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Journal of Political Ideologies


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The ideological interpellation of individuals as


combatants: An encounter between Reinhart Koselleck
and Michel Foucault

Jason Edwards a
a
School of Politics and Sociology, Birkbeck College, University of London, London,
UK
Online Publication Date: 01 February 2007
To cite this Article: Edwards, Jason (2007) 'The ideological interpellation of
individuals as combatants: An encounter between Reinhart Koselleck and Michel
Foucault', Journal of Political Ideologies, 12:1, 49 66
To link to this article: DOI: 10.1080/13569310601095606
URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13569310601095606

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Journal of Political Ideologies (February 2007),


12(1), 4966

The ideological interpellation


of individuals as combatants:
An encounter between Reinhart
Koselleck and Michel Foucault
JASON EDWARDS
School of Politics and Sociology, Birkbeck College, University of London, Malet Street,
London WC1E 7HX, UK

ABSTRACT Ideology forms social and political actors. This claim is


disconcerting for those who believe it rules out the contribution of agency in
social, political and ideological change. In this article, I consider the work of
Reinhart Koselleck and Michel Foucault in tandem to demonstrate that such
concerns are misplaced. Together, Koselleck and Foucault can aid us in
understanding how ideology interpellates individuals as combatants, or in other
words how it equips social and political actors in modernity with the capacity to
contest. From this perspective, we can conceive of ideology forming social and
political actors while maintaining that the contests and struggles in which they
participate are key for understanding social, political and ideological change in
the modern world.

Louis Althusser famously claimed that ideology works through the interpellation of
individuals as subjects.1 Subjects are constituted by ideology in so far as it calls to
individuals and provides them with a social identity. The main line of criticism
against Althussers argument was that it effectively denies any role in social and
political transformation for agency. By agency, in this sense, is meant something
like the capacity of human beings to make and act on decisions that are in an
important respect derived independently of ideology in its subject-constituting
function, and from social determination more broadly understood. While I take this
criticism of Althusser to be misplaced, I will not attempt to refute it in any detail. I
assume that ideology does indeed function to provide human beings with a sense of
social and political identity, and that all individual and collective efforts to
transform social and political life are in a relevant sense ideological. Of course, this

ISSN 1356-9317 print; ISSN 1469-9613 online/07/01004918 q 2007 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/13569310601095606

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jason edwards
does not mean to say that, appropriately conceived, non-ideological considerations
should not enter into any explanation of social and political change. Nor does it have
any particular bearing on the interminable debate about the relationship between
social structure and agency. All that it means is that we cannot seriously consider
any instance of the transformation of social and political language and practice
without giving serious weight to the ideological grounds on which it takes place.
It is perfectly possible, and indeed I would argue entirely necessary, to reject
accounts of social and political change that prioritize the causal autonomy of the
subject. Nonetheless, a perennial difficulty for theoretical anti-humanists is to square
their claim for the identity-constituting function of ideology with the consideration
that social and political change in the modern world often enjoins the contestation of
given identities and values through various forms of social and political conflict. We
need to establish the sense in which ideology interpellates individuals as social and
political combatants: that is, the way in which it provides individuals with the
conceptual, linguistic and practical resources to contest the character of social and
political life against others who are defined as enemies. The enemy is not a natural or
obvious category, nor one that is simply given by ideology, but must be constructed
with the tools that ideology provides to individuals and which render them capable of
being social and political actors. If much (though not all) social and political change is
primarily a result of contestation, we must ask what role ideology has played in
forming this relationship and the ways in which it has come to constitute individuals
as combatants in social and political life. It is possible to think of kinds of human
societies where contestation remains hidden or is transferred onto ritual forms of
collective self-affirmation. A striking feature of modernity is the diffusion and
democratization of social and political contestation. If we wish to grasp the character
of this process and its effects on the present, then we must seek to better understand the
manner in which ideologies equip individuals with the capacity to contest.
In this article, I will attempt to show that much light is thrown onto this problem
by considering in tandem the work of two theorists who may at first sight seem like
strange bed-fellows: Reinhart Koselleck and Michel Foucault. A sustained
comparison of their work is called for on the grounds alone that there are many
thematic overlaps between their texts, despite them never having directly engaged.
In the first part of this article, I will attempt to provide a brief sketch of these overlaps
in their earlier works, suggesting that they supply much material that deserves
greater elaboration. But my main aim here is to outline how reading Koselleck and
Foucault in concert helps us to capture, in a sense that is not immediately obvious
from considering each in isolation, how individuals in modernity are provided the
conceptual and practical means by which to contest established knowledges, values
and practices, in other words how ideology provides the grounds on which
individuals in modern societies are made into agents of social and political change.
Begriffsgeschichte and archaeology
Koselleck is best considered not as the founder of a distinctive Begriffsgeschichte
(conceptual history) in German and European historiography, but rather as the
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the ideological interpellation of individuals as combatants


