptual history, and this translation of some his important work is therefore entirely welcome. The volume comprises of eighteen essays, many of which analyse specific fundamental historical concepts, such as ‘crisis’, ‘civil society’, ‘progress’ and ‘decline’, ‘emancipation’ and ‘Bildung’. In each case he masterfully explores the different meanings of the terms and asks when and how they were employed. Time and again he traces them back to their ancient Greek and Roman meanings and explores ways in which that meaning changed over time and space.
It is mildly annoying that the reader is not in all cases informed about the exact origins of the pieces assembled in this collection, but in what must be one of the oldest articles translated, Koselleck pleads for a theoretically oriented history which would develop in particular a theory of periodisation. The article (from 1969) originated in the debates surrounding an alleged crisis of history as a discipline which were virulent in the FRG in the late 1960s, but what remains interesting today is, first of all, Koselleck’s attempt to introduce a theory of periodisation. Developing Otto Brunner’s idea of a ‘saddle period’ between 1750 and 1850, he has argued pervasively and consistently to view this century as the vital break between a pre-modern and a modern period. It was, he argued, characterised by politicisation, democratisation, ideologisation and an overall greater sense of historical time in which concepts became more dynamic.
The second interesting bit about this article is how closely related history as a discipline is, according to Koselleck, to the social sciences. A history without proper reference to society is as unthinkable to Koselleck as a history without proper recourse to language. Several other pieces in this collection emphasise this close relationship between social and conceptual history. For Koselleck the Annalistes’ idea of a ‘histoire totale’ is impossible to achieve. Instead his emphasis is on how history is represented through language. This tight linking of social and conceptual history is intriguing if one considers another biographical detail: Koselleck was, for most of his professional life, a professor of history at Bielefeld university, the stronghold of German ‘societal history’ (Gesellschaftsgeschichte) from the 1970s onwards.
It is not easy to read Koselleck in German. His writing style is difficult and his prose often extremely dense. It is a tribute to the translators of this volume that they managed to bring his articles into fine English. However, it is still virtually impossible to skim-read Koselleck. But every reader who is willing to invest the [End Page 211] time will come away from the book with a plethora of insights and intriguing new ideas. Just one example is his marvellous refutation that history always is the history of the victors. Koselleck argues compellingly that in the long term the vanquished, if they survive, are bound to have a greater impact on history than the victors, because it is they who demonstrate that intentions in history rarely coincide with what actually happened in the past.
Koselleck’s appreciation of semantics is something that he has in common with Hayden White, and hence it is no surprise that we also find in this book an appreciation of White’s Tropics of Discourse. One other piece included in the collection also comments on another book, Charlotte Beradt’s The Third Reich of Dreams. Koselleck in particular discusses the different levels on which dreams can be methodologically useful for the...