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In liberal economic thought, debating the “good society” was particularly prominent in the middle decades of the twentieth century, a period in which, as John Maynard Keynes (1883–1946) put it, people were “unusually expectant of a more fundamental diagnosis.” Good society here describes a normative horizon against which arguments are legitimized and toward which societies should strive. The term itself is mentioned rarely by economists. Mostly, they shared the notion that what is “good” cannot be defined in detail beyond the fact that it entails more than individual happiness and thus more than the hedonistic utilitarianism attached to the liberal tradition of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The project behind this book was unique, even idealistic. We wanted to bridge academic cultures and traditions. Not only that, we wanted to make the voices of historians heard in the debate about global studies and globalization, a debate seen by many almost as a natural, market-driven process. Things were much more complicated historically than is reflected in most approaches to, and operationalizations of, globalization theory. We all knew that – but could European and Asian historians really join intellectual forces? And, on top of that, in the field of conceptual history, a field traditionally dominated by a national and monolingual approach? Could we not only create a global spirit of intellectual curiosity and equality among all participants, but also give it a theoretical and methodological foundation by probing into a new field of historiography – one that could be called global conceptual history, to be practised as a transnational and multilingual historiography?
Just how different academic cultures are, both nationally and discipline-wise, reveals itself to everyone concerned once work really moves beyond the initial stages and the writing begins. We embarked on the project with a truly open spirit, and while some of the participants kept a critical distance or remained sceptical about the chances of actually producing a valid research output, most of us felt challenged and inspired by it. For everyone involved, this was a unique opportunity to learn.
This opening chapter provides a methodological and theoretical framework for this volume's case studies on Asian practices of semantic innovation and appropriation of concepts describing the social, the economic, and their related semantic fields. The enterprise of writing global conceptual history – and introducing it as a fruitful approach within the recently evolved field of global history – is complex and, in many ways, still uncharted territory. In what follows, I will develop the methodological and theoretical ingredients for a global conceptual approach in three main steps. First, global history is described as a field of historiography that embraces the perspectives and practices of transnational and entangled history. Second, conceptual history is introduced as a new approach within the field of global history and thus clad in a global and entangled gown. Necessary alterations to established practices in conceptual history follow from the new perspectives, and some consequences of this refreshed glance at concepts and their role are presented too. Third, method and approach are integrated into a theoretical framework of global modernity, and the contributions of this volume are presented and used as an example to illustrate the theoretical agenda. Through these three steps, global conceptual history is presented as a multilingual academic practice based on the notion of a polycentric rather than a nation-centric, Western-centric, or indeed anti-Western-centric approach.
Contributors to this volume explore the changing concepts of the social and the economic during a period of fundamental change across Asia. Case studies show how adopting Western words reflected regional concepts of economy and society. Overall, contributors challenge accepted explanations of how Western knowledge spread through Asia and show how versatile Asian intellectuals were in introducing European concepts and in blending them with local traditions.
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