figure who has done most to advance it as a research programme and provide it
with a sophisticated theoretical articulation.2 As the chief editor of the
Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe, a massive lexicon charting the history of key
social and political concepts in the German language, Koselleck was at the
forefront of challenges to prevailing methods of historical inquiry in Germany
during the 1960s and 1970s. The approach outlined by Koselleck in the
Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe stood as a repudiation of both a historicist
Geistesgeschichte, which saw social and political vocabulary as the manifestation
of the essence of a cultural unity, and of the kind of Sozialgeschichte that sought
to reduce thought and language to underlying social structures.3 But even before
Koselleck had come to an understanding of the concept as the proper object of
a history of modern social and political thought, the centrality of contestation in
his historical studies had already been outlined in what remains, at least in the
English-speaking world, his most famous monograph: Critique and Crisis
Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society.4 This book, first
published in German in 1959, is often wrongly seen as a conservative tract that
condemns the Enlightenment as a movement. In fact, a careful reading shows it to
be about the emergence of a kind of ethos or attitude towards the social and the
political (conceived of as distinct and antagonistic domains) characteristic of
modernity. The motivation behind Critique and Crisis was to begin to demonstrate
how this attitude informed the ideological stand-off of the Cold War, as both the
West and the East embraced utopian reverie and the theoretical justification of
global civil conflict. It was, in this respect, a contribution to the critique of
ideology. More than this, it was a critique of ideologiesboth of liberal capitalism
and Soviet communismpremised on an anti-political humanism, to all intents
and purposes secularized forms of Christian eschatology. In this respect, Critique
and Crisis announces what is central to Kosellecks Begriffsgeschichte: not the
delineation of a formal method of textual interpretation, but rather, to borrow a
Foucauldian phrase, the history of the present.
Unlike Habermas in his The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere,
another book that focuses on the character of the emergent public in the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries,5 Kosellecks aim in Critique and Crisis was not to
establish discursive openness as the differentia specifica and principal strength of
the bourgeoisie in their struggle with the old regime. The political power of the
bourgeois public lay as much in its ability to circumscribe and prohibit certain
forms of knowledge and practice as in any distinctive voice found in the process of
discussion. The context that Koselleck has in mind, then, for the articulation of a
distinctive Enlightenment ethos is not just the Republic of Letters, but the
bourgeois secret societies and professional associations that policed forms of
specialist knowledge and practice. Specific forms of knowledge of the arts and
sciences became weapons in the bourgeoisies struggle with absolutism. With
respect to political knowledge, however, there was an important ambivalence.
Politics itself was a dirty word among the illuminati, an activity engaged in by
the officers of the absolutist state in their own interests. At the same time, however,
the Enlightenment oversaw the flourishing of specialized political knowledges that
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sought to both explain how the inequities of the existing order had come into place,
and how social institutions and practices might best be organized to meet the moral
goals to which politics should be subordinate.
Kosellecks earliest intellectual concern, then, was in documenting how a
specialized language and knowledge of the social and political domains became
established from the time of Hobbes to the French Revolution. This initial line of
research would develop into a Begriffsgeschichte of social and political thought in
early modern Germany, the impetus for a wider investigation into the
transformation of social and political concepts and language in the West in this
period. Such a concern with language and knowledge as the non-subject specific
conditions for social and political experience is also clearly evident in Foucaults
major early works. In The Order of Things he traces the transformation in the
character of particular knowledges between the sixteenth and nineteenth
centuries.6 His main concern is with knowledge of natural history, language and
economics in the Classical period, that is from the seventeenth to the early
nineteenth centuries, and more broadly speaking to try to understand what were
the conditions of possibility for the emergence of the human sciences in the postClassical, or modern period. While Kosellecks Critique and Crisis focuses more
readily on the overtly political character of Enlightenment thought, it shares with
The Order of Things an emphasis on the terms and concepts that made possible
knowledge of man as the object of a new moral-cum-scientific discourse.
In his next book, The Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault starts out with a
consideration of a history of the longue duree, of the underlying, stable tectonic
structures that are covered with a thick layer of events, and its relation to a
history of thought or knowledge that emphasizes contingencies, discontinuities
and radical departures. But his aim is not to identify these two kinds of histories,
at least as they appear in contemporary guises, as fundamentally divergent
knowledges and practices. Rather, both address themselves to the same problem,
namely the status of the document in historical research. Whereas history in its
traditional form sought to transform the monuments of the past into documents,
that is to read into documents the trace of a history that lies beneath and governs
their content, in the present history strives to transform documents into
monuments. Here Foucault provides an indication of what he means by an
archaeology of knowledge: history becomes, or aspires to the intrinsic
description of the monument.7 In this regard, there is an important point of
intersection between Kosellecks Begriffsgeschichte and the archaeological
approach. For Koselleck, the distinctiveness of Begriffsgeschichte lies in its
autonomy as an approach to the linguistic analysis of meaning expressed in
systems of interdependent concepts. In other words, context does not of itself
provide the key to understanding either the reference or the sense of utterances
employing a certain social and political vocabulary. It might be said, then, that
Begriffsgeschichte, like Foucaults archaeology, is an approach primarily
concerned not with recovering meaning, in the sense that it seeks to locate its
extra-linguistic or extra-discursive source, but with the description of particular
conceptual structures and their relationship to other conceptual structures.
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Like Koselleck, one of Foucaults main concerns in writing The Archaeology
of Knowledge was to repudiate conventional histories of ideas. Recorded
knowledge is not to be understood as the trace of that which lies in the exterior of
a discourse as its generative cause. It is not possible to establish general laws
that govern the evolution of knowledge, demonstrable through the empirical
study of the history of thought, nor is it possible to reduce discourses to the
authority of the creative subject. An archaeology of knowledge is not a method
of interpretation, but rather provides the analytical tools necessary to study
discourses as practices, obeying certain rules.8 It is this emphasis on the
autonomy of discourse from what might be characterized as the non-discursive
that seems to place a Begriffsgeschichte and archaeology on similar grounds, at
least in terms of their formal analytical strategies. What both are concerned with
are the rules that govern what can be thought and said at any given moment, and
with the transformation of those rules that takes place in the emergence of a new
semantic field or discourse.
Concepts and contestation in modernity
These similarities between Kosellecks Begriffsgeschichte and Foucaults
archaeology require closer investigation. But it might be objected that there are
significant differences between the work of the two that militate against further
comparison, particularly when Foucaults turn away from archaeology to
genealogy in the 1970s is considered.9 The Foucauldian practice of genealogy
highlights the specificity of discursive practices and the diversity of forms in
which power relations are made manifest. Begriffsgeschichte, as a methodology,
seems in contrast to be concerned primarily with a textual hermeneutics in which
the meaning of concepts are derived from the context in which they are articulated.
It is for this reason that a number of commentators have noted a symmetry
between Begriffsgeschichte and the work of historians of the Cambridge School,
most prominently Quentin Skinner.10 However, I would argue against the view
that the main contribution of Kosellecks understanding of Begriffsgeschichte is
the delineation of a technique for the recovery of meaning by the placing of
concepts in historical context. This is a misreading of Kosellecks main concerns,
which from the time of Critique and Crisis and the clear influence of Carl Schmitt,
have focussed on the manner in which social and political identities (and the
identity of enemies) are conceptually constructed through the operation of definite
forms of historical consciousness.
The understanding that modern social and political actors have of the present is thus
strongly shaped by a particular perspective on the past. The past is interpreted through
the semantic field of the present, that is, the complex structure of interrelated
concepts that provides for a shared picture of the social and political world and
endows actors with a sense of place and identity. Koselleck wishes to move away
from the idea that this semantic field, the space of social and political ideologies, can
be read off from underlying social structures. In a key essay on Begriffsgeschichte
and Social History,11 he attempts to state the relationship between a history whose
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primary object is recorded linguistic utterances, and one which focuses on that which
is unsaid yetfrom the point of view of much historical and sociological practiceis
usually understood to be the cause of what is said. These non-utterances are the longterm structures and processes that are often taken to be constitutive of a social history:
the organization and transformation of economic life, demographic stability and
change, legal and political institutions and practices, etc. In contrast to such a social
history, Begriffsgeschichte is primarily concerned with texts and words.12 More
specifically, it is concerned with the terms and statements constitutive of social and
political concepts.
The proliferation of new concepts and neologisms in the German speaking
world from around 1770 onwards is, for Koselleck, indicative of a profound
transformation of the entire political and social space of experience.13
At the same time, the concepts of social and political life in this period (what
Koselleck refers to as the Sattelzeit) do not, in contrast to what used to be the
dominant view in much social history, simply represent structural change of the
social and political at an extra-linguistic level. The constitution of this level and
its fortunes are the outcome of a semantic struggle over the character of the social
and political world. For Koselleck, this conflict is a central feature of the
distinctive character of modernity:
Since the French Revolution, this struggle has become more acute and has undergone a
structural shift; concepts no longer serve merely to define given states of affairs, but reach
into the future. Concepts of the future became increasingly new-minted; positions that were
to be secured first had to be formulated linguistically before it was possible to enter or
permanently occupy them . . . Actual, substantial experience and the space of expectation
coincide less and less. It is here that the coining of numerous isms belong, serving as
collective and motivating concepts capable of reordering and remobilizing anew the masses
robbed of their place in the old order of estates. The application of such expressions reached,
as today, from slogan to scientifically defined concept.14

