As Intellectual History Meets Historical Sociology: Historical Sociology after the Linguistic Turn

Peter Wagner. Handbook of Historical Sociology. Editor: Gerard Delanty & Engin F Isin. Sage Publication. 2003.

The past two decades have witnessed many claims that the social sciences were undergoing an interpretative, a cultural or a linguistic turn (for example, Bonnell and Hunt, 1999; Hiley et al., 1991; Toews, 1987). There is certainly no consensus as to what such turns entailed or even what the precise nature of them was, the variety of terms used being indicative of at least a similar variety of views. It seems nevertheless possible, however, to identify here one broad shift—rather than a range of disconnected phenomena—that emphasizes the significance of language for human social life, and thus for the study of human social life as well. Beyond its original and much more specific meaning, therefore, the description of this shift as a linguistic turn appropriately captures this feature of recent debates.

At the same time, however, the expression linguistic turn has also been used, or interpreted, as a battlecry introducing a cleavage in the social and human sciences and, in the view of critics, threatening to undermine the whole intellectual endeavour of those sciences. Not least on grounds of such controversy, the impact of this turn is difficult to assess. For historical sociology, we may legitimately ask whether the linguistic turn has at all taken place or whether it has not been outright rejected. If we look at recent works that ambitiously aim at both continuing and modifying the long tradition of historical sociology, such as Christophe Charle’s La crise des sociét’s impériales (2001), it is sometimes difficult to find any traces of the concern for language that has shaped meta-historiographical debate over the past quarter of a century. Other observers, however, may use the same example to arrive at the opposite conclusion. The striking phenomenon of our time is, then, rather the fact that works such as Charle’s that analyse entire societies over considerable stretches of time, and even in a comparative perspective, are so scarce. In so far as the linguistic turn raised the awareness of the difficulties inherent in analysing historical documents, in drawing conclusions from those documents about the past world, and in writing up those conclusions, its effects—intended or not—may, in this view, have been the destruction of the tradition of historical sociology.

Any further exploration of whether the former or the latter assertion tells us more about the relation between the linguistic turn and the social and human sciences will require both a prior delimitation of those areas of inquiry that are of interest here and an approximate definition of the range of possible impacts of the linguistic turn on them. For the purposes of this chapter, a rather narrow approach to both questions will be taken. In the next section, I will try to define a core area of historical sociology within an otherwise enormously large area of historical social inquiry. Subsequently, I will propose to understand the linguistic turn for my purposes as the emergence of a reflexive consciousness about the structure and uses of language in intellectual history, broadly understood. The main purpose of this chapter is, then, to demonstrate what happens when historical sociology encounters such language-conscious intellectual history. Rather than being destructive of scholarly possibilities, such an encounter could revive historical sociology by opening new perspectives on old, but insufficiently answered, questions.

Democracy and Capitalism in Comparative Perspective: The Legacy of Historical Sociology

The understanding of historical sociology that will be used in this chapter is rather limited, but at the same time quite specific. A facile first approximation is by authors and works. The tradition of historical sociology under consideration here finds its start in works such as Alexis de Tocqueville’s La démocratie en Amérique and Lancien régime et la révolution and Karl Marx’s Capital and the associated political writings, as well as, somewhat later but in evident discussion with the earlier authors, Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1976 [1904–5]) and his writings on the sociology of world religions. Overshadowed by world-political dispute as well as by intellectual doubts about its very possibility, the tradition is weakened between the two great wars of the twentieth century. Norbert Elias’s Civilizing Process and Karl Polanyi’s Great Transformation (1985 [1944]) found the attention they merited only after the second war. After that war, though, the tradition revived with a focus on totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and Barrington Moore’s Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (1969) being landmark works. Drawing critical inspiration from the latter, in particular, historical sociologists such as Charles Tilly and Theda Skocpol aimed at consolidating the approach and securing it a legitimate place within the discipline of sociology, which by then had undergone intense methodological debate with often rather stifling outcomes, especially in the US context.

