September 1998




      Concept harmonisation strikes a discordant note

Editorial by Henrik Stenius

heku.jpg (3532 bytes)'Tolerance' is like all social and political key concepts that are applied in different ways in different cultures. The concept emerged as people became more aware of the enormous divergence in beliefs and practices. In the Nordic countries, the concept is related to the concept of patience: calm and peace is needed to bring less enlightened citizens to the monolithic family of enlightened citizens.

The concept of 'citizen' differs accordingly. In continental Europe, people are citizens because they have the same relation to the state, regardless of differences in social, ethnic and religious backgrounds. The Nordic people are citizens because they are similar in their Lutheran cultural background. The narratives of such concepts as 'tolerance' and 'citizens' as well as of all the other social and political key concepts are still rather speculative. They need to be more clearly defined and rooted in empirical research. This is what conceptual historians are attempting to do.

In June, the Finnish Institute arranged a conference for conceptual historians, the first of its kind, bringing together scholars from 13 countries. The scholars shared an awareness that concepts are used in different ways in different countries and a conviction that mutual understanding does not demand a harmonised set of key concepts.

There are specific language games where communication requires a determined harmonisation of concepts. Deciding on international judicial norms and arriving at political or economic international agreements, for instance, requires approval of the definition of the key concepts used, leaving as little room as possible for diverging interpretations.

But in other, more basic language games, where language is the everyday language we use to make mutual understanding possible, harmonisation of key social concepts makes mutual understanding much more difficult. The reason is obvious. Differences in social and cultural backgrounds produce different sets of concepts. To impose a universal set of key social concepts one has to create identical social environments. Attempts in this direction have so far failed and will continue to do so in the future.

Big nations count more than small, but in what way? When exploring corners of the European continent, conceptual historians always have to take into account the history of concepts in Germany, France, Italy and Britain, because the political systems of these nations have been especially influential. But conceptual history should also be used to show that small nations have created political and social systems of their own with the capacity to contradict efforts to talk about social solutions in very universal terms. What might be a good solution for one nation is not necessarily a good solution for another.

There are not many politicians today consciously formulating models for the whole world. Tony Blair, however, might be regarded as one of these rare cases, talking of Britain as a 'beacon'. The Finnish Institute thought that a more systematic consideration of this notion would be useful and so in May, it hosted a discussion entitled Blairism - A Beacon for Europe?

The Americans may like to describe the United States as an example for the rest of the world but do not use the rhetoric of a 'beacon' because, logically speaking, the country cannot be replicated for the simple reason that no other country can gain such global supremacy. In a roughly similar way, France prefers to highlight its magnificence instead of offering itself as a beacon. For historical reasons, Germany cannot describe itself as a beacon. And small nations lack the preconditions for nursing such ambitions.

However, the last statement is not entirely true. In the Nordic countries there is an undeniable eagerness to regard themselves as more modern than others. As long as they stay calm and show patience, the rest of the world will, according to their thinking, follow their example and so enter the monolithic family of enlightened citizens.

See also:


Index of back issues

Theuuslogo.jpg (2196 bytes) in London