You’re a Historian–Define Your Terms

An old English dictionary opened up for view.

Historicizing a past moment, intellectual trajectory, or socio-cultural precedent is hard work. It’s also easy to cut corners and get lazy.

One way we see this happen is when scholars don’t define their terms. The assumption becomes that everyone reading has received the memo and knows what’s good. The problem here is that this is almost never the case and thus the reader and writer get at loggerheads about what is going on.

The paradox of being a scholar is that even when we are complicating matters, our job is always to clarify. There’s no better place to start than by defining one’s terms.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in relation to how we talk about is history in a variety of settings. Thus I have decided to keep a running list of terms with working definitions. When I use these terms in my scholarship, I tend to be thinking about the meanings presented here.

Classics–the canonization (and presumption) of the histories of ancient Greece and Rome as paradigmatic for civilization going forward–especially in the formation of Europe and the West.

Discourse— expression with effect

Enlightenment–16-18c. era in European and Western intellectual history in which rationale was the standard of knowledge and ideal epistemological type (e.g. Descartes’ “Cogito ergo sum,” “I think, therefore I am.”).

Liberalism— Enlightenment notion that the government and social systems are a tool of all people and should serve as a vehicle to move all people toward freedom (e.g. republic, contra monarchy).

Method–How we know what we know based upon the tools and conventions of a common discourse.

Modernity–16-20c. era in European, Western, and eventually global thought marked by an interest in critical reflection in light of history, propriety, and progress. We see this in Early Modernity with Shakespeare’s concern for the human condition, later in Protestant interest in the centrality of the vernacular, the development of Enlightenment political philosophies, and the long arc of the scientific revolution.

Nation–the constructed notion of a common group identity that exists beyond government or territory, while residing in all the individuals who claim and are responsible for it.

Nation-State–the socio-political entity in which the nation is furthered by the government apparatus and the government furthers the aims of a people.

Neoliberalism–the constructed notion that the government and social systems ultimately works as a tool for individuals (and the corporations that are constituted of individuals) and should be a vehicle to further the freedom of all individuals and the corporations constituted by individuals’ interests (e.g. free market capitalism, cf. socialism).

Periodization– an interest in schematizing the past so as to contextualize one’s constructions of the present and future–to whatever ends.

Postmodernity–a 19-21c retrospective on the limits of modernity, interested in following modernity through to the conclusion, even of critique.

Renaissance–15 and 16c. Europe’s renewed interest in the pre-Christian intellectual histories, especially of the Mediterranean, following the difficulties of the Middle Ages (from plague to the rise of the Islamicate).

Romanticism–18 and 19c counterpoint to Enlightenment/Modern intellectual and socio-political interests, focusing on the constitution and expression of individuals beyond the tools of reason and liberalism.

Scriptures–the cultural texts that people read that also seem to read them back.

Scriptural Economy–Michel DeCerteau’s observation of the modern potential for discourse to move, delimit, and demarcate bodies within a social system.

Signification–the social process through which the world is understood as full of potential symbols (signs) to be filled with meaning (signified) by a signifier (human beings).

State–the political entity that governs a people in relation to territorial boundaries and the strictures of an authority.

Theory–what we think we known. It can’t be proven, only disproven.

What key terms do you use and how do you define them?

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