Université d'Erfurt


Georg Gangl

Max-Weber-Kolleg für kultur- und sozialwissenschaftliche Studien
Universität Erfurt
Postfach 900221
99105 Erfurt


Cutting History at its Joints? On the Ontological Presuppositions of Colligatory Concepts

My project locates itself in the field of philosophy of history and in historiography, a subfield of philosophy of science that has seen a soaring of interest in the last decades. The evolvement of the discipline is closely linked to the rise of narrativism as its theoretical mainstay, yet narrativism seems to have outlived itself in recent years with its central theoretical tenets more and more coming under intense scrutiny.

Narrativism can be credited with refocusing the interest of philosophers on the actual products historians create through their meticulous groundwork – i.e. texts. Narrativism generally insists that historiographical texts are built around a small set of central concepts that lend shape and character to the historical period being discussed. Think of terms like “The Renaissance”, “The Thaw”, “Mannerism”, “Capitalism” or “Class” here. In more technical language, these terms are referred to as “colligatory concepts”, they colligate, that is bind together, on a more abstract level all the historical facts historians have amassed. Most important here is that those colligatory concepts are of fundamentally constructed character for narrativism. They do not refer to the past in any way, instead, they are said to express a certain point of view on the side of historians. In short, there is no “Renaissance” or “Capitalism” to be found in the past; those terms are constructions that help us understand the myriad of unrelated facts of the past relayed to us, at best, in the form of a mosaic whose size and form we cannot know.

It is this constructivism in terms of colligatory concepts that I further scrutinize in my doctoral work. My thesis is that narrativism has not put enough effort into actually differentiating different kinds of colligatory concepts in terms of their inner structure and potential reference. In a nutshell, there is a difference in the structure, reference, and applicability of social-scientific terms like “Capitalism” on the one end of the spectrum and heavily metaphorically imbued notions like “The Thaw” on the other, with periodization terms like “The Renaissance” somewhere around the middle of this skewed axis.

To engage with this essential philosophical problem, I conduct a case study of two eminent works of historiography of the last decades that are predicated on a small number of colligatory concepts, Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Empire: 1875-1914 (1989) and Floris Cohen’s How Modern Science came into the World. 4 Civilizations, One 17th Century (2010). Both works organize their works through a small prism of colligatory concepts: “Capitalism” and “Empire” in Hobsbawm’s case and “The Scientific Revolution” in Cohen’s. My basic research questions here are: Are there any entities in the past these concepts can be said to meaningfully refer to, and if so, how are they justified in the disciplinary discussion?

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