Trying to go beyond a list of names in delimiting an area of interest, Theda Skocpol’s attempt from the early 1980s is indeed useful. She defined historical sociology as ‘research devoted to understanding the nature and effects of large-scale structures and fundamental processes of change’ (1984a: 4). In so far as the focus had long been—although never exclusively—on the history of European and North American societies, large-scale structures’ easily translates as states and capitalism and ‘fundamental processes of change’ as democratization, commodification and bureaucratization as well as revolution as a crucial form of change. The authors mentioned above, taken together, certainly still provide the key reference to the study of these phenomena. In rough historical sequence, we can see them as being interested, first, in the emergence and breakthrough of novel forms of political and economic organization; second, in the cultural underpinnings of those forms and in their historical transformations; and, third, in the fragility of those forms, or, more appropriately, in the experience that their assertion cannot be taken for granted as the outcome of any linear process in history.

In this characterization, several aspects need to be underlined because of their relation to intellectual developments during the final quarter of the twentieth century. Methodological debate in the social sciences from the 1950s onwards had raised the stakes in terms of the evidence required for making assertions in historical sociology. A first response was a quantitative turn, a second and related one an emphasis on material-structural features apparently more easy to discern than ideational-cultural features (both approaches are discussed in detail elsewhere in this volume). By 1960, Weber appeared to have lost his debate with Marx against the ‘economic explanation’ of history (Weber, 1976 [1904-5]: 91), although the latter was now much more broadly conceived than by Marx himself. Furthermore, the raising of the methodological stakes also had an impact on the very notion of ‘historical explanation’ itself. Historical sociology had always tried to keep some distance from the older tradition of philosophy of history; this distance may indeed precisely constitute it as a genre of its own. Being interested in ‘fundamental processes of change,’ however, it proved impossible entirely to throw off the issue of a direction of history (for more detail on this issue, see Wagner, 2001a: Ch 5; 2001b). Finally, the historical sociology in question here certainly always was a political sociology, and this in a double sense. First, it was interested in political forms, such as democracy and totalitarianism, their conditions of emergence, their impact on the conduct of life, and their fragility and viability. Second, there was a normative interest behind these questions, as an interest in avoiding some of those forms, or some of their consequences on the conduct of life, and in promoting others.

More recent intellectual developments radicalized the debate on all these issues. As much of an outsider to the field as he was, Jean-Franéois Lyotard’s (1984 [1979]) observation on the end of the metanarratives in connection with his idea about a change in the social bond brought together the otherwise quite varied dimensions of epistemological and methodological criticism of historical sociology. By implication, what he and others were saying suggested that all preceding analyses of long-term processes of change were deeply flawed. They had worked with some version of a material concept of the social bond, whereas the latter should be seen as constituted linguistically and—by possible, though not necessary, implication—as existing in much more varied and open forms than hitherto assumed. As a consequence, that which had been conceived as ‘large-scale structures’ did not extend and persist in stable form across space and time but always remained dependent upon interpretation by present actors. Any political project or analysis, finally, that derived its conclusions from a structural analysis of those large-scale forms had become impossible.

This brief and almost caricaturcal synthesis provides a radical—but not entirely unsubstantiated—view of the possible consequences of the linguistic turn for historical sociology. In this form, it is used almost exclusively by critics of that turn and hardly ever by its proponents. To do justice to the linguistic challenge to conventional historical sociology requires a closer look at what it can be seen to entail.

Language and History

Put bluntly, the linguistic turn for the social and historical sciences means nothing else than that sociologists and historians should take language—the fact that human beings relate to one another and constitute their world by language—seriously. This seems a strange thing to say, since it certainly implies that they have not done so before. And arguably, such neglect of language prevailed during the 1950s and 1960s, being closely related to the philosophical assumption that there is always only ever one adequate relation between reality and its representation in language, that is, that truth means correspondence between a linguistic statement and the piece of reality to which it refers. Within philosophical debate, from where it emerged (Rorty, 1967), the expression ‘linguistic turn’ describes the shift of attention towards philosophy of language that occurred in the middle of the twentieth century, partly with a view to grounding a correspondence theory of truth in an exploration of its linguistic prerequisites, but increasingly recognizing that philosophy cannot mirror nature, to use Richard Rorty’s (1980) celebrated phrase, that the world for human beings is always open to change by redescription (Rorty, 1989).

