Tracking 'the Enlightenment' Across the Nineteenth Century
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CitationSchmidt, James (2013), “Tracking 'the Enlightenment' Across the Nineteenth Century”, Proceedings of the 16th International Conference on the History of Concepts, Bilbao, 33-41, DOI:http://dx.doi.org/10.1387/conf.hcg2013.2
This paper has both substantive and methodological concerns: Substantively, it is concerned with changes in the treatment of the concept "enlightenment" over the course of the nineteenth century. Its goal is to track the transmission, translation, and appropriation of German discussions on the nature, ends, and implications of Aufklärung into English. Its particular focus lies with the way in which a group of pejoratives associated with the concept in these German discussions (e.g., "falsche Aufklärung," "flache Aufklärung," "Aufklärerei") made their way into English and how, over the course of the nineteenth century, they were gradually abandoned. The result was the emergence, around 1910, of an understanding of "the Enlightenment" as a distinct historical period. Methodologically, it is interested in exploring some of the ways in which recently developed text analysis and visualization programs (specifically, nGrams and Bookworm) can aid in tracking the movement of terms over time, across languages (German to English), and across disciplines. It will argue that, in addition to their ability to survey a large corpus of texts far more readily than previously possible, such programs open up lines of inquiry that require historians of concepts to focus on the particular rhetorical force of certain modifiers (in this case, pejorative adjectives) that come to be associated with certain concepts but which, over time, can also become detached from them. The ability to track the movement of such terms prompts reflection on the advisability of attempting to enforce an overly rigorous demarcation between the "history of concepts" and the "history of words." A presentation of some of the research on which this paper is based, along with a preliminary discussion of its implications is available on Persistent Enlightenment, the author's research blog: see the posts for March 17, 2013 and March 24, 2013.