The isms, the ideologies characteristic of modernity, stand as the means by which
actors contest the nature of the social and political world, its relationship to the past,
and the possible futures it permits. To properly understand the work done by these
ideologies and the concepts that constitute them, we must of course be sensitive to the
particularities of context. But while at a technical level Koselleck is concerned to
demonstrate the importance of synchronic analysis for a rigorous form of
Begriffsgeschichte, what motivates the approach as a whole is its emphasis on the
diachronic: the rupture of conceptual meaning, the transformations that takes place in
intention when a term is uttered in different contexts, and the different conceptual
content of given terms across time. Accordingly, Begriffsgeschichte, as it attends to
the diachronic, is not primarily an attempt to explain the meaning of political texts in
terms of context, where that is understood as the extra- or pre-linguistic conditions
governing the production of the text. This is a central feature of the enterprise that
Koselleck wishes to pursue, one in which meaning is not reduced to context
understood in itself as its transcendental precondition. Indeed, in an important
senseand as in Foucaults workthe whole question of meaning is bracketed off
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in this kind of Begriffsgeschichte. What determines the meaning of concepts is
neither their correspondence with a social and political reality that obtains on their
outside, nor the particular consciousnesses of historical actors. The ground of
intelligibility of social and political concepts is constituted by the system of concepts
available to the subjects who enunciate them. We can understand the synchronic order
according to the statements made employing the social and political concepts in
question. At the same time, the understanding of change in a conceptual order is not to
be gleaned by going beyond the statements of social and political discourse to an
external referent located either in the empirical order or in a transformed state of
historical consciousness.
Begriffsgeschichte, in this sense, is not occupied with the contextualisation of
concepts. Rather, as a method it suspends context as a moment of the intelligibility
of social and political concepts. It seeks to understand transformations in meaning
as these are registered in series of linguistic differences that are analysable in their
own terms.15
Hence, the diachronic principle constitutes Begriffsgeschichte as an autonomous domain of
research, which methodologically, in its reflection on concepts and their change, must
initially disregard their extralinguistic contentthe specific sphere of social history.
Persistence, change or novelty in the meaning of words must first be grasped before they can
be used as indices of this extralinguistic content, as indicators of social structures or
situations of political conflict.16