Debate in the social and historical sciences has accompanied, though often only gradually and reluctantly, this shift in philosophical debate. The dispute on positivism in German sociology, for instance, marked the end of the old controversy in the philosophy of the social sciences in which the claim to positive knowledge was countered by a critique of ideology that itself relied on an alternative social theory and philosophy, that is, a theory of capitalism grounded in the tradition of German idealism. On either side of the dispute, expression in language was a rather unproblematic issue once the adequate philosophical stand had been taken. And while the dispute went on, research in the social sciences more and more proceeded on the positivist model, even though mostly in a quite unreflected way. The linguistic turn, which was gradually under way at that time, then opened (or reopened) a number of quite different issues.

First, and this may be a case of reopening rather than opening, it brought back the question of ideology, albeit in a new form. As mentioned above, historical sociology had increasingly come to focus on ‘material’ structures in a broad sense and had forgotten about the Marx-Weber dispute over ‘economic’ and ‘cultural’ historical explanation. The emphasis on economic and social factors shaping historical developments was so pronounced that even the call for emphasizing politico-institutional structures had to be made by means of the battlecry ‘bringing the state back in’ (Evans et al., 1985). Cultural-ideational factors, if one wants to use such a term, remained a rather neglected ‘third level’ of analysis (Ernest Labrousse, with reference to the Annales distinction between economy, society and—the third level—civilization). Within a Marxist frame of analysis, recourse to Gramsci opened the way to emphasize the indeterminacy of this level, that is, its relative independence from socio-economic structures, unlike in earlier critique of ideology. In historiography, the histore des mentaltés claimed the existence and persistence of collective representations, to use Durkheim’s term, similarly without any necessary link to other social structures. Once the possibility of both the independent existence of such a ‘third level’ and its impact on the other two levels had been more broadly accepted, the time-honoured field of intellectual history, or history of ideas, moved more into the centre of the discipline of history. The emergence of cultural history as a new sub-field and the rise in prominence of cultural sociology, or more broadly and ambitiously cultural studies (or Kulturwisssenschaften, a comprehensive term already used by Max Weber), is also related to the revived interest in ideas. Disregarding for the moment the variety of approaches within these fields, their common denominator is the insistence that social life cannot be studied comprehensively if the ways in which human beings express their lives and condition through language and ideas is not taken into account beyond the apparently ‘harder’ socio-economic and politico-institutional structures of the social world.

Put like this, though, the concern for language and ideas would have but little impact on the ways in which historical sociology proceeds. A ‘third level’ could merely be added to the other two, without any other change in the epistemology or philosophy of the social sciences. The picture changes, however, once one asserts that all relations between human beings and the world are constituted by language. Such a claim, secondly, asserts some epistemic superiority of the so-called ‘third’ level over the other two. Philosophically, it goes back to the Romanticist reaction to the Enlightenment, or, more appropriately, to the Romanticist enlargement of the Enlightenment philosophical revolution. Once the Enlightenment claim has been made that human beings gain knowledge about the world by distancing themselves from the world, the question of what stands between, or mediates between, those distanced human beings and the world became inescapable. The answer to this question is: language. The relation of human beings to one another and to other aspects of the world is one of interpretation.

From Romanticism onwards, this insight stands in the background of the hermeneutic approach to the social sciences, an approach that has been as persistent as it has been marginal in the history of the social sciences. At the time of the linguistic turn, it has been revived in the works of Hans-Georg Gadamer, Paul Ricoeur and, somewhat differently, Jacques Derrida. Gadamer, for instance, has insisted on ‘the comprehensive pre-interpretedness of the world’ when encountered by the human being (1971: 139). The experience of the world is thus linked to the interpretation of the world: ‘language as experience of the world’ (1979 [1960]: 397). Or, to anticipate bluntly the argument below about the transfer of this approach into historical sociology: there is no ‘class’ without a concept of class.

Thirdly, the linguistic turn can also be seen as relating to writing about history. In this sense, for instance, and quite in line with Gadamer’s perspective, Karl Marx’s writing about class can be regarded no longer as directly presenting social reality but rather as interpreting that reality. Any textual ‘evidence’ about historical occurrences is not evidence in a positivist sense, but a contemporary interpretation of occurrences. The question about the relation of those interpretations to any ‘reality’ that remains unknown ‘as such’ is thus inevitably posed, and much of the meta-historical debate after the linguistic turn has been devoted to identifying means to close that ‘gap’ between text and reality (for an overview, see Ankersmit, 1994, drawing on Roland Barthes’s notion of ‘reality effect,’ among others). At the same time, any present writing about history necessarily stands in a similarly interpretative relation to that which it is about, to its object. Thus, the raising of this issue could not but lead into a discussion about relativism, dramatized not least by focusing on recent ‘revisionisms’ in historical interpretation, from the French Revolution to Nazism.

