Historical Semantics in a Transnational and Transdisciplinary Perspective: the Case of ‘Milieu’

Wolf FeuerhahnA lecture by CNRS researcher Wolf Feuerhahn, co-director of the Alexandre Koyré Center and the editor-in-chief of Revue d’histoire des sciences humaines, in the frame of the CEFRES Platform Lectures.

Language: English.

Venue : CEFRES, Národní 18, Prague 1, conference room, 7th floor.

Transnational History is nowadays a flourishing field of research. In the last ten years, history of concepts has been impacted by this historiographical turn. It lays much more focus than before on problems of transnational and transcultural resemantization of concepts. The emergence and success of new expressions like « traveling concepts » (Mieke Bal), « nomadic concepts » (Olivier Christin) are a good indicator of this situation

In my presentation, I suggest to go a step further in this direction. My methodological proposition will be based on the transnational history of the term milieu. Traveling from France to Germany, from history of literature to biology and sociology, the word milieu came to be identified as a French theory. It was seen as an expression of determinism, of the connection between the rise of the natural sciences and the rise of socialism. The vast majority of German academics rejected it ; they coined the term Umwelt  in strict opposition to the French word. But Umwelt was precisely retranslated into French as « milieu », becoming the flag of an antideterminist and postmodern philosophy (Deleuze). Through this case study, I would like to promote what I would term “transnational historical semantics” as opposed to the Koselleckian history of concepts and its a priori distinctions between words and concepts, and to reflect on how words are semantically affected by their transnational and crossdisciplinary destiny.