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Presentation by Mark Algee-Hewitt on “Failed Concepts in the 18th Century”

On May 12th, 2021, Mark Algee-Hewitt presented on "Failed Concepts in the 18th Century".

The eighteenth century was a rich period for the emergence of concepts that we continue to grapple with today. Contemporary ideas such as “political justice,” or “human rights,” not only appeared in the conceptual framework of eighteenth-century political, social, or philosophical theory, but the terms themselves also became part of the cultural lexicon. These compound concepts, in which two pre-existing terms are brought together into a new configuration with a single, stable meaning, form a critical backbone of eighteenth-century thought. In this project, I have developed a new set of aligned vector models to trace the ways in which these kinds of concepts emerged within the eighteenth century. Working from the Eighteenth-Century Collections Online database, I explore how these models can trace the successful emergence and evolution of these concepts as their constituent terms collide in the discourse of the period. More importantly, however, my approach allows us to model failed concepts: points at which it appears that the same process should bring together disparate terms into a new compound concept, but in which a new concept fails to emerge, or the terms subsequently fall apart. These failed concepts not only allow us to better understand why certain combinations succeeded, but, also, for the first time, allow us to explore an unrealized history of concepts that could have happened, but didn’t.