All three implications of the concern for language are each of their own of considerable significance for historical sociology. In their combination, they amount to a forceful questioning of most established practices within that area of research. In what follows, however, I will concentrate on the second aspect, the emphasis on the interpretedness of the world for human experience, and will include into the account only the most immediate linkages of this aspect to the other two. In other words, I will not discuss the mere adding of a third, ideational level of reality to what otherwise remains a structural analysis of history. Read purely this way, the linguistic turn could relatively easily be handled within historical sociology, but wherever this issue was opened it has indeed tended to broaden quickly to include at least the second, sometimes also the third aspect. And neither will I discuss the more strictly epistemological issues of the third aspect. That discussion has tended to move quickly into a rather barren, dogmatic controversy over the very representability, or intelligibility, of the past social world. My choice of focus is not meant to suggest that the excluded aspects are of little relevance. Rather, it is motivated by a double concern. On the one hand, and as I hope will become clear at the end of my reasoning, I take the linguistic turn to entail the need for a quite radical rethinking of the practices of historical sociology. A look at the first aspect alone would not lead very far in addressing that need. On the other hand, though, this need would not be well responded to if the empirical-historical investigation at expressions of the human condition were to be replaced, in the face of its undeniable difficulties, by philosophers’ claims to reach deeper insight without any empirical-historical look at all.

Discourse Formations, Speech Acts, Conceptual History: The Revolution in Intellectual History

At this point, the focus of the remainder of my argument may be relatively well defined. It is the space where intellectual history, broadly understood, has begun to meet historical sociology in recent years. Such a rapprochement has taken place from three different angles in roughly parallel movements.

Across his early works, such as Surveiller et punir and Lhistoire de la folie up to the archaeology of the human sciences as presented in Les mots et les choses, Michel Foucault (1975, 1976, 1974) developed an approach to the analysis of discursive formations as well as to the linkage between discourses and practices that has emphasized the weight of such linguistic structures upon human beings, indeed structuring their relation to the world, in contrast to human beings actively structuring their relation to the world via linguistic practices. Even though Foucault and Quentin Skinner’s works developed largely in benign mutual neglect, the latter (Skinner, 1988 [1969]) may be seen as taking the opposite stand in his emphasis on speech acts in the history of political thought, regarding authors of texts as intending a meaningful change in political thought via the performative capacity of language. Like Foucault, though, Skinner insists on the significance of the linguistic context, in which the speech act takes primary place, in contrast to an extra-linguistic, social and economic context that was given direct relevance in much of earlier intellectual history, but also in contrast to any view that sees the variety of linguistic expressions in political thought as merely variations around ‘perennial problems’ that never change. Reinhart Koselleck (1985), thirdly, proposed a historiography of concepts somehow in-between Foucault’s and Skinner’s approaches. Without constructing all-powerful discursive formations, he insists on the embedding of individual concepts in broader linguistic structures and aims at identifying major periods of conceptual change.

All three scholars, thus, share an emphasis on language in historical analysis and they underline this feature of their work as distinct in comparison to the approaches to which they critically relate. For Foucault, these are the subject-centred human sciences as well as a structuralism that is incapable of theorizing its own linguistic practice. For Skinner, it is the conventional history of political ideas as well as its marxisant counterpart. And for Koselleck, it is a ‘social history’ that takes for immediately granted the existence of the social phenomena that concepts refer to. Despite all differences, there is therefore a clearly recognizable common methodological and conceptual concern. The commonalities, however, reach even further, namely into the area of the substantive reinterpretation of European history over the past quarter of a millennium.

