The post-war German historian Reinhart Koselleck made important contributions to the philosophy of history that are largely independent from the other sources of philosophy of history Koselleck contributed to a “conceptual and critical theory of history” (2002, 2004). His major compendium, with Brunner and Conze, of the history of concepts of history in the German-speaking world is one of the major expressions of this work (Brunner, Conze, and Koselleck 1972-97). Koselleck believes there are three key tasks for the metahistorian or philosopher: to identify the concepts that are either possible or necessary in characterizing history; to locate those concepts within the context of the social and political discourses and conflicts of the time period; and to critically evaluate various of these concepts for their usefulness in historical analysis.
Key examples that Koselleck develops include “space of experience” and “horizon of expectation'’. Examples of metahistorical categories in Koselleck’s account include “capacity to die and capacity to kill,” “friend and foe,” “inside and outside,” and “master and servant”. Koselleck represents these conceptual oppositions as representing conditions of possibility of any representation of history.
A large part of Koselleck’s work thus involves identifying and describing various kinds of historical concepts. In order to represent history, it is necessary to make use of a vocabulary that distinguishes the things we need to talk about; and historical concepts permit these identifications. This in turn requires both conceptual and historical treatment: how the concepts are understood, and how they have changed over time. Christophe Bouton encapsulates Koselleck’s approach in these terms: “[It is an] inquiry into the historical categories that are used in, or presupposed by, the experience of history at its different levels, as events, traces, and narratives”. Further, Bouton argues that Koselleck also brings a critical perspective to the concepts that he discusses: he asks the question of validity. To what extent do these particular concepts work well to characterize history?
What this amounts to is the idea that history is the result of conceptualization of the past on the part of the people who tell it—professional historians, politicians, partisans, and ordinary citizens. (It is interesting to note that Koselleck’s research in the final years of his career focused on the meaning of public monuments, especially war memorials.) It is therefore an important, even crucial, task to investigate the historical concepts that have been used to characterize the past. A key concept that was of interest to Koselleck was the idea of “modernity”. This approach might seem to fall within the larger field of intellectual history; but Koselleck and other exponents believe that the historical concepts in use actually play a role as well in the concrete historical developments that occur within a period.
It is worth noticing that history comes into Koselleck’s of notion Begriffsgeschichte (conceptual history) in two ways. Koselleck is concerned to uncover the logic and semantics of the concepts that have been used to describe historical events and processes; and he is interested in the historical evolution of some of those concepts over time. Numerous observers emphasize the importance of political conflict in Koselleck’s account of historical concepts: concepts are used by partisans to define the field of battle over values and loyalties . More generally, Koselleck’s aim is to excavate the layers of meaning that have been associated with key historical concepts in different historical periods.
Conceptual history may appear to have a Kantian background—an exploration of the “categories” of thought on the basis of which alone history is intelligible. But this appears not to be Koselleck’s intention, and his approach is not a priori. Rather, he looks at historical concepts on a spectrum of abstraction, from relatively close to events (the French Revolution) to more abstract (revolutionary change). Moreover, he makes rigorous attempts to discover the meanings and uses of these concepts in their historical contexts.
Koselleck’s work defines a separate space within the field of the philosophy of history. It has to do with meanings in history, but it is neither teleological nor hermeneutic. It takes seriously the obligation of the historian excavate the historical facts with scrupulous rigour, but it is not empiricist or reductionist. It emphasizes the dependence of “history” on the conceptual resources of those who live history and those who tell history, but it is not post-modernist or relativist. Koselleck provides an innovative and constructive way of formulating the problem of historical knowledge.