Wednesday, 7 October 2020

Why Begriffsgeschichte is shite

Looking at the structure of a thing is useful if you are approaching it from the outside. But the exercise can be fundamentally misleading unless 'domain knowledge' pre-exists. Reverse engineering isn't straight forward. Only after you have created something as useful as what you studied can you say that your 'structuralist' approach paid for itself. But then it is merely a case of finding the right, or the most useful, Structural Causal Model even if the only reason the Model 'works' is because it is the convenient, or conventional, 'Schelling focal' solution for a Coordination problem rather than something with intrinsic worth. 

Why did Structuralism enjoy such prestige in the Fifties and Sixties? The following passage from Koselleck offers us a clue- 

Otto Brunner, a master of medieval constitutional history, argued that the vocabulary actually used in its sources should count for more than the doctrinal preferences of modern interpreters.

More than vocabulary, it is expert domain knowledge which matters.  A soldier finds things in Caesar or Napoleon which a study bound scholar misses. 'Modern interpreters'- finding Queer theory in Qoheleth and an ever increasing number of BAME lesbian archers at Agincourt- may make a little money in Academia with a side gig with the History Channel.

Anticipating much of what was later to be known as Begriffsgeschichte (the history of concepts, conceptual history), he argued that we can best study any past period by first reconstructing the language used by its members to conceptualize their arrangements, and then translating these past concepts into our own terminology.

Knowing the language in which archival material is written is certainly an advantage. Also, if you want people to understand what you are saying, knowing your own language, too, is useful. However to understand how the law, or the military, or commerce, worked in a different period, you need to have relevant domain knowledge.  

 
James Van Horn Melton has shown very clearly how Brunner's National Socialist commitments (erkenntnisleitendes Interesse) set his research agenda. In the place of constitutional history as written by nineteenth-century liberals, Brunner treated his subject as Volksgeschichte (the history of the German people or Volk; in its Nazi version, the Third Reich's official historiography).

Subsequently, our lexicon has demonstrated that the original concept of Volksgeschichte derived from the wishful aspirations of those liberals and democrats criticized by Brunner. After 1945, Brunner abandoned the concept of Volk. In its place, he put the abstract, formal notion of structure. Combining structural social history with conceptual history, Brunner restated his findings about late medieval institutions and legal history without abandoning his method of analyzing the language used in the sources for that period. This method has proved its worth; it permits revisions as issues change from one period to another.

Jan Smuts put forward a Holistic philosophy which was in tune with pre-War ideas. Collectives mattered- those of Race or Class or Religion. Their internal structures might be a source of weakness. Still, if these structural features 'knew their place' in the holon, they might be tolerated. By contrast, Structuralism suggested that the existence of the 'higher' depended on there being a 'lower' though, of course, the higher might dispense with the lower if it was useless or the lower might move elsewhere if it paid better. 

A similar point may be made about teleology or the direction of 'progress'. This has always existed. The Christian wanted Christianization- more churches covering more of the globe- just as Caesar or Pharaoh had a notion of progress as more and more of the world coming under the sceptre of his successors. 

Koselleck takes a different view-

Since the end of the eighteenth century, an ever-increasing number of political and social concepts have been oriented to a new and different future not based on any previous experience and hence untestable by reference to the past.

But this was true in the eighth century AD and the eighth century BC and every other century going forward! The Greeks had localized tribal republics and a few cities with some small colonies. Then, under Alexander, they gained an Empire similar to that which the Persians had possessed. Hellenization based on 'homonoia' represented a universal project. Greek political concepts adapted to these new horizons upon the Euphrates and the Nile and- very briefly- even the Ganges. Similarly the Germans had political and social concepts based on an expanding horizon, not what economists call a 'steady-state equilibrium'. No doubt, the devastation caused by the Thirty Years War, and the unsatisfactory political situation that prevailed afterwards, set Germany back somewhat but plenty of its people emigrated to take advantage of new opportunities in different lands. 

These are not con-cepts, that is, coeval with registered experience,

False! People, over the span of a decade, can see the rapid spread of a fad or new technique even into remote villages. Thus extrapolating a trend is a 'con-cept' coeval with registered experience. In any case, Seventeenth Century Europeans knew they had been converted to a creed from distant Palestine and that creed was finding converts on new and very distant continents. 

but pre-conceptions. What is anticipated by such modern concepts is inversely proportional to past experience.

