skip to main contentskip to main menuskip to footer Universität Bielefeld Play Search
  • E01

    Terms of Comparing. The Semantics of Comparison (16th – 21st Centuries)

    Eine Fotografie des Historikers Reinhart Koselleck
    © Bildarchiv Foto Marburg / Reinhart Koselleck

E01 (C03) | Terms of Comparing. The Semantics of Comparison (16th – 21st Centuries)


The project examines the semantics and practical applications of ‘comparison vocabulary’ and comparison performing sentences from the onset of the early modern period through to the present. Methodologically, the project applies established approaches of conceptual history and argumentation-analysis in combination with new tools of digital historical semantics (cooperation with Project INF). Geographically, the focus is placed on English-, German- and French-speaking communities with occasional excursions into other language areas. In the second phase, in-depth studies are conducted on:

(1) Claims of incomparability in discourses on God, love and such singular events as the Shoah (Kirill Postoutenko),

(2) Practices of comparing in the literary genres of utopias and dystopias (16th to the 21st centuries) (Michael Götzelmann),

(3) Practices of comparing in British and German parliamentary debates on social policies (20th century) (Olga Sabelfeld);

(4) Forms and functions of “outrageous comparisons”, namely, comparisons designed to provoke outrage in political and religious controversies (16th – 21st centuries) (Willibald Steinmetz, in cooperation with Ulrike Davy Project E03).

One of our guiding hypotheses for the case studies is the assumption that since around 1800 Western modernity has been characterised by a juxtaposition and opposition of three elementary modes of doing comparisons:

(1) analogies and parallels, being the dominant mode of comparison in the early modern period, continued to play a role in many practical contexts, but were often displaced from the 18th century onwards by

(2) “Progressive comparisons”, namely, comparisons that establish a hierarchy between the compared entities according to a scale of progressiveness or backwardness;  

at the same time, and as a challenge to modes (1) and (2), there was an increasing recourse to

(3) Assertions of fundamental otherness, sometimes verging towards claims of complete incomparability, the purpose of which was to contest the similarity/sameness assumptions or hierarchisations inherent in modes (1) and (2).

Project Management

© Philipp Ottendörfer

Willibald Steinmetz

© Philipp Ottendörfer

Kirill Postoutenko

Academic Co-worker

© Philipp Ottendörfer

Olga Sabelfeld

© Philipp Ottendörfer

Michael Götzelmann

back to top