On the face of it, the claim for the autonomy of Begriffsgeschichte as a domain of
research concerned with the transformation of concepts and the semantic fields in
which they are expressed, would seem to place it on the same kind of footing as the
archaeological method pursued by Foucault in his earlier work. The fact that
Koselleck does not seem to be interested either in the transcendental subject of
history of the neo-Kantian tradition in German historiography, perhaps best
represented by Ernst Cassirer, nor in the kind of philosophical anthropology
evident in the hermeneutics of Martin Heidegger in Being and Time and HansGeorg Gadamer in Truth and Method,17 only serves to bolster this impression.
In Foucaults archaeology, the transcendental subject is the product of a
historically specific discourse, not the conscious and unifying agent of historical
understanding. At the same time, Foucault forcefully dismissed any understanding
of hermeneutics as the attempt to establish, as does Gadamer and the early
Heidegger, the truth that human beings are in essence constituted as historical and
interpretive beings.18 While Koselleck does not make any explicit philosophical
objections to such a deep hermeneutics, the practice of Begriffsgeschichte would
seem to be premised on its rejection. The social and political concepts we possess
in the present are indeed the product of a certain understanding of these concepts
in the past, but Kosellecks particular concern is the way in which this
understanding has only come about in the space of recent historical time, and how
it is woven into the social and political practices of the present.
Foucault was at one with Althusser in rejecting the historicist Hegelianism
common to humanist Marxism and certain strains in phenomenological thinking.
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It is quite striking that Kosellecks understanding of Begriffsgeschichte involves a
similar, if less spectacularly announced, rejection of a Hegelian reading of the
character of historical consciousness. In this respect, Begriffsgeschichte is not
simply the study of Zeitgeistes or of the unified historical consciousness of any
given context. In modernity, concepts of the social and political combine in
manifold and uneven forms in ordering the experience of actors. Experience is
conceptually constituted in a complex fashion, and cannot be read off a general
register. Social and political concepts in modernity always embody a plurality of
meanings. They are ambiguous, even when they can be expressed clearly. The
concept bundles up the variety of historical experience together with a collection
of theoretical and practical references into a relation that is given and can be
experienced only through the concept.19 While the function of the concept is,
therefore, to order the experience of the subject, it does not follow that it does so in
a routinely conservative fashion. Far from it: the concepts that give shape to social
and political life and identify the place of the subject in it are also responsible for
provoking challenges to normal experience of the order of the world. It is in this
way that Kosellecks Begriffsgeschichte points to the role of social and political
concepts as transformative tools, capable of changing relations in social and
political institutions and practices. This understanding of the transformative
function of concepts, however, does not appear in Kosellecks work as a general
theory of the role of conceptualization in the ordering of human experience; it is
not a philosophical anthropology. Rather what is key for a Begriffsgeschichte in
this sense is the charting of the way in which modern complexly constituted
conceptual formations, or what we might call ideologies, allow individuals to
contest and transform the character of social and political life.
As we have already seen, Koselleck argues that since the French Revolution the
contestation of social and political concepts has been of increasing importance not
only for the understanding of the world as it is experienced in the here and now, but for
the articulation of a perpetual critique of the present and the active anticipation of a
transformed future. This concern can be seen most clearly in Kosellecks essays in
Futures Past, where he seeks to demonstrate how this modern contestation of social
and political concepts emerged out of the Reformation and reached maturity in the
eighteenth century when it appeared in the form of an acceleration of the experience
of historical time:
This self-accelerating temporality robs the present of the possibility of being experienced as
the present, and escapes into a future within which the currently unapprehendable present has
to be captured by historical philosophy. In other words, in the eighteenth century, the
acceleration of time that had previously belonged to eschatology became obligatory for
worldly invention, before technology completely opened up a space of experience adequate
to this acceleration.20

The pace and flux of social and technological change that is experienced in the
present (which is always experienced as a past future) is, in other words,
anticipated by the secularized conception of history as a constant movement
towards the future. What is important about this conceptualization of history is that
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it emerges not just as an intellectual event, but, as is made clear in Kosellecks first
book, Critique and Crisis, as a social and political struggle that crystallizes in the
Enlightenment.
What lies at the heart of Kosellecks Begriffsgeschichte, then, is not a general
analytic of interpretation. Kosellecks outstanding contribution, given the neoKantian and phenomenological milieu in which his ideas about a Begriffsgeschichte
were formed, was to radically historicize the meaning of social and political concepts
and by so doing to reveal the very conditions that make a Begriffsgeschichte itself
possible. In other words, a conceptual history of the order Koselleck has in mind is
only possible when conceptual contestation is not confined to debates within the
classic texts. Rather the contestation of social and political concepts has itself
become definitive of political conflict since the late eighteenth century. A certain
historico-philosophical consciousness has moulded politics around a permanent
orientation towards the future, which requires a persistent labour of society as a whole
to overcome the limitations and dangers of the present. Concepts, in this regard, are
tools for the organization of the social and political according to ultimate objectives,
and as such become important objects of conflict between contending ideological
visions. Yet the profundity of this conceptual contestation is only partly revealed in
the notion of a clash of ideologies. While the great ideological contests of the
nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been widely seen as the most obvious
manifestation of a new order of political conflict, what is at least at important is the
way in which the contestation of political and social concepts has shaped the
definition and conduct of subjects at ostensibly non-ideological levels of discourse
and practice. It is here where Kosellecks account of a Begriffsgeschichte should be
brought into an encounter with the work of Foucault.

Discourse and contestation


The emphasis placed in Kosellecks work on the everyday, language and other
forms of symbolism, both as a reflection and determinant of the conceptual
schemes through which we understand the world and imagine its future, is clear to
see. It is evident, for example, in his work on war memorials, where such
monuments are seen as performing the dual function of providing a meaning for
the death of soldiers from earlier generations and at the same time reinforcing
current political beliefs and identities. The monument is a physical representation
of various social and political conceptions of past, present and future, but
simultaneously it is also a site of contestation. War memorials and the kind of
social and political function they perform, Koselleck reminds us, are only made
possible in particular historical conditions:
It is not only the death of soldiers itself that serves political purposes, but the remembrance of
it is also put to political service. It shifts the memory of the death of soldiers into an innerworldly functional context that aims only at the future of the survivors. The decline of a
Christian interpretation of death thus creates a space for meaning to be purely established in
political and social terms.21

