Lazar Gulkovich: Writings on the History of Concepts (Edition)

In 1937, Lazar Gulkovich published “Zur Grundlegung einer begriffsgeschichtlichen Methode in der Sprachwissenschaft” [On the Foundations of a Conceptual Historical Method in Linguistics], the first monograph ever to mention the history of concepts in its title. Gulkovich, born in 1898 in the Russian Empire near Novogrudok, was initially a student of Talmud. After his studies and doctorate in Königsberg, he became a lecturer for history of late Judaism at Leipzig University until 1933. In exile in Tartu (Estonia) he held a chair position for Jewish studies, the only one of its kind in Europe at the time. In 1941, Gulkovich was murdered by German troops in Tartu.

Conceptual history helped Gulkovich establish a seamless tradition of Judaism. According to him, the Jewish people demonstrated how a culture without a state develops. He substantiated his conceptual history in various works on the concept of Hāsid (the pious, the just), working on the thesis of a continuous development of the concept from the Old Testament to Eastern European Hasidism. His Jewish-influenced approach was related to non-Jewish conceptual history in several respects.

The 1930s were an international threshold period for the development of conceptual history in various disciplines (Otto Brunner, Erich Rothacker, the Annales School and A.O. Lovejoy’s Great Chain of Being). At the same time, several intellectuals of Jewish descent (Karl Mannheim, Ludwik Fleck, Richard Koebner, Marc Bloch) drew far-reaching consequences from the historicity of concepts. But only Gulkovich consistently applied the history of concepts to Jewish intellectual and cultural history. In contrast to other contemporary scholars who emphasized the function of modernity as a threshold, he tried to show that there had been no rupture in Judaism. Almost simultaneously to the early research into Hasidism by Martin Buber, Simon Dubnow and Gershom Scholem, Gulkovich worked on the history of Hasidism in terms of conceptual history. For him, Hasidism was a spiritual as well as social, but non-state phenomenon which developed – historically speaking – in the Sattelzeit (1750–1850) examined by Koselleck. Gulkovich understood himself as a philologist as well as a sociologist, who also tried to describe the change of register of terms (for example, Hāsid originated as a theological category to later become an ethical and social category).

At the centre of the edition is Gulkovich’s “On the Foundations of a Conceptual Historical Method in Linguistics”. In addition, shorter texts or excerpts of other printed and unprinted materials will be published in an appendix.

This editorial work is part of the project European Traditions – Encyclopedia of Jewish Cultures of the Saxon Academy of Sciences in Leipzig, directed by Dan Diner, and will be carried out in collaboration with Annett Martini (FU Berlin). The volume will be published in the series Archive of Jewish History and Culture.


Fig. above: © Dirk Naguschewski

Funded by the Saxon Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Leipzig 2018–2021
Head researcher(s): Ernst Müller, in collaboration with Annett Martini (FU Berlin)


Ernst Müller