Anthony Bogues and Raffaele Laudani, with the contribution of Isabella Consolati

1. The contemporary moment has brought to surface the crisis of (Western) modern conceptual lexicon. The crisis is not a temporary one and it challenges the epistemological horizon of the history of political concepts.

2.  Part of the crisis is the way in which the global has transformed our moment. The term “global” is used here with an epochal meaning. It expresses a historical condition in which new political logics, not entirely in line with those centered on the Nation-State that have dominated Western modernity self-narration, are asserting themselves. The transcendental of modern politics has been the State. It has represented the conceptual pattern which allowed for the very thinkability of politics during modernity. Indeed, all fundamental modern political concepts have acquired their canonical meaning only in relation to it. However it is now clear that this epistemology of politics is no longer capable of “seizing” the complexity of the contemporary processes.

3. To acknowledge the current  epochal dimension of the global does not mean neither transforming conceptual history and the history of political thought  into a history of the global present nor declaring the end of the State. Rather, it implies the assumption of a new standpoint both on modernity and on the  contemporary moment. The conceptual supremacy of the State mostly depends on the universal affirmation of an epistemology of politics originated and molded on European history and, more precisely, on the Westphalian organization of the European space in territorial sovereign States. This was a powerful and effective process of reduction and simplification of the multilayered complexity and tensions that since the beginning have constituted capitalist and colonial modernity. Assuming a global perspective means then to radically put into question both the State-centered epistemology of politics that characterizes modernity’s self-narration and the specular narration of globalization as a “postmodern” age beyond modernity and the State. This requires us to assess the emergence of new political logics, but also, in most cases, the capacity to identify the “modern” origins of global political logics and their contemporary reconfiguration.

4. We assume this constitutive global dimension of the “Modern” – and all its inner contradictions and tensions – as a tool for the displacement and disorientation of political modernity self-narration. The terms “displacement” and “disorientation” express here the intention to redefine the “topo-logical” horizon of modern conceptual lexicon. A history of political concepts aspiring to be global shouldn't be either confused with or reduced to a mere broadening up of the geographical scale of its field of interest, as if the term “global” were synonymous with “worldwide” or a new way of reproducing the old idea of a universal history. On the contrary, the paradigmatic rupture of a global history of political concepts entails the radical necessity to redefine the spatial framework in which modern political concepts were conceived and acquired their meaning. From an epistemological point of view, this means to open up a field of inquiry in which concepts are conceived of as sites of struggles, appropriated in distant historical contexts, transformed by unexpected subjects, and charged with conflicting meanings.

5. From this perspective, it is essential for the history of political thought to free itself from the Eurocentric trap in which it is still entangled. The effects of this eurocentrism are visible in the two dominant “schools” in the history of political thought: the intellectual history of the Cambridge School and the German Begriffsgeschichte. The first one, while insisting on the intentions of the users and on the contexts in which discourses are used, does not address the problem of the mutual and often conflicting relations between the different contexts of use (center-periphery; colonies-motherland; city-countryside). This is true also when it becomes "global", analyzing the way in which discourses "travel" around the world. The result is in most cases the juxtaposition of geographically distant contexts of use, without reflecting on the way in which these different uses are related to each other, or how linguistic-political similar words and concepts acquire similar or distinctive meanings.  As opposed to this, the Begriffsgeschichte takes the relationship between conflicting meanings contained in a concept as its central object. For this purpose, however, it identifies a threshold to modernity, understood as an overall transformation of the meanings of political concepts, entirely molded on the European, and more often than not Franco-German, context. Correspondingly, its fundamental modern concepts, are all referred to the constitutional experience of the modern State. Therefore, it is not surprising that, still today, in Western academy the history of modern political thought is an essentially European history (in fact, with very few exceptions, all its “classic” authors are European thinkers) and that, as an academic branch of knowledge, it is characterized (far beyond the boundaries of the “Western” world) by a kind of methodological nationalism, organizing and selecting its scholarly community according to area specialisms (e.g., French, English, or German political thought etc.) or, which is the same, linguistic specialisms (e.g., French-, English-, or Spanish-speaking areas etc.), where the methodological nationalism takes an imperial feature. The epistemological turn that a global history of political concepts brings about implies a more radical shift in the spatial, temporal and theoretical coordinates of the history of political thought as a whole.

7. A new version of conceptual history would then first aim at both “provincializing” and “globalizing” modern political concepts. The first term, borrowed in its broadest sense from postcolonial studies, has to be understood as the awareness of European particularism, to be used as a critical tool in order to show the inconsistencies, tensions, and contradictions of the modern political project. The second term, following oceanic and global studies, suggests that fundamental modern political concepts have to be reread and redefined within a wider spatial and epistemological framework than the classic Euro- and State-centric one. In this sense, the colonial and imperial dimensions of modernity, traditionally neglected by conventional  conceptual history /political thought – insofar as it is considered the mere location for the implementation of State policies – become a privileged space for the analysis of modern political logics and their conceptual outcomes. This is particularly the case of the racial logics that has shaped colonial and imperial power, which created also the conditions for the emergence of a distinctive tradition of political thinking  which had its core questions,  human domination and freedom. To “provincialize” European political thought is in this case to begin to foreground this distinctive tradition. More generally, “margins” (non-State political spaces as colonial settlements, logistical crossroads, maritime spaces, trading companies, etc.), “remains” (neglected or minor traditions of thought and movements), and “surpluses” (political and cultural phenomena escaping from and not conforming to the prevailing conceptual narratives) are restored in their autonomous capacity of theoretical and conceptual production, thus assuming a new centrality.