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Death in combat only begins to have a social and political meaning for us where
the fragmentation and decline of a universal Christian identity has lead to its
replacement by identification with the state and the nation, and where in modernity
conflict both within and between states has been primarily organized around the
contestation of who we are, who the enemy is, and how he may be defeated in
order to realize our vision of the ideal world.
This kind of analysis represents Begriffsgeschichte at its best. It seeks to see
how concepts and ideologies are manifested in those specific practices and spaces
in which social and political actors in modernity go about contesting and
transforming the world. Yet at the same time, it retains an emphasis on the distinct
historical conditions of possibility in which conceptual contestation takes place,
not just on the pages of the classic texts, nor in the comfort of the philosophers
study, but in the everyday acts that may stand for both an affirmation of and a
challenge to currently constituted social and political order.
It remains the case, however, that Begriffsgeschichte more broadly understood
has maintained its focus largely on the text in context. This is the case with the
Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe and similar attempts to compile historical lexicons
of social and political concepts. But here we re-encounter the problem that
Begriffsgeschichte is rendered little more than a formal analytic of interpretation.
Concepts and ideological formations come to be seen as systems that are
autonomous and capable of being analysed in their own terms independently of
social history. The great danger here is that while it is of course possible to
maintain the analytical autonomy of conceptual history, and of social history, we
simply re-introduce an unhelpful distinction between the social and conceptual
(or intellectual, or ideological), the material and ideal, context and text, and so on.
To an extent, this was the problem faced by Foucault in his turn from an
archaeology of knowledge to a genealogy of practices.
We have seen that there are interesting grounds on which to compare
Begriffsgeschichte and archaeology as interpretive strategies. This is not to say, of
course, that there are not significant differences between the two. While Koselleck
takes concepts as the object of Begriffsgeschichte, in The Archaeology of
Knowledge, Foucault presents statements as the elementary forms of any discourse.
The statement, so conceived, is not identical to a proposition, a sentence, or a
speech act.22 The statement is not to be understood as a unit but rather as fulfilling
a specific function within a discourse, that is the enunciative function. The
statement functions to allow particular groups of signs to come into existence,
relating them to a wider field of objects and the relations between them that are
given by the rules of the discursive formation. Thus, for example, documents such
as maps and statistical tables can be thought of as statements, as can architectural
structures, and social practices more broadly understood, including particular
kinds of political practice. Concepts are formative of discourses in so far as they
organize a field of statements according to specific rules governing: the order,
succession or relations of dependence between statements; the grounds on which
certain statements are included in or excluded from a discourse; and the procedures
of intervention, such as rewriting, transcription, translation, approximation, and so
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on, that involve a transformation of statements.23 In this respect, Foucault is not
concerned to demonstrate what concepts are, but rather to analyse them as
functions. What function they fulfil within a discourse is dependent upon the
particular rules of their formation.
In this sense, then, archaeology already placed an emphasis on the notion that
the statements constitutive of a discourse could be seen as practices, inscribed in
a variety of media and spaces, and responsible for constituting subjects. While in
The Order of Things and The Archaeology of Knowledge, the emphasis was placed
on formal systems of knowledge within the human sciences, Foucault indicates
that the archaeological method is not inappropriate for the analysis of political
concepts in so far as they inform practice, or what he elsewhere refers to as
political knowledge or political technology. In The Archaeology of Knowledge,
he claims that:
One might also carry out an analysis of the same [archaeological] type on political
knowledge. One would try to show whether the political behaviour of a society, a group, or a
class is not shot through with a particular, describable, discursive practice . . . it would define
the element in politics that can become an object of enunciation, the forms that this
enunciation may take, the concepts that are employed in it, and the strategic choices that are
made in it . . . If such a description were possible, there would be no need of course to pass
through the authority of an individual or a collective consciousness in order to grasp the
place of articulation of a political practice and theory . . . The question, for example, would
not be to determine from what moment a revolutionary consciousness appears, nor the
respective roles of economic conditions and theoretical elucidations in the genesis of this
consciousness; it would not attempt to retrace the general, and exemplary, biography of
revolutionary man, or to find the origins of his project; but it would try to explain the
formation of a discursive practice and a revolutionary body of knowledge that are expressed
in behaviour and strategies, which give rise to a theory of society, and which operate the
interference and mutual transformation of that behaviour and those strategies.24

