The History of Knowledge: Limits and Potentials of a New Approach

In the German humanities, the term Wissensgeschichte, or history of knowledge, is enjoying frequent use. Some years ago, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETHZ) and the University of Zurich created a Centre for the History of Knowledge or, as it is called in German, the Zentrum für Geschichte des Wissens (ZGW). Philosophers, historians of science and technology, and literary critics have joined forces. The Humboldt University of Berlin devoted a chair in cultural studies to the topic. Medieval scholars like Martin Kintzinger in Münster have made knowledge a core issue in their research and teaching. The University of Constance recently announced a full professorship in history with a special focus on “the history of knowledge in the humanities and social sciences.”1 German library catalogs render an increasing number of entries under the heading of “Wissensgeschichte.” What are the roots of this trend and where is it headed?

More than half a century ago, some intellectuals started to inquire into the role of knowledge in social formations. Cold War logics prevailed at the time. In the late 1950s, the French philosopher Raymond Aron identified a marked affinity between communist and capitalist social systems, of which, he emphasized, analysts on both sides of the Iron Curtain were well aware. He asserted that, for industrialized societies, “private property versus public ownership, anarchy of open market systems versus planning, capitalist exploitation versus equality: the three claims of socialist doctrine have largely lost their appeal.”2 He drew scholarly attention to the nexus of power and knowledge, and many intellectuals followed suit, including, for example, Michel Foucault in France and Daniel Bell in the United States.

Aron’s claim was in line with statements by other eminent sociologists on the organizational convergence of industrializing societies. The creation of wealth through mechanization was so obvious that these scholars started to focus on the conditions making it possible—knowledge and innovation. This move mirrored the “end of ideology” thesis that was being articulated at the time by Bell, among others. Social scientists in the Cold War era argued that industrial societies—regardless of their ideological grounds—were on the way to solving major social problems by technical means. Labor and capital were no longer a key issue in collective struggle. Some wondered about the coming of a “postindustrial society” in which the once historically strong forces of capital and labor were increasingly being replaced by computers, information technology, knowledge, and expertise. Organizational questions of how to raise economic productivity displaced the once heated debate over property ownership and the means of industrial production.3

German-speaking historians have been rather slow in responding to this analysis. Topics like class formation dominated their research agenda until a “cultural turn” caused their attention shift to the collective production of meaning in the early 1990s. Concurrently, a “practice turn” occurred in the historiography of science. What once was a highly specialized subdiscipline of intellectual history became a booming field, for example, at the Max-Planck-Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. Young scholars started to follow scientists into the material environments of their laboratories. Almost overnight, knowledge was everywhere, and practically everything was knowledge—culture, meaning, technology, popular assumptions, and systems of belief.

Today, in the German humanities, the history of knowledge touches a much broader field than the history of science and technology. It is more than intellectual history. It has become a general approach in the analysis of social change. How did scientific experts gain so much ground in politics in the twentieth century? Why, for example, did economists achieve a near monopoly in advising so many crucial collective decisions? What do societies hold to be “true” and how did truth claims change in the past? Interest in the history of knowledge is an expression of a current fundamental epistemic crisis. Expert advice, knowledge, and information have become central issues in global politics. We are overwhelmed with data. But their truth value is constantly being contested.

The potential value of the new history of knowledge approach lies in its concern with distinguishing between expertise and the exercise of power. The times of the 1960s, when experts went unquestioned, are no more. But the new approach also has limits. It lacks a clear-cut definition of its object. And it is far better in describing social change than in proposing sound explanation. The digital revolution is a major challenge to the study of old texts, books, and visual materials. Librarians have long since started to scan their holdings so that all human knowledge today seems to be at our fingertips. But nobody really knows what the humanities will look like in the digital age before us. One possible reaction to this technical challenge is to reflect more deeply upon the role of knowledge in modern society. This is not a new task, but it requires careful consideration and certainly more detailed historical research.

  1. Job advertisement for “Professur (W3) