The issue raised here is perhaps not one which is exclusive to transnational history, but it is perhaps important to recognise due to the focus which transnational history places on “transcultural” and “transnational” actors.

‘The conceptual toolbox of the social sciences and humanities abstracted European history to create a model of universal development. Ostensibly analytical terms like “nation,” “revolution,” “society,” and “progress” transformed concrete European experience into a (universalistic) language of theory that presumably applied everywhere. Methodologically speaking, then, by imposing categories particular to Europe on everybody else’s past, the modern disciplines rendered all other societies colonies of Europe.[1]

                        By understanding, as Sebastian Conrad does above, that the definitions of terms are constructed, we realise that there is a need to not simply construct a picture of universality when conducting studies of regions, but that we must also examine the changing mentalities of nations within a region as concepts travel and disseminate transnationally. It could be rather Postmodernist to say that we all have our own individual experiences surrounding certain concepts which result in us all having totally different understandings of those concepts, but when applying this idea of separation in understanding to a national level, this idea becomes less of a philosophical conundrum and more of a philosophical foundation to our analysis. We all may have, as individuals, differing understandings of concepts, but when applying this to a national level we can identify the roles which a cultural environment plays in shaping our understandings of these concepts. Thus, by analysing the historical changes in people’s mentalities which occur when ideas and certain conceptualisations of certain terms bleed from one nation into others, we can start to decentralise the role which European academic language plays in our histories.

                        The solution, therefore, is to simultaneously ascend as well as fragment intellectual history from its current national, regional, and civilisational dimensions, to a potentially limitless in scope transnational area of linkages which allows us to identify the peculiarities and differences of individual nations while also capturing the avenues of connections and similarities between nations. For instance, “revolution” could mean one thing to the 19th Century German, and a totally different thing to the 19th Century Han. It could be the propensity for such an act, or it could be the conceptualisation of what the end goal of a “revolution” is which could differ: could it be to reconfigure the societal structures of the nation for economic purposes, or could it be about a spiritual-actualisation through political violence against a spiritual leader? In any case, the mentality surrounding the word “revolution” differs, but is there then convergence in these mentalities when the circulation of Marxist literature begins to occur amongst Chinese students? Does the victory of Mao Tse-tung correspond with an alignment in China to a Western conception of what “revolution” means? The never-ending semiological scrutiny which we can place these questions under can be overwhelming, but that should not deter us from employing intellectual history within transnational history.

                        Indeed, there are plenty of examples of such a transnational twist to intellectual history. Perhaps the most applicable example could be the Cambridge School of intellectual history. Quite aptly to this end, adherents to this school such as John Dunn or David Runciman have explored the changing mentalities surrounding such concepts as “democracy” across epochs. However, for identifying the changing mentalities surrounding concepts as they cross national boundaries it could be more beneficial to look at Quentin Skinner or J. G. A. Pocock. These historians are considered neither purely externalist nor entirely text-centred within the realm of intellectual history, but rather root the language surrounding ideas within its historical environment. They identify the economic and political structures and events which alter the perceptions of such ideas, and they investigate all types of texts within this period to understand how intellectuals understood such concepts, rather than simply prioritising the intellectual treatise which they wrote which would be similar to trying to understand Don Quixote without reading the chivalric novels it was satirising or analysing the American Declaration of Independence without reading the letters exchanged between its writers and their connections within Britain.

                        Ultimately, transnational history is an attempt at moving away from viewing the human experience as solely within the boundaries of a single culture, but it is not an attempt at universalising the human experience. Rather, transnational history is the celebration of our diversity while highlighting our connections and relationships to one another. Therefore, we should have a methodology which reflects this, and the analysis of language as it changes transculturally could give us an indication of the mentalities held by those which came before us and the connections, in similarities as well as dissimilarities, that these mentalities held with other mentalities.

[1] Sebastian Conrad, What Is Global History? (Princeton, 2016), <> [accessed: 31/01/2021], p. 4.

Lending Meaning to Words