For Foucault, then, a history of political concepts would only be possible on the
understanding of political knowledge as the outcome of a discursive practice of
politics, an ideology, that is, not in the sense of principles or beliefs that obtain
independently of a practice, but rather as the practices that allow subjects to say
what politics is, who can say what it is, how it is ordered, and how it can be
transformed.
Of course, in the 1970s Foucault came to see the notion of ideology as
extremely problematic. Ideology, in its usual Marxian use, suggested that what
was true could be opposed to it, that it was subordinate or relative to the social,
economic or material infrastructure, and that it refers . . . to something of the
order of the subject.25 But if we reject this understanding of ideology and see it
instead, in broad terms, as political knowledge or technology, then there are no
grounds to reject it as an analytical concept. In this respect, then, Foucault suggests
that there is no reason not to approach ideology in the same way that we should
treat more formal systems of knowledge, such as the kind of delineable and
relatively coherent body of knowledge that constitutes a scientific discursive
formation, such as modern biology, linguistics and economics. Political concepts
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have tended to be identified more readily with ideology, in the conventional
sense of a set of principles oriented towards the transformation of the world, than
with science understood as the protocols and methods oriented towards the
explication and explanation of the world as it is given. Foucault, however, wished
to explode such a distinction. Knowledges and technologies are strategies for
managing and shaping the world and the subjects of social and political life;
however neutral or objective they claim to be, the practice of such knowledges
and technologies rests on more or less concealed assumptions about what ways of
life are to be valued, which are to be opposed, and the kind of futures towards
which we should be striving.
While Foucaults work of the 1970s does not involve an abandoning of
the categories of discourse and archaeology in considering knowledges and
technologies, it does recognize the limitations of an analysis that remains wedded
to the notion of an entirely self-contained discourse, or an episteme, that is to be
explicated from its interior. The shortcomings of archaeology, in this regard, must
have been most apparent when considering the character of political knowledges
and technologies in modernity. The analysis of the effects of political ideology on
practices, and of practices on political ideology, were an obvious concern of the
genealogical approach that Foucault pursued in the later part of his life. This kind of
genealogy rejects the metahistorical deployment of ideal significations and
indefinite teleologies and opposes itself to the search for origins.26 What we
find instead is an attempt to trace the emergence of discursive practices in the
interplay of knowledge and power that takes place within specific kinds of social
relations and institutions. To an extent, this had also been Foucaults aim in his
earlier work, namely Madness and Civilisation and The Birth of the Clinic.27
However, in the work that leads up to the publication of Discipline and Punish,28
the focus on the political character of the formation of discursive practices comes to
the fore. Thus, in Discipline and Punish itself, Foucault is concerned primarily with
strategies of power that work on individual bodies to ensure that individuals adhere
to certain, often concealed, norms of action. A similar focus on biopower is
evident in the first volume of the History of Sexuality, where Foucault charts
the development of knowledges and technologies aimed at stipulating norms of
sexuality and modes of sexual prohibition in the nineteenth century.29
Foucaults relatively novel understanding of the productive character of power
is clearly evident in these earlier genealogies, but what is perhaps overlooked is
the way in which political knowledges and technologies can have destablising, as
well as normativising effects. The shaping of man as a political subject from the
seventeenth century onwards involves manifold strategies of power concerning
the governance of the population as a whole, on the one hand, and the governance
of the individual on the other. These strategies have the effect of producing
subjects who possess the capacity to contest current forms of social and political
knowledges and practices. This is something that Foucault recognizes more fully
in his development of a macrophysics of power, or, in other words, the tracing of
how an economy of the entire state had developed from the sixteenth century,
which means exercising towards its inhabitants, and the wealth and behaviour of
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each and all, a form of surveillance and control as attentive as that of the head of a
family over his household and his goods.30 While this governmental rationality,
or governmentality, would seem to indicate the saturation of politics by a science
and technology concerned with the disposition of men and things, it does not
foreclose the possibility of political contestation, as is witnessed in the birth of
secular ideological conflict around the same time as the development of the
principal modern technology of population: political economy.31 In part, such
political contestation is a consequence of the movement that emerges in the
Reformation and Counter-Reformation which raises the issue of how we must be
spiritually ruled and lead on the earth in order to achieve eternal salvation.32 We
might say that what we see in the Reformation is the birth of a dialectic of
enlightenment, in which politics is associated on the one hand with political
knowledges that are oriented towards the control and compulsion of men and
things, and on the other hand with political knowledges (which we might describe
as ideologies) that are concerned with a secularized soteriology, in other words,
how emancipation can be achieved in the present by the reformation of social and
political institutions and practices.
In his essay on The Subject and Power, Foucault quite explicitly states that
modern struggles against subjection, that is, against forms of subjectivity and
submission, recapitulate the struggles of: All those movements that took place in
the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, which had the Reformation as their main
expression and result [and which] should be analysed as a great crisis of the Western
experience of subjectivity and a revolt against the kind of religious and moral power
that gave form, during the Middle Ages, to this subjectivity. The need to take a direct
part in spiritual life, in the work of salvation, in the truth that lies in the Bookall
that was a struggle for a new subjectivity.33 In the present day, the form of power
that found its first expression in the early Christian religion and was resurgent in the
Protestant Reformation, that is, pastoral power, has lost its ecclesiastical setting but
has nonetheless been integrated by the modern state as a technique of power. The
focus of pastoral power is both on care for the community as a whole, and care for
the individual as the subject of salvation. This accounts for the tendency of the
modern state both towards totalization, in the sense that people within given
territories are provided with a sense of solidarity through symbols of national
identity, and individuation, in the sense that the liberty, well-being, dignity, rights,
and so on, of the individual are given priority over the demands of the community
for individual sacrifice. In this regard, the technology of pastoral power makes for
the great elective affinity between nationalism and liberalism. But more than this,
the diffusion of pastoral power through a variety of social institutionsnot just the
state but welfare societies, the family, private associations and firmsmakes this
emphasis on the individual subversive. Again, it is not inappropriate to draw a
parallel with the way in which the theological practice and doctrine of justification
sola fide in the Reformation had manifold political effects, from consolidating
support for sovereign territorial rulers in national reformed churches, to the rejection
of all existing spiritual and temporal authority by radicals like Thomas Muntzer and
the Anabaptists.
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While Foucault does not use the terminology as such, part of what he is doing in
these reflections on the character of pastoral power is to suggest that there is no
way in which to clearly distinguish political knowledges and technologies,
understood as the instrumental means by which social and political life are
organized, from political ideologies, understood in the conventional sense of a
set of fairly coherent and consciously held values shared by like-minded and
placed people. Both political technologies and ideologies are instantiated in the
practices of government and politics broadly conceived. A similar point is
suggested in Kosellecks account of the rise of Enlightenment critique and its
attitude towards the relationship between the arenas of the political and the
social.34 In his essay, What is Enlightenment?, Foucault amplified the sense in
which the Enlightenment marks the emergence of an attitude or ethos that
characterizes modernity, and in which practices concerned with how the subject is
constituted can be envisaged simultaneously as a technological type of rationality
and as strategic games of liberties.35 His delineation of this critical attitude or
ethos as a way of thinking and feeling as well as a way of acting and behaving
that at one and the same time marks a relation of belonging and presents itself as a
task,36 is intended both as a characterization of modernity in general and as the
only point from which a critique of the present can be constructed. Foucaults
claim, then, that modernity is the permanent reactivation of [this] attitude37
shares much in common with Kosellecks portrayal of a modernity marked by a
perpetual critique of the present that emerges from a constant anticipation of the
future. It is the case that for both Foucault and Koselleck, this perpetual critique of
the present is one that is political in characterit is concerned with social and
political actors defining both the subjects and objects of politics in relation to
specific semantic fields or discourses.
In What is Enlightenment?, Foucault presents a typically complex definition
of that phenomenon:
We must never forget that the Enlightenment is an event, or a set of events and complex
historical processes, that it is located at a certain point in the development of European
societies. As such, it includes elements of social transformation, types of political
institutions, forms of knowledge, projects of rationalisation of knowledge and practices,
technological mutations that are very difficult to sum up in a word, even if many of these
phenomena remain important today. The one I have pointed out, which seems to me to have
been at the basis of an entire form of philosophical reflection, concerns only the mode of
reflective relation to the present.38