8. The centrality of colonial dimension and of unconventional political spaces allows a double process of provincialization and globalization of the European pattern that has shaped modern theory of sovereignty. On the one hand, it helps enlarging its spatial borders, by seeing in the Atlantic world the broader political context within which modern theory of sovereignty (Hobbes, Locke) – and the constellation of concepts that in the XVIII century became the universal measure of politics – saw its genesis and assumed its more canonical meaning. At the same time, however, it recognizes in this same Atlantic framework the result of a spatial reduction of the complexity of the modern world to the challenges and problems peculiar to the Euro- American experience of modernity.

9. Even though, under many respects, a global history of the modern concept of sovereignty can be then rewritten as the history of the rise, transformation and decline of the Atlantic political space and of its epistemological consequences, a global history of political concepts should not limit itself to substitute a new particular spatiality (the Atlantic) to another (Europe), nor on the contrary it has to conceive the global as a smooth, undifferentiated and uniform space. Quite on the contrary, its force should lie in the capacity to grasp the multiplicity of spatial scales in which political concepts always operate (local, national, continental, hemispherical) and their mutual interactions. In other terms, it needs to focus its attention on the "spatial assemblages" within which political concepts are conceptualized and acquire their meaning, and their transformation through time.

10. This attention on the spatial assemblages thus also presupposes a critique of the dominant conception of history and temporality proper to modernity, i.e. the idea of History as an overall and linear process, which includes within its universalistic framework different histories by placing them in a hierarchical order. Postcolonial studies have showed the "epistemic violence" of this theoretical attitude: all social and political forms not corresponding to the State model are addressed as “backward” or as vanishing remnants of previous epochs. Europe (and by extension the Western World) has represented the only actual present, in relation to which other histories ought to disappear in the necessary process of political and economic modernization. This idea of History has shaped the categories by means of which the history of political thought approached the extra-European spaces, by seeing them only as subordinated, epistemologically as well as politically, to European (Western) modernity. The multiplicity of the histories has been systematically silenced by a conception of modernization as a one directional process, with European modernity as its measure, a narrative effective from the first colonial encounters to the period of decolonization and beyond. A global history of political concepts assumes the need to study the entanglement of modern political concepts with the specific histories they encounter. This does not mean embracing the conclusions of a perspective, which  asserts  colonies as autonomous "Others" in respect to Western modernity. The point is rather to ascertain that there is not a singular modernity which, starting from Europe and from the epochal threshold of the French Revolution, affirmed itself progressively all over the world.  Starting from the deconstruction of a supposed unique process of transition, a global history of political concepts should then trace in each concept multiple layers of meanings which escape the alternative between tradition and modernity and between center and periphery. In this way the formal universality of modern political concepts, strictly connected with their progressive narrative and with the State as the privileged agent of progress, can be challenged, by focusing on the conflicts over the meaning, the extent and the borders of this very universality. While the modern strategy is to neutralize these conflicts, by segregating other conceptual options outside the realm of history or by burying them in a vanishing past, a global history of political concepts should rather bring to the fore the multiplicity of different conflicting meanings, neither reducible to a progressive narrative nor to a chronological sequence.

11. Such an approach to the history of political concepts/political thought is genealogical, both in the sense of a fundamental interest in alternative traditions of thought and "archives" and in the sense of a focus on the "modern" origins of political logics typical of the global age (i.e. the existing relation between modern concept of sovereignty and current debates on global governmentality ). Methodologically, this means: a) the experimentation of what could be labeled as "history of political concepts from below", i.e. the use within the history of political concepts of tools typical of the history from below, whose sources (literature, music, orality, militant production) only rarely coincide with the "political treatise" of the classics; b) a critical outlook on the relations and tensions between the "ideology" of modern political concepts – the peculiar conception of modernity embedded in them– and their "technology" – the modality through which they have been materially and intellectually implemented, particularly in colonial or unconventional political spaces, opening a fruitful dialogue with legal, constitutional and administrative history.

12. One goal of this new global history of political concepts would be then the foregrounding of new archives of thought and knowledge practices. The perspective here outlined naturally implies also the inquiry into the concrete meaning that modern political concepts (sovereignty, empire, modernity, freedom, citizenship, etc.) have acquired in “non Western” political contexts and how this history affects back the history of the Western canon itself. Of course, this doesn’t mean their juxtaposition into a cartography of contexts of use of a word. Quite on the contrary, it implies an analysis of the conflicts, adaptations, interactions, semantic shifts and reciprocal influences that the use of a concept in different contexts determined. More ambitiously, this global perspective to political concepts aim at broadening  the modern conceptual lexicon, in the direction of a new global lexicon of fundamental political concepts. Such a project can be carried on only with the intellectual courage of giving up the purism of one's own discipline or "school", building up a network of scholars in which individual expertise is made fruitful in a truly collective project.

13. Thus conceived, a global history of political concepts is part of a critical theory of society and of a richer and more layered critical history of human thought. The historical critique operates as an analytical tool for bringing to light the aporias of capitalistic modernity and its current transformations.


Towards a Global History of Political Concepts

Other reasearch activitiies at The Academy of Global Humanities and Critical Theory


The Summer School in Global Humanities and Critical Theory (Bologna, June 26-July 7)