Foucault (1974) identifies the closing years of the eighteenth century as the period during which the classical episteme is superseded by the discursive formation formed by the disciplines of biology, economics and philology. For Skinner (1998), similarly, the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth century emerges ever more clearly as a period of a major intellectual transformation in the course of his studies. Focusing explicitly on political thought, he describes this transformation as the decline of republican (or, more recently, neo-Roman) thinking, which experiences its last era of dominance during the American Revolution, and the rise of individualist liberalism, which becomes the pivotal political theory over the course of the nineteenth century. And for Koselleck, the period between 1770 and 1830 forms a transitional period (Sattelzeit) as well, a period after which the use of concepts is unproblematically recognizable to us. Defined more precisely as an opening of the horizon of time so that expectations can far exceed experiences, this conceptual revolution thus spells the transition to the contemporary period, the period in which we still live, and which already on those grounds can be referred to as modernity.

All three authors thus identify a similar historical period as a period of discursive transformation during which emerge the discourses that dominate current intellectual and political life. The relation of the present to the era before that transformation is conceptualized differently, however. Foucault rather neutrally observes grand tectonic shifts beyond any human capacity or will. Skinner’s account underlies a vague notion of decline, of a loss of something that was important and should be regained, at least as an intellectual resource, if not a political practice. Koselleck, although he writes in the distanced voice of the professional historian, is the only one among the three who may be seen to embrace the modernity the linguistic advent of which he describes.

In all three cases, however, the nature of the modernity consequent upon the discursive transformation is under-specified and/or widely open to dispute. Can one really argue, as Foucault implicitly does, that classical sociology, for instance, placed the human subject indubitably at its centre? Does the accusation of having provided an over-socialized conception of the human being not lead towards emphasizing a quite different feature of the sociological tradition (Wrong, 1961)? Is it really the case, as Skinner maintains, that individualist liberalism has governed the self-understanding of political modernity increasingly since the so-called ‘democratic revolutions’? What is the relation of republicanism and individualism to nationalism and socialism/communism in the European nineteenth and twentieth centuries? And, to continue on that train of thought, was it not the ambition of social and political philosophy during that period, contra the implication of Koselleck’s reasoning, to close, or at least stabilize, the horizon of time again, to channel expectations into well-governable directions?

At this point of the argument, one could move to a detailed consideration of the approaches and findings with a view to identifying the reasons for the emergence of such problematic assertions. Rather than doing so, however, I will claim that the basic problem of an intellectual history, broadly understood, that takes language seriously has hitherto been the unwillingness of its promoters to relate it back to a comprehensive study of societal transformations. Intellectual history has effectively challenged a language-unconscious historical sociology, but it has not yet demonstrated what a language-conscious historical sociology could or should look like. Such demonstration cannot be substituted for by a mere insistence on taking linguistic change into account (that would be a broadening in the sense of the first aspect mentioned above). Rather, it is likely to entail a recasting of historical sociology’s basic problématiques.

By pointing, in what follows, to some examples of studies that have ventured in such a direction (even though their reach is quite limited in terms of the individual studies), I try to sketch what such a demonstration is likely to entail. This discussion cannot be exhaustive, not only for reasons of space, but also because a comprehensive rethinking of historical sociology’s basic problématiques has not yet fully taken place. Instead, I will proceed by making use of exemplary works and trying to show what their findings contribute to such a rethinking. Doing so, I will be working chronologically backwards, from the middle of the twentieth century to the end of the eighteenth.

Political Modernity and its Problematic: Four Episodes in Rethinking the History of European Societies

Keynesianism and Economic Discourse

The adoption of Keynesian macro-economic policies in a number of Western societies between the 1930s and the 1960s has been explored in a comparative research project on ‘the power of economic ideas,’ directed by Peter Hall (1989). The context in which this question could be posed had, of course, drastically changed between the early 1970s and the mid-1980s, the period of the research. By 1970, it was widely held that Keynesianism provided for the problem of the stabilization of production and exchange a solution that was functionally superior to any others that had been proposed or tried before. It was widely seen as effectively smoothing the development of the capitalist economy and at the same time providing leeway for redistribution and, thus, greater equality without, however, renouncing the benefits of capitalism, that is, an enhancement of ‘the wealth of nations,’ to use a time-honoured formula. The question about the reception of Keynesianism was accordingly only one about the social conditions of the acceptance of a superior idea. After the mid-1970s, in contrast, it was increasingly observed that the Keynesian treatment, if applied over long periods, produced considerable side-effects. Some analysts argued that these side-effects were worse than the problems caused by the disease; and the voices of those analysts were increasingly widely heard. This change, about which nothing else will be said here, had at least the advantage of opening a broader, so to say, post-Kuhnian, perspective on the social conditions of intellectual change. Peter Hall’s research project was set in this intellectual context, and I will discuss just two contributions from it that pose the question of the relation between an intellectual transformation and a politico-institutional transformation in quite different terms.