This reflective relation to the present is to be understood, then, as only one


moment of the Enlightenment, but nevertheless a persistent one that acts as the
continuing condition of possibility of the kind of genealogical approach and
critique that Foucault was concerned to pursue. It is here where genealogy can
help to illuminate the purpose of any conceptual history of the present. In this
respect genealogy will not deduce from the form of what we are what it is
impossible for us to do and to know; but it will separate out from the contingency
that has made us what we are, the possibility of no longer being, doing, or thinking
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what we are, do, or think.39 Ian Hacking has referred to this kind of approach as
historical ontology, which is not so much about the formation of character as about
the space of possibilities for character formation that surround a person, and create
the potentials for individual experience. As Hacking points out, such a historical
ontology may at one level be about the formation of persons in clearly delineated
practices, such as those today associated with child development, but it might
also be concerned with larger organising concepts such as those that constitute
political ideologies.40
Conclusion
We can then envisage a Begriffsgeschichte and an historical ontology of social and
political actors, that is the way in which various concepts, technologies and
ideologies, function to provide individuals with an understanding of the social and
political world, their place in it, and the kind of future to which we should aspire.
But what I have tried to show is that if we read Koselleck and Foucault in tandem,
what we take out of their texts is not any kind of straightforward or one-way social
or ideological determination of social and political actors. What the work of both
Koselleck and Foucault strongly suggests is that in modernity individuals are
equipped with the linguistic and social resources to contest, that this diffusion and
democratization of contestation is something peculiar to modernity, and that it is
what makes possible the very practice of a Begriffsgeschichte or an historical
ontology of the social and political. If we think of this process in Althusserian
terms, individuals in modernity are interpellated by ideology not so much as
subjects (though employing a rather narrow understanding of the subject as the
subject of subjection, in a way that tends to overemphasize the negative and
repressive character of ideology), but as combatants. Ideologies in the modern
world call to individuals to take up arms in a struggle against a definite enemy:
whether that be the corrupt order of absolutism or authoritarianism, the capitalist
class, ethnic or racial outsiders, global terrorists, and so on. It requires of them the
defence of a set of values and a vision of a future, however, not by force of arms
alone but by the employment of reason, argument and evidence. The manifesto of
the modern political party was not designed as an advertising tool, but as a
pedagogic weapon for the effective politicization of the masses.
A reading of Koselleck and Foucault in concert, then, provides a way into
understanding how modern political actors are constituted, and the effects that
those actors produce in terms of constituting political subjects and objects.
Kosellecks Begriffsgeschichte is central in this respect, because it presents us with
the need to focus on the constitutive role of social and political concepts, not as a
reflection of social and political reality, nor as that which constitutes it in any
straightforward causal sense. Rather, what social and political concepts do is to act
as the conditions of possibility for the experience of political actors, both in the
sense that they describe and delimit the political while simultaneously providing
the resources for a transformation of political discourses and practices. Political
concepts do not so much construct the political as provide the grounds on which
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political actors construct the political. For example, contestation over what is
meant by democracy, what the practices of democratic governance should involve,
and which spaces of social life are appropriate to democratic organization, have
had a profound bearing on drawing political dividing lines and shaping political
identities in modern times. What a Begriffsgeschichte, properly practised, should
do is not simply delineate the various linguistic applications the term democracy
has had in particular times and places, but how these various applications are tied
into specific struggles over political practices and spaces. This kind of approach
effectively repudiates criticisms of Kosellecks Begriffsgeschichte for not
sufficiently recognising the role of agency in the process of change.41 This is
only the case if we understand Kosellecks concern to remain at the level of the
formal delineation of systems of concepts. Yet we have seen that while this is an
indispensable feature of Begriffsgeschichte, it is a mode of analysis adopted as a
necessary initial step for the understanding of the conditions of possibility for the
experience of social and political actors. Concepts, in this sense, do not lead a life
of their own, but are rather manifested in the discourses and practices in which
social and political actors engage.42
Kosellecks Begriffsgeschichte, then, recognizes that social and political
concepts render possible the experience of modern political actors and that,
moreover, the contestation of these concepts is a central feature of modernity.
As we have seen, it is this characteristic of social and political life in the modern
world that Koselleck acknowledges to be the very condition of possibility of
any conceptual history. The contestation of the fields of the social and political is
what constitutes the distinct identity of modernity as it emerges out of the
Enlightenment; it is what gives rise to the great secular ideological contests of
the past 200 years; and it provides a form of historical consciousness through
which a Begriffsgeschichte can focus both on the constitution of the present and
the possibilities for its transformation. But while Kosellecks claim that political
experience is both a product and limitation of the conceptual formation of
social and political agents is one that should be taken with utmost seriousness,
the practice of Begriffsgeschichte to date has indeed largely remained within the
parameters of formal linguistic analysis. What it fails to illuminate, then, are
the specific ways in which conceptual contestation works to produce political
knowledges and agents within particular kinds of social and political practices. It is
in this respect that the kind of genealogical approach pioneered by Foucault, in
which power operates not necessarily as a form of oppression but as the medium
through which actors constitute political subjects and objects, proves an essential
tool for the analysis of political knowledge and actors.
This marriage of Begriffsgeschichte and genealogy can shed light on the ways in
which political thought, language, and action operate in the present. It allows us to
see how social and political concepts are central for the formation of political
actors, but also how the contestation of such concepts is a central feature of
modern politics. This is not to say that contestation or antagonism in itself operates
as the limit condition of political identity, for as Koselleck has shown such
antagonism is definitive only of a certain kind of historical consciousness
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characteristic of social and political modernity. We cannot expect, then, that by
drawing on Koselleck and Foucault we can hope to explain political discourses or
ideologies in general. Their work cannot support a meta-theory of politics. Rather
it aids only in the more modest enterprise of demonstrating how we can conceive
of ideology as forming social and political actors while maintaining that the
contests and struggles in which those actors participate are key for understanding
social, political and ideological transformations in the modern world.

