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Between historical semantics and pragmatics: Reconstructing past political thought through conceptual history

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This paper discusses the methodology of conceptual history, a branch of the study of the history of political thought which focuses on the changing meanings of political concepts over the course of time. It is suggested here that methodological disputes among historians of political thought frequently arise out of differing theories of language and meaning and that historians should be more open-minded to the idea of combining various research strategies in their work. Conceptual history, for instance, can be viewed as the combination of historical versions of semantics and pragmatics. While the study of the macro-level semantic changes in the language of politics can reveal interesting long-term trends and innovative uses of language, a contextual analysis of speech acts is also needed when the rhetorical aspects of conceptual change are traced. This interaction of semantic and pragmatic analysis in conceptual history is illustrated by examples originating from eighteenth-century political preaching.
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Keywords: conceptual history; historical pragmatics; historical semantics; political concepts; political preaching

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Jyväskylä

Publication date: 01 January 2006

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