Margaret Weir’s (1989) comparison of the American and the British debates over Keynesianism is mainly interested in identifying how politico-institutional structures determine the fate of political ideas. Thus, she stays close to the structural sociology developed by Theda Skocpol, only adding the reception of ideas as an area of interest to it. There is no doubt that interesting findings emerge from her analysis: the closed and hierarchical character of a centralized government structure, as in the UK, entails a longer resistance to novel ideas, but also leads to its rapid and consistent adoption once the old orthodoxy is overcome. In contrast, the comparatively open and multi-layered US economic-policy-making apparatus provides easy access for new ideas; however, in turn, it also tends to slow down their adoption and to dilute their basic messages.

Yet the limits of this approach reside already in its basic design, which assumes that there just are politico-institutional structures to which ideas are brought from the outside, and the objective of the analysis is then to find out what happens in this encounter. In contrast, Pierre Rosanvallon’s (1989) analysis of Keynesianism in France opens up broader questions. Rosanvallon’s first problem in this collaborative project was that there was hardly any reception of Keynesianism in France until after the end of the Second World War. It is, thus, not least the absence of a phenomenon that imposes the broadening of the research question—this is, incidentally, one of the heuristic benefits from comparative research. In this case, Rosanvallon opted for a broader contextualization with a view towards identifying the register of available languages for economic policy in France during the 1930s. Importantly, he identified a tradition of government measures to alleviate unemployment that went back to at least 1848, and that at that point became closely related to the self-understanding of the republican political order in general. In such a politico-historical context, there was then no apparent need for Keynesian ideas during the 1930s; solutions to the problem had already been found much earlier, and the only dispute was over if and how to apply them. Thus, it becomes possible to pose anew the question about the specific nature of the Keynesian innovation.

Rather than providing the ideal solution for stabilizing an inherently unstable market economy, Keynes’s intellectual step meant a minor transformation of the economic orthodoxy of the time, compared to the solutions offered by fascism, socialism or, as the French and Belgians would say, planisme that were well under debate at the time. All these proposals diagnosed a profound crisis of liberalism, a view that was indeed widely shared at least since the First World War. The specificity of Keynes’s view was the limited nature of the crisis, being namely confined to questions of economic adjustment. All other proposals linked the problems of economic liberalism to those of political liberalism and saw a more profound transformation of society as necessary. Rosanvallon’s analysis restores this broader context of linguistic-discursive formations, which, at that point, had indeed been shaped over a considerable period of time.

Early Social Policies and Sociological Discourse

Let us thus move a step backwards in time and look at the debates about what are now known as early social policies, or the origins of the welfare state. For a long time, to say this all too briefly, research on the development of the welfare state was shaped by one of two perspectives. First, social policies were seen as a functional response to problems generated by the workings of a market economy. The similarity of the problems as well as the functionality of the solutions were then derived from the apparent fact that social policies were introduced in all capitalist-industrial societies with only relatively minor differences in timing (overlooking the minor exception of the US). However, it is precisely the considerable differences between policies adopted that was neglected in this view, indeed was even systematically left out of focus owing to the guiding assumption of functionality. Second, in contrast and partly in response to such functionalism, culturalist approaches emphasized the difference across states and societies. Those approaches, however, were often at a loss to explain those national political cosmologies that they needed to evoke as determining factors for policy developments.