Notes and References


1. L. Althusser, Ideology and ideological state apparatuses in Lenin and Philosophy (New York: Monthly
Review Press), pp. 127186.
2. M. Richter, The History of Social and Political Concepts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 34.
3. Richter, Ibid; see also K. Tribe, The Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe Project: From history of ideas to
conceptual history. A review article, Comparative Studies in History and Society, 31, (1), January 1989,
pp. 180 184.
4. R. Koselleck, Critique and Crisis: Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society (Cambridge, MA:
The MIT Press, 1988).
5. J. Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (Cambridge: Polity, 1989).
6. M. Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (London: Routledge, 2002).
7. M. Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge (London: Routledge, 2002), pp. 48.
8. Foucault, Ibid, pp. 155, 156.
9. Starting with Discipline and Punish, Foucaults work of the 1970s and 1980s is often understood as marking
an abandonment of his earlier concern with the archaeology of knowledge, where the focus was on the
internal structure of systems of thought, towards an investigation of the manifold way in which various
knowledges and techniques, embodied in social practices and institutions, have acted historically in
constituting subjects. But as Dreyfus and Rabinow have claimed, it is a mistake to characterize Foucaults
work as marking a straightforward turn from archaeology to genealogy. Rather, [f]rom his earliest days
Foucault has used variants of a strict analysis of discourse (archaeology) and paid a more general attention to
that which conditions, limits, and institutionalizes discursive formations (genealogy). There is no pre- and
post-archaeology or genealogy. However, the weighting and conception of these approaches has changed
during the development of his work. See H. Dreyfus and P. Rabinow, Michel Foucault: Beyond
Structuralism and Hermeneutics (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1983), p. 104.
10. See Richter, op cit, Ref. 2.
11. R. Koselleck, Futures Past (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), pp. 75 92.
12. Koselleck, Ibid, p. 75.
13. Koselleck, Ibid, p. 79.
14. Koselleck, Ibid, p. 80.
15. Koselleck, Ibid, p. 82.
16. Koselleck, Ibid, p. 83.
17. M. Heidegger, Being and Time (Oxford: Blackwell, 1962); H.-G. Gadamer, Truth and Method (London:
Continuum, 2004). It is, however, true that Heidegger and Gadamer had an important influence on
Kosellecks view of Begriffsgeschichte in so far as they stressed the primarily historical character of selfunderstanding.
18. See Dreyfus and Rabinow, op cit, Ref. 9, pp. xiixiii.
19. Koselleck, op cit, Ref. 11, p. 85.
20. Koselleck, Ibid, p. 22.
21. R. Koselleck, War memorials: Identity formations of the survivors in The Practice of Conceptual History:
Timing History, Spacing Concepts (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press), p. 291.
22. Foucault, op cit, Ref. 7, pp. 9093.
23. Ibid, pp. 6270.
24. Ibid, pp. 214 215.
25. M. Foucault, Truth and Power in James D. Faubion (Ed.), Essential Works of Foucault, 195484, volume
3: Power (London: Penguin, 2000), p. 119.

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26. M. Foucault, Nietzsche, genealogy, history, in James D. Faubion (Ed.), Essential Works of Foucault,
195484, volume 2: Aesthetics, Method and Epistemology (London: Penguin, 2000), p. 370.
27. M. Foucault, Madness and Civilisation (London: Routledge, 2001); The Birth of the Clinic (London:
Routledge, 2003).
28. M. Foucault, Discipline and Punish (London: Penguin, 1991).
29. M. Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1 (London: Penguin, 1981).
30. M. Foucault. Governmentality, in James D. Faubion (Ed.), Essential Works of Foucault, 195484, volume
3: Power (London: Penguin, 2000), p. 207.
31. Foucault, Ibid, p. 217.
32. Foucault, Ibid, p. 202.
33. M. Foucault, The subject and power, in James D. Faubion (Ed.), Essential Works of Foucault, 195484,
volume 3: Power (London: Penguin, 2000), p. 332.
34. Koselleck, op cit, Ref. 4.
35. M. Foucault, What is enlightenment?, in James D. Faubion (Ed.), Essential Works of Foucault, 195484,
volume 1:Ethics (London: Penguin, 2000), p. 319.
36. Ibid, p. 309.
37. Ibid, p. 312.
38. Ibid, p. 313.
39. Ibid, pp. 315316.
40. I. Hacking, Historical Ontology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), p. 23.
41. M. Bevir, Begriffsgeschichte, History and Theory, 39 (2), May 2000, pp. 273284. Quote on p. 280.
42. Ibid

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