Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Possibilities for conceptual history, theology, and pragmatism

Last spring I was introduced to some current work in conceptual history (Begriffsgeschichte) through a seminar at the Committee on Social Thought, and it has since been an interest of mine that I look forward to reading more about when I have the time. I think that there could be some significant interaction between theology and the history of concepts, and my recent readings in American pragmatism have also brought up thought-provoking tensions over the very idea of a concept... tensions that might be fruitful for work on their history.

Conceptual history is of German origin, with some important philosophical lexicons and encyclopedias paving the way for the 20th century resurgence of the project in publications such as the Archiv für Begriffsgeschichte. The international reception of conceptual history has also grown in recent years, and from what I can tell has primarily concerned itself with the history of concepts in political thought. This is the primary focus of the two main publications outside of Germany, the Finnish Redescriptions and the newer journal Contributions to the History of Concepts, which was established following a meeting of the History of Political and Social Concepts Group in Rio de Janeiro. My initial introduction to concept history was through this more recent reception in the history of political thought.

Despite the strong focus on politics, it strikes me as pretty obvious that theology and religion more generally offers a number of places for interaction with this field. Isidore's Etymologies is only the most prominent example of a long interest in a theoretical examination of concepts in Christian thought, extending to the work of Kittel et al. that is such a part of the 20th century biblical studies landscape.

On the other hand, 20th century American pragmatist thought could provide a helpful reconsideration of the very idea of the concept, and suggest some new theoretical avenues for historical work. I'm not aware of the current state of interaction-- there may in fact be some conceptual historians working from a pragmatist perspective. But Davidson's criticism of incommensurability of conceptual schemes or Brandom's concern for the development and use of concepts as they apply to normativity and self-consciousness could probably do a lot of work if read alongside a project of concept history.


  1. Evan,

    Can you explicate further what you mean by your last sentence: "But Davidson's criticism . . . "? I'm not sure I understand it.

    By the way, could I get a copy of the syllabus/reading list for your pragmatism class? That would be quite useful; Rorty has come in for a goodly amount of occasional abuse in my secularization seminar and that has reminded me that at some point I'm going to have to read more pragmatist writing.

  2. Sorry to be so long in responding; I've been away for Thanksgiving. Davidson's criticism is of the idea of conceptual schemes and relativism between them. In the essay he argues that we can't make sense of such a situation. Here's a quote... "The dominant metaphor of conceptual relativism, that of differing points of view, seems to betray an underlying paradox. Different points of view make sense, but only if there is a common co-ordinate system on which to plot them; yet the existence of a common system belies the claim of dramatic incomparability." I could see this critique being usable in conceptual history as a theoretical basis for understanding historical development of concepts and comparison of concepts in different times or regions. Brandom's discussion of the normative role of concepts could also contribute to historical work by suggesting a focus not merely on semantic developments over time, but also on how semantic development in turn has affected social life and possible grounds for the emergence of new ways of thinking.

  3. ... I don't know if I brought up Davidson in the clearest way here. He argues against "concept relativism" of the sort that says reality stands within conceptual schemes, and that translation of meaning fails across different schemes. Davidson says that if such impenetrable schemes were to exist, we wouldn't even be able to recognize them as such.

  4. I've just run across and read a recent article on Davidson's philosophy of interpretation as it relates to historical understanding. It seems that there has been an ongoing conversation on Davidson's significance for history, and largely critical. I can understand the basis for such criticism, but it seems that for those so inclined, Davidson might be helpful for the very reason that others find him unhelpful... insofar as he provides arguments for the possibility of interpretation rather than for an inevitable inability to interact with the thought and expression of others.