Post-linguistic-turn historical sociology tries to deal with these issues by again linking the major political transformation that the introduction of early social policies obviously entailed to an intellectual transformation, in this case to a rethinking of the social bond, or of ‘society.’ The background here is the observation of new forms of poverty and other social evils, such as crime, a declining medical state of parts of the population, and prostitution. From the middle of the nineteenth century onwards, roughly speaking, the conviction gained ground that these phenomena were related to the processes of industrialization and urbanization, and thus that they would not disappear with the consolidation of the new industrial order, but would rather get entrenched in it. Once they could no longer be seen as transitory, as side-effects of the move to a new and better society, these phenomena could be addressed as a problem, in many societies indeed called ‘the social question.’ The formulation of this question and the attempt to find an answer to it spelt an intellectual transformation in social and political thought, most briefly to be characterized as a redefinition of responsibility in the framework of a new moral and political philosophy.

Such redefinition included two major steps. The liberal political philosophy of the nineteenth century, in so far as it prevailed, had increasingly put the individual at centre-stage of political life. Individuals were responsible for their actions—in the case of work accidents, for instance, the basic assumption would be that they were caused by workers who would then also be responsible for the consequences. The decisive step towards the establishment of compulsory work accident insurance was taken when it could be argued that industrialization had transformed the standard work situation into a constitutively collective one in which it was industrial life itself, not the action of any individual, that was responsible for new risks (see, in particular, Rabinbach, 1996). This was the first step, a move from the individual to the collectivity. Once this step was taken, however, for any practical, or policy, consequences that collectivity needed to be defined in such a way as to be able to accept the responsibility. The second step, by and large, was the identification of the nation as the responsible collectivity (alternatives that were discussed, varying across policies, were the residence community, the employer and the company, the union or workers’ corporation; see, in particular, Zimmermann, 2001). On this basis, national social policy arrangements could be introduced.

As proposed here, this intellectual transformation can be discussed in terms of moral and political philosophy. In actual practice, however, it was empirical social research, such as on accident statistics, and social theory, such as Durkheim’s Division du travail social with the idea of organic solidarity, that immediately underlay this change. Thus, a new form of social knowledge, in the German context sometimes indeed called an empirical philosophy of right, permitted the reconceptualization of the social bond. As a consequence of that reconceptualization, policy change became possible.

Class Society and Post-revolutionary Liberalism

At the time of the introduction of so-called ‘early social policies,’ an active and more or less self-conscious working class existed in all somewhat industrialized European societies. The political connection between the demands of this class and those social policies has been an important issue for the historical sociology of the welfare state. Not pursuing this particular question further here, I will again move a step historically backwards and look at the formation of the working class. The traditional perspective, in this case largely shared by both Marxists and modernization theorists, held that it is the commonality of their situation, la condition ouvrière, that created the class-consciousness of the working class, which, in turn, endowed this particular social group with both social visibility and potential agentiality (Katznelson, 1986). If one takes a closer look at the 1830s and 1840s, when the term ‘working class’ became rapidly adopted in roughly its later sense, such a reasoning is, however, not very plausible in light of the relatively small number of people concerned and the wide heterogeneity of their actual social and working situations.

For France, it has been shown in some detail that a reinterpretation of a key political philosophy, namely the discourse of the French Revolution, with a view to creating a collective actor had an important role in bringing the working class into being (Sewell, 1980). Again to sketch the process all too briefly: the revolutionary discourse was available as a resource for workers to place themselves and their demands in the political context of the time. It enabled them to point to the one-sidedness of the prevailing interpretation, namely with an emphasis on individual liberty at the expense of equality and fraternity. Empirically, then, they could show that such application of the discourse led to greater inequality, and that people in certain situations were particularly likely to suffer from that bias. As a consequence, they reinterpreted fraternity in terms of the right to form associations to defend themselves against the bias—contra the French republican ideology that did not want any mediators between the individual and the polity. Those who were to associate were from then on ‘the workers,’ whose foremost commonality was to suffer from the prevailing reading of the revolutionary discourse, and fraternity became solidarity.

Inventing the French Revolution

After having said all this, the final step of this historical review certainly needs to be the French Revolution itself. Similar to the historical moments of rupture and innovation already discussed, the French Revolution had hitherto been analysed in socio-economic or in politico-institutional terms. In the former view, it is seen as the seizure of power of the bourgeoisie as the rising class under increasingly capitalist conditions. In the latter, the emphasis is on the centralization and rigidity of a central state that was unable to understand, much less adapt to, societal changes. More recently, however, historical sociologists and intellectual historians—the boundaries are here entirely blurred—such as William Sewell and Keith Michael Baker have critically followed up on Franéois Furet’s (1983) attempt at ‘thinking the French Revolution’ with its central focus upon political ideas. In his controversy with Theda Skocpol, Sewell (1994) insisted that conceptual revolutions occurred in French political language during the closing decades of the eighteenth century without which numerous events in the course of the Revolution could not be understood. He summarized these changes as a transformation of metaphysical presuppositions of social and political life. While the Revolution was certainly also a peasant revolt, as Skocpol emphasized, it was at the same time a major ‘conceptual transformation’ (Sewell, 1994: 181). Keith Michael Baker (1990) similarly concluded methodologically for his own work that the ideas of the Revolution cannot be regarded as a ‘third level’ of social life, next to socio-economic and politico-institutional factors, but that they were indeed constitutive for the social order.

Language and Interpretation Between Historical Sociology and Political Philosophy

What conclusions can we draw from the brief review of these studies for a historical sociology that is conscious of the use of language in history? One set of conclusions responds to the theoretical problématique inherent to the challenge of the linguistic turn: what does it mean to bring concern for language into historical analysis in general? But another set of conclusions should also address the substantive outcome: what will a historical sociology of capitalism and democracy look like if it takes language seriously?

As to the first set of issues, we may note, responding to Skocpol, that, while there may be long-term ‘fundamental processes of change,’ these are not adequately analysed as the determinate result of any constellations (or articulations) of large-scale structures.’ This is so for two main reasons. First, rather than large-scale structures extending over grand spaces and long stretches of time (and this is what large-scale is supposed to mean in structural historical sociology), it is precisely the work of concepts, that is, of phenomena of language, that stabilizes social phenomena across space and time. This is what I take to be one of the most important insights of Koselleck’s work, and in a modified way it can be found in Foucault as well. Concepts homogenize situations—and social transformations are then reinterpretations of situations by means of conceptual change. Such reinterpretation, though, secondly, is the ‘conceptual work’ of actors that leads from one historical situation to the one that succeeds it. This, contra Foucault, and at least pointing to a relative neglect in Koselleck’s approach, is what we can take from Skinner’s perspective.

The second set of issues needs to identify the substantive specificities of the last quarter of a millennium of the history of social configurations. Most broadly, we can possibly say that in a context of ‘modernity,’ that is, for the purposes here, a context in which autonomy, self-determination, is a political value, institutions are in need of justification, of a justificatory discourse that underpins their rules and their ways of distributing resources. Political action, at least when it has to be public action, thus supports itself by recourse to such discourses of justification. In the examples on which I drew we have seen that, on the one hand, the broad post-Enlightenment discourse around the French Revolution provided one major such resource. On the other hand, though, for reasons not discussed here (but see Wagner, 1994; 2001b), that discourse tended to be reduced to a mere emphasis on individual liberty as one, but only one, expression of the idea of autonomy. Later discursive struggles could then be read as situation-specific contestations of the hegemony of such discourse of individual liberty.

In those struggles, indeed in all examples selected, discursive action turned out to be transforming a political constellation. It did so by providing new justifications in—‘empirical’ contexts of situations that were analysed as problematic. Or in other words, a conceptual-linguistic transformation is created and proposed with a view to handling a new and problematic situation.

In the social and human sciences today—that means, over the past twenty years or so—a historical sociology that does not succeed in escaping from the determinist heritage of mainstream sociology (see Manent, 1993) exists alongside a political philosophy that does not succeed in moving away from its tradition of abstract theorizing, of theorizing at a distance from any specific situation (the early Rawls, 1971, being the most central—and influential—example). The linguistic turn on its own—that is, within the tradition of philosophy, be it analytical, hermeneutic or post structuralist—has never come close to addressing the questions raised in the older tradition of a historical sociology that wanted itself to be political theorizing at the same time. However, there is a slim chance of a post-linguistic-turn historical sociology that could alter this intellectual constellation. Such historical sociology would analyse the use of language as an interpretative intervention in the restructuring of problematic situations. As such, it would acquire the potential to link historical sociology again to political philosophy and to develop a novel social and political science that to me seems to be urgently needed—for general intellectual reasons, but also because currently, and problematically, we may be experiencing a historical transformation that we have not yet succeeded in interpreting appropriately.