Historicizing concepts, reflecting
– the potential of conceptual history for
intercultural education
Helge Jordheim, Falstad, 19.9.2011.
Intro: Democracy – openness – humanity
The Nietzschean Credo
Begriffsgeschichte – the origins
Begriffsgeschichte – theory
Begriffsgeschichte – method
Conceptual history in intercultural education
A great people has been
moved to defend a great
nation .
Our answer is more
democracy, more
openness, more
Democracy – openness – humanity
1. Positivist (realist) approach: concepts as ’windows
to the world’, f. ex. democracy is government by the
2. Pragmatist approach: concepts as (more or less
formal) agreements, f. ex. in this context we take
openness to mean freedom of speech
3. Hermeneutical-phenomenological (constructivist)
approach: concepts as aggregates of different
experiences, meanings and uses, f. ex. Humanität
as the goal of humankind (Herder) or as act of
The Nietzschean Credo
All concepts, in which an entire process is summarized
semiotically, eludes definition: only that which has no history,
can be defined
Alle Begriffe, in denen sich ein ganzer Prozeß semiotisch
zusammenfaßt, entziehen sich der Definition; definierbar ist nur
das, was keine Geschichte hat.
(Nietzsche, Zur Genealogie der Moral)
Begriffsgeschichte – the origins
Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe. Lexikon zur historisch-sozialen
Sprache in Deutschland (“Key Historical Concepts.
Encyclopedia of German Historico-Social Language”). Edited
by Otto Brunner, Werner Conze and Reinhart Koselleck,
Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta 1972-1992
(but also: Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie by Joachim
Ritter and Handbuch politisch-sozialer Grundbegriffe in
Frankreich 1680-1820 by Rolf Reichardt etc.)
Begriffsgeschichte – the origins
Historical aim:
To study the dissolution of the old world and the emergence of
the new world through the history of how it has been
(Koselleck 1967)
Educational and political aim:
To alienate the concepts through past experiences can
contribute to a contemporary raising of awareness that leads
from historical clarification to political clarity.
(Koselleck 1972)
Begriffsgeschichte – theory
• Both words and concept might have several meanings, but
whereas the meaning of a word can be determined with
reference to the context, concepts are by necessity ambiguous.
• The word becomes a concept when the plenitude of a social
and political context of meaning, in which – and for which – the
word is used, is taken up in the word.
• The concept assembles the plurality of historical experiences
as well as a series of theoretical and historical issues in one
single whole, which is only given in the concept itself and only
can be experienced there.
• Not only the plurality of meaning and experience, but even ‘the
plurality of historical reality enters into the ambiguity of a
Begriffsgeschichte – theory
• key/ basic concepts [Grundbegriffe]: irreplacable parts of
political and social langue – always controversial and contested
• all concepts are parts of larger semantic fields (or discourses)
Begriffsgeschichte – method
• synchronic analysis: contextualization, uses and meanings
within a specific context, a rhetorical situation, a historical
moment, pragmatic (who? why? in what way?), intentions,
effects etc.
• diachronic narrative: different meanings and uses added
together diachronically to a history for the concept
• comparative element – works both synchronically an
Historicizing concepts, reflecting
identities – conceptual history in
intercultural education
1. Mapping the plenitude of meanings and uses
a) synchronically
– across personal identities and biographies
– across cultural, social and political differences
– across different languages
b) diachronically
– through history (past, present and future)
– including the present historical situation or moment
Historicizing concepts, reflecting
identities – conceptual history in
intercultural education
Negotiating meanings and uses
a) communication
– in the same room or digitally across geographical distances
– language (the problem of English as a metalanguage)
b) reciprocity
– recognition (Anerkennung)
– symmetry (of power, knowledge etc.)
c) dynamics
– movement, transformations (towards agreement?)
– but also: immobility, constance, antagonism
A great people has been
moved to defend a great
nation .
Our answer is more
democracy, more
openness, more

Keynote presentation by Helge Jordheim