5 Must-Reads: Words and Concepts in History


In the second installment of our new series (5 Must-Reads), Tom Colville, PhD Candidate (KCL), chooses 5 books that helped him get into the complex world of concepts and words in history.


In my work on early modern conceptions of mental capacity (essentially the notion that some people have stronger, better, superior minds to other people) I try to engage as closely as possible with the historiography of words and concepts in history.  This, however, is a complex and difficult field.  So, for anyone else out there working on a concepts and words in past societies, I hope that this list of 5 books I’ve found helpful will point you in useful and challenging directions.


 Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, (London: Croon Helm, 1976).

Any list of key works in relation to words in history would be incomplete without Raymond Williams’ iconic work.  Keywords is far from problem free (it is heavily focussed upon political and social keywords at the expense of a great deal that cultural historians would consider key), however, it puts forward the truly valuable proposition that by looking at a certain set of significant and contested words we can gain an insight into the ideas and concepts which motivated historical actors and propelled past events.  Every historian now has their own list of keywords; as a prompt to debate Raymond Williams’ work is unparalleled in the field.


Iain Hampsher-Monk, Karin Tilmans, and Frank van Vree (eds.), History of Concepts: Comparative Perspectives, (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1998).

The history of words and concepts is one of those tricky fields of study (for English speaking historians) in which many vital contributions have stemmed from non-Anglophone countries.  This edited volume is a particularly useful way in to everything from Begriffsgeschichte to Sattelzeit and parole to taligheid.  There won’t be a methodological or theoretical question about concepts and words that isn’t at least considered in these 12 chapters by leading historians in the field.  If Williams’ Keywords is the light entré to the topic then History of Concepts offers the full three-courses alongside a good stein of German beer.


Peter de Bolla, The Architecture of Concepts: The Historical Formation of Human Rights, (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013).

Peter de Bolla’s exploration of the concept of ‘Universal Human Rights’ takes the opportunities of digital archives seriously, and uses keyword and proximity searches in order to make a real argument about how a concept is made and articulated.  The nature of this field of research is that within 3 or 4 years de Bolla’s methods will feel outdated, but this work will remain valuable because of its close engagement with relationship between words and concepts.  The notion of a concept having an ‘architecture’ is particularly insightful and will provide food-for-thought for anyone wanting to think critically about the fact that concepts are vague constructs, but with some fairly strict constraints.


Barbara Cassin (ed.), Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon, (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2004).

It would seem that nothing could make the relationship between words and concepts seem more brazenly complex and important, until, that is, you introduce the idea of translation.  In a sense, of course, translation is what historians of concepts do every day – they translate conceptions and meanings from a previous time period into a modern analytical framework.  However, the methodological problems are highlighted and compounded by translating between different languages.  The brain child of Barbara Cassin is surely one of the most ambitious academic projects ever attempted.  By considering the vast range of terms that remain untranslated in translations (e.g. polis and “matter of fact”), and those terms which cause the most problems to translators, Cassin’s Dictionary engages with the relationship between words and their meaning in such a way that redefines the significance of concepts.


Richard Scholar, The Je-Ne-Sais-Quoi in Early Modern Europe: encounters with a certain something, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

This book is not a general or theoretical work on words and concepts but it has found a spot in this list because I think it intelligently encapsulates the grey area between words and concepts in history, and the value that comes from exploring that lacuna.  Scholar’s work demonstrates that historical concepts need not be clearly articulated in order to be significant.  Moreover, his interest in the ‘je-ne-sais-quoi’ provides a clear example that historical actors were often acutely aware of the limitations of language when it came to expressing significant concepts.  If, therefore, we limit our analysis to keywords then, as historians, we can artificially impose clarity or definition where the unarticulated, or inexplicable, was just as important.


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