Nonsense! 'Primitive' hunter-gatherers can extrapolate from a trend just as well as we can. That is why they were quick to see the dangers, as well as the opportunities, associated with the arrival of new technologies borne by agricultural people. 

The reason for this is extra-linguistic:

All reason, not sophism, is 'extra-linguistic', but there's always a way of communicating it. 

the increasingly complex interactions of our modern age, linked as we now are around the world, have become less and less accessible to direct personal experience.

Rubbish! I can easily fly to Bethlehem and personally experience what it feels like to be in a manger surrounded by the types of domestic animals native to the region. I can see a baby who looks pretty much like Lord Jesus Christ himself. But this does not mean that a German or Tamil Christian, living a thousand years ago, could not have had a more intense 'direct personal experience' of the Epiphany. 

This state of affairs has semantic consequences;

No it doesn't.  

it also establishes new semantic preconditions for political and social language.

Rubbish! We call the guys we don't like a bunch of tossers same as our ancestors did. 

Concepts necessarily become more abstract, at once more general and less descriptive than ever before.

Very true. Biden calling Trump a 'liar' and 'a clown' was being terribly abstract. Ordinary people could not understand what he meant.  

The temporalization (Verzeitlichung) of modern concepts must be understood in terms of this context.

The context is stupidity. 

Many basic concepts, above all those designating movements—- isms—concur in the demand that future history should differ fundamentally from the past.

But this demand has been around from before the time of Zoroaster! Eschatology has featured things like the dead rising from their graves and the sky turning as red as blood! Isn't that 'fundamentally different' from the past as we know it? 

Among such concepts are “progress,” “development,” “emancipation,” “liberalism,” “democratization,” “socialism,” “communism.

We know what these words mean. Progress means cool new stuff which is now very expensive will become so much cheaper and better everybody will be using it. Development means shitholes will start to look like advanced Cities. Emancipation means guys doing shitty jobs under one or another form of compulsion will be living good lives and choosing what to do and where to live. 

It is easy to extrapolate from what we know or imagine to be a felicity confined to the few to hoping to see that felicity extended much much more widely. Democratization seemed a good thing because guys with votes were better off than guys without votes. It was believed that Socialism or Communism would mean ordinary people would live like the upper middle class. These things were desired because it is easy to visualize the extrapolation of an existing trend. Thus, Baba Ramdev said 'By bringing back black money from abroad, the Government will be able to buy everyone an air conditioner'. This enthused the masses. They knew what an air conditioner was. One or two people in their village had such units. They wanted one for themselves. 

Koselleck pretends that politics isn't about stuff people can visualize, it is as abstract as Quantum Theory- 

To the extent that these concepts, by definition, cannot be tested by
reference to past experience,

but can be visualized by simple extrapolation 

they are easily annexed by ideologies or dissolved by criticism of them as ideological (ideologiekritisch).

A visualization of a desirable future may motivate an ideology- in which case it might be a salutary thing if it has a good Structural Causal Model and its application improves things- but, equally, an ideology may tell lies about how it alone can bring about the desired outcome. Ideologies can be critiqued by calling them stupid lies.  

Motzkin underlines the dangers produced by confusing language, especially concepts, with reality.

The danger is that the lie may not appear stupid or that people may have an individually rational, but collectively irrational, reason to go along with the stupid lie or Ponzi scheme. Confusing language is not a problem. Plenty of German Professors and their imitators elsewhere have made a career out of talking impenetrable bollocks. But they have had no influence whatsoever.

For all concepts have two aspects. On the one hand, they point to something external to them, to the context in which they are used. On the other hand, this reality is perceived in terms of categories provided by language.

Languages differ. The fact is, if a concept relates to an 'expert knowledge' domain, then it spreads or is winnowed out across linguistic boundaries by what is happening in that domain. Thus language does not matter. 'Domain knowledge' does matter. 

Therefore, concepts are both indicators of and factors in political and social life.

This may itself be a concept- but it is a useless or mischievous one.  

Put metaphorically, concepts are like joints linking language and the extralinguistic world.

Nonsense! What links language with the world is 'a normative tie to action' or a demand that reliably calls forth a deed. It may be that some Professors have discovered a way of directly linking language and reality- but they teach only at Hogwarts. 

To deny this distinction is to hypnotize oneself and, like Hitler, to succumb to a self-produced ideology

Hitler, like the General Staff, believed that Germany could win land & resources in the East and gain a serf class from the territories it occupied. This was feasible- at least in the short run. But going to war with both Stalin and FDR (that too, just because of Pearl Harbor) was foolish. 


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