The Energy of Concepts: The Role of Concepts in Long-Term Intellectual History and Social Reality

In: Journal of the Philosophy of History
Benjamin Straumann Alberico Gentili Senior Fellow, School of Law, New York University New York, NY US

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In this paper the centrality of concepts for intellectual history is stressed. Naturally, this focus on concepts requires an account of what concepts are. More contentiously, an account of how concepts are best approached by intellectual historians also requires taking a stand vis-à-vis some prevailing notions of concepts. In particular, I will direct attention to the weaknesses of the historicist theory of concepts derived from the later Wittgenstein. By contrast, I will put forward an account of conceptual innovation and change in intellectual history based on a notion of concept loosely inspired by Frege. The first three parts of the paper lay out a framework for what I call “analytic contextualism,” which is then briefly illustrated with an example from the history of political thought in the fourth part. I argue that this framework should be attractive to intellectual historians for two reasons: First, Fregean concepts, due to their relative independence from context, explain long-term conceptual stability and change better than competing notions of concepts. Second, a Fregean notion of concept is better suited than its competitors to explain how concepts and conceptual innovation sometimes manage to have causal effect on institutions and social reality. To demonstrate the latter point, it will be shown that my account of concepts is consistent with, and well placed to exploit, recent philosophical advances in social ontology.

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