Historical concepts (such as citizenship, democracy, evolution, health, liberty, security, trust, etc.) are essential to our understanding of the past. The history of concepts is a well-established field of research for historians, philosophers and linguists alike. However, there is little agreement on the nature of conceptual change, continuity and replacement, or on the proper methodology to distinguish between core concepts and the marginal vocabularies that are attached to them in certain historical contexts. Currently the notion that concepts are stable unit-ideas that constitute the continuous foundation of changing historical debates, just as chemical elements can form different molecules, is being revaluated.

A tool that enables humanities researchers to mine the historical development of concepts

The scientific goal of this project is to develop a tool that enables humanities researchers to mine the historical development of concepts and the vocabulary with which they are expressed in big textual data repositories. Recent research suggests that vector representations derived by neural network language models offer new possibilities for obtaining high quality semantic representations from huge data sets.

 “Mining the historical development of concepts such as citizenship.”

Impressive progress has been made in tracing and mapping historical events and actors as well as past relations between actors and events. This project aims to go beyond these capabilities by establishing the structures of interpretation that emerge around these historical events, and the subsequent formation of collective meanings.

Digitized repositories of historical newspapers and magazines offer crucial empirical data to explore our historical heritage. Produced and controlled by social ‘gatekeepers’ such as journalists, editors and publishers, their information-rich content and audience-oriented nature ensure that they reflect and mediate public opinion in the societies that produce them.

Visualizing changing cultural concepts 

This project aims to make historically embedded cultural concepts visible in a way that enables researchers to trace the specific historicity of cultural concepts and their changes and continuities in meaning.

Image: View of Ancient Florence by Fabio Borbottoni. Emerging cities such as Florence gave people new opportunities to be a citizen of their city. Citizenship as a concept is difficult to define because it changes over space and time.

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