Conceptual history

Conceptual history (also the history of concepts or, from German, Begriffsgeschichte) is a branch of historical and cultural studies that deals with the historical semantics of terms. It sees the etymology and the change in meaning of terms as forming a crucial basis for contemporary cultural, conceptual and linguistic understanding. Conceptual history deals with the evolution of paradigmatic ideas and value systems over time, such as "liberty" or "reform." It argues that social history – indeed all historical reflection – must begin with an understanding of historically contingent cultural values and practices in their particular contexts over time, not merely as unchanging ideologies or processes.

Interest in conceptual history was given a particular boost in the 20th century through the publication of the Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie, the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe and the journal Archiv für Begriffsgeschichte.

Conceptual history is an interdisciplinary methodology. Alongside the philosopher Joachim Ritter, the historians Otto Brunner and Reinhart Koselleck and the sociologist Erich Rothacker are viewed as the leading scholars of the research area in the German-speaking world and internationally. Raymond Williams is the leading scholar in the English-speaking world. Examples of conceptual histories include a genealogy of the concept of globalization drawing on the approach of Williams:

Although keywords represent a critical mass of the vocabulary of any given era, the history of their meaning construction often remains obscure. ‘Globalization’ is no exception. While the meanings of other seminal ‘keywords’ such as ‘economics’, ‘culture’, or ‘modernity’ evolved rather slowly and built upon a relatively continuous base, ‘globalization’ has had a very short and discontinuous history.[1]


  1. James, Paul; Steger, Manfred B. (2014). "A Genealogy of Globalization: The Career of a Concept". Globalizations. 11 (4): 418–19.

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