Two Perspectives on Begriffsgeschichte
[History of Meaning]:
Francis Bacon
Reinhart Koselleck

And Then a Miscellany of Words in Need of Clear Definition

Alan Kimball, University of Oregon


Francis Bacon [ID]

It's hard to believe that nearly four centuries have passed since Francis Bacon [ID] tried to teach everyone about what he called the dignity and benefits of actual knowledge, as opposed to the crude approximations he observed in the realms of history, politics and literature.  We should not forget what Bacon said about plodding historians and affected poets =

All History, excellent King, walks upon the earth, and performs the office rather of a guide than of a light; whereas Poesy is as a dream of learning, a thing sweet and varied, and that would be thought to have in it something divine, a character which dreams likewise affect. [...] But now it is time for me to awake, and rising above the earth, to wing my way through the clear air of Philosophy and the Sciences.

{_{  De Dignitate et augmentis scientiarum, book 3, chapter 1 [Bacon,Selection:411].}_}

Before we let Bacon wing off and into the bright realm of true scientific knowledge of exact numbers and physical measurements, we might listen to his critique of words =

...words plainly force and overrule the understanding and throw all into confusion, and lead men away into numberless empty controversies and idle fancies.

{_{  The New Organon, xlii) [337].}_}

Thus the great wordsmith Bacon spoke out against words.  He warned us of the “Idols of the Market Place” [ID] =

Now words, being commonly framed and applied according to the capacity of the vulgar, follow those lines of division which are more obvious to the vulgar understanding.  And whenever an understanding of great acuteness or a more diligent observation would alter these lines to suit the true divisions of nature, words stand in the way and resist change.

{_{  Ibid., lix [341].}_} 

This is close to the heart of what all historians want to do, to alter the lines of some of our favorite words "to suit the true divisions of nature". Historians in our time more often think "highly" of this "lowly" task. We are most comfortable when "all history ... walks upon the earth". But Bacon wouldn't let historians off that easily =

Yet even definitions cannot cure this evil in dealing with natural and material things; since the definitions themselves consist of words, and those words beget others....

{_{  Ibid., lix [342].}_}

Bacon was writing about "natural and material" things, while historians often deal with less substantial aspects of human experience. Historians do not often ask questions of physics or biology but of human history. Historians, in fact, often have as their central topic the historical meaning of key words within a given cultural vocabulary.

Bacon understood that there was a lot of superficiality in much that is called history, but he went much further than this. He expressed a large measure of disdain for the whole enterprise:

Hence Civil History is beset on all sides with faults:  some (and these are the greater part) write only barren and commonplace narratives, a very reproach to history; others hastily and disorderly string together a few particular relations and trifling memoirs....

Bacon concluded that "among all the writings of men there is nothing rarer than a true and perfect Civil History."

{_{  De Dignitate et augmentis scientiarum, book 2, chapter 5, "On the Dignity and Difficulty of Civil History," Bacon,Selection:405-6.}_}

Given his distrust of our feeble words, I think he meant to say, "nothing more impossible than a true and perfect Civil History".

Reinhart Koselleck [ID#1 | ID#2]

More cautious than Bacon, Reinhart Koselleck took up the problem of "words" and their "meanings" almost 400 years after Bacon's self-assured efforts. Koselleck made himself a pioneer of "the history of meaning" [Begriffsgeschichte]. He wrote =

Without common concepts there is no society, and above all, no political field of action.  Conversely, our concepts are founded in politicosocial [sic] systems that are far more complex than would be indicated by treating them simply as linguistic communities organized around specific key concepts.  A "society" and its "concepts" exist in a relation of tension which is also characteristic of its academic historical disciplines.

{_{  Reinhart Koselleck, Vergangene Zukunft: Zur Semantik geschichtlicher Zeiten (Frankfurt am Main:1979), translated by Keith Tribe as Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time (Cambridge MA:1985), p. 74.}_}

The relationship between institution and concept is complex.  Koselleck continued =

There exists between concept and materiality a tension which now is transcended, now breaks out afresh, now appears insoluble.  Between linguistic usage and the social materialities upon which it encroaches or to which it targets itself, there can always be registered a certain hiatus.  The transformation of the meaning of words and the transformation of things, the change of situation and the urge to rename, correspond diversely with each other.

{_{  Koselleck, On the Semantics:85.}_} 

<>Bacon's simplicities about words and reality, with which this page opened, are here at the end made very complex.  It would appear that so long as we seek to understand human experience in time there will be no escaping the various idols that Bacon deplored, because the experience itself consists in some measure of relationships and transformations of those idols.  More Koselleck =

In the absence of linguistic activity, historical events are not possible; the experience gained from these events cannot be passed on without language.  However, neither events nor experiences are exhausted by their linguistic articulation.  [...]  Language and history depend on each other but never coincide.

{_{  Koselleck, On the Semantics:231-232.}_}

Now we're in the soup.  The situation is fundamentally more complicated than Bacon thought. He made a comfortable but unwarranted distinction between the faulty mind and the perfection of matter. Koselleck tells us not to do that =

Concepts within which experiences collect and in which expectations are bound up are, as linguistic performances, no mere epiphenomena of so-called real history.  Historical concepts, especially political and social concepts, are minted for the registration and embodiment of the elements and forces of history.

{_{  Koselleck, On the Semantics:232.}_}


A Miscellany of Words in Need of Clearest Possible Begriff

Center, moderate politics G/Left
Civil Society [ID]
Conservative G/Left
Intelligentsia [ID]
Interests, perceived interests [ID]
Left, Right, Center, Radical, Liberal, Conservative, Reactionary [ID]
Liberal G/Left
Multiculturalism, diversity [ID]
Narod [people]
Nihilism G/DTF/nhl
Obshchina [peasant commune] [ID]
Pogrom G/DTF
Radical G/Left
Reactionary G/Left
Revolution [ID]
Right, right-wing G/Left
Sociability [ID]
Social classes, distinguished strictly or loosely according to (1) privileges, (2) exemptions and (3) presumed duties or justifications
Social/service hierarchies in Russia
Terrorism [ID]
Statism, "Totalitarianism" [ID]
War, Total [ID]
"The West", westernize

Website on words