After a complex integration process which has taken more than half a century, most Europeans – and non-Europeans – no longer identify Europe with simply an economic common market; yet the final political status of the European Union is still an open question. In general, Europe is usually regarded as the birthplace of a set of values claiming universal validity and serving as the basic political reference for citizens and institutions throughout the world. The emergence and spread of such significant concepts as Civilisation, Democracy, Liberalism, Parliamentarianism, (Human) Rights or Tolerance, for example, are generally associated with modern European history.
Although the capacity to devise concepts with a degree of coherence, flexibility and durability is common to all cultures, certain conceptual networks and patterns of conceptualization are defining features of the European culture. In this sense, Europeanness can be defined as a set both of concepts – including the very concept of Europe – shared by most Europeans, and of identifiable means of coining, articulating and using them in the public sphere by virtue of common experience.
Nevertheless, the obvious similarities between the vocabularies employed in different parts of Europe, even the apparent terminological uniformity that has prevailed for decades in the European Union, conceal significant disparities, disagreements and conceptual controversies, not only between languages, regions or countries, but also between speakers of the same language and between citizens of the same nation. As ordinary language philosophy has shown, it is impossible to assign words permanent and unambiguous meanings or to eliminate rhetoric from political life by establishing a repertoire of supposedly transparent and univocal concepts.
The need to reconsider the conceptual vocabulary emanating from, or associated with, Europe has become more pressing in view of a crucial shift in contemporary scholarship. It entails a move away from twentieth century teleological master narratives that assumed an inexorable drive towards rationalization, modernization and progress, towards a retreat from such path determinacy and the adoption instead of contingency, indeterminacy, fragility and openness as the more realistic hallmarks of social-political language and the concepts contained in such language.
Concepts have a history; but far from being a simple reflection of changing socio-political contexts, the conceptual matrices shape historical events and experiences. One of the main objectives of conceptual history is therefore to shed light upon the complex relationships between social and political change and semantic innovation, both in the short and medium term and during longer historical periods.
The social production and diffusion of abstract notions has grown considerably in recent centuries with the advent of modernity. Concepts such as Class, Revolution and State, Society, Individual, Communication, Progress, Crisis, Citizenship and many more have made their way, sometimes from very distant semantic fields, into ideological, scientific and constitutional
vocabularies, thus becoming irreplaceable, pivotal elements of political argument and action. Through the coinage and varied receptions of conceptual repertoires in European languages and countries, European cultures have gradually acquired their distinctive characteristics, whilst retaining and sharing a common substratum.