This article was
published by Sempringham in the new perspective journal
Sempringham eLearning resources The Study Centre About us Contact us
By Gilbert Pleuger
new perspective Vol 8, No 3
Twenty-three concepts’ articles have been published in new perspective since 1995 and are available, open access, on history-ontheweb.co.uk. Concepts are in your exam specifications and they appear frequently in textbooks. It is timely to give some consideration to the idea of concepts.
Concepts and communication
It started with Aristotle, it may be said, as did so much with the way we think in the West. Aristotle wrote that, to gain knowledge of the world, we create categories as a form of classification: in other words, we put objects into classes or sets. Once our experience of the world is in classes or sets we can explore the relations between different objects.
By placing an object in a category or class we assert that it has certain qualities common to objects in that category or class. If, for example, I point to an object and say ‘that is a table’ I claim the object has table qualities (and not three-legged stool qualities). The object is the object, the word ‘table’ is a concept (of tableness) that Man has created and agreed upon. The qualities of tableness can be said to include a flat surface area in the horizontal plane held above floor or ground level by vertical supports (usually legs) at a height such that a person is able to sit, or stand, at it. It is important to note that there are several, about five, parts to this simple tableness concept. The concept of table is, so to say, adjacent in its qualities, to coffee table and coffee table is adjacent to four-legged stool.
In everyday life what constitutes tableness is not made explicit but people have a general rule-of-thumb idea and this is sufficient for everyday discourse. The use of concepts pervades language and, by providing short cuts in communication, speeds expression and understanding. To detail every assumption contained in communication would take a very, very long time and it would be endlessly tedious. Sometimes, however, especially with study, the elements that define a concept should be explored. The concepts favoured by historians are usually a lot more complicated than the concept of table. As a rule, it can be taken that the more generalised a concept is, the more complicated will be the properties and the more likely that sometimes it will be incorrectly applied. If we turn to the concept of industrialisation complication is evident. What are the key parts of the concept? When it can be justifiably and usefully used may create debate and disagreement among historians. Similar but different concepts need particular attention. Students need to identify the difference between revolution and coup d’état; socialist and communist; capitalism and liberalism; democracy and representative government; dictatorial and totalitarian rule.
Historians, History study and concepts
Historians use concepts a great deal. Sometimes they apply them to characterise what they claim are linked sequences of events. In this way concepts such as industrialisation, total war, decolonisation and e-economy are created and applied to complicated situations. Sometimes concepts are used loosely to label a period of history. This can be a trap for the unwary because of the attribution of qualities that should not be seen as exclusive and of an even importance over the specified time.
As an illustration of the prevalence of concepts consider this unexceptional passages from the last issue of new perspective [Vol 8, No 2, December 2002].
You will note the importance for the passage of the concepts of ‘attrition’, ‘total war’ and ‘trench tactics’.
What are the implications of this discussion for students? Better students, aware of the importance of English and expression and the need to use the most appropriate words, are mindful of what concepts are and their incorporation of several elements and the possibility of their misapplication. When uncertain of a concept, they will take the trouble to find a full discussion of a concept’s meaning. They will be alert to those concepts that are similar but different.
With the foregoing discussion, and the meaning of the relevant concepts in mind, consider these questions. Was de Gaulle a principled follower of a political programme, a nationalist or a chauvinist? Were the events in October 1917 in Russia a coup d’état, a revolution or a replacement of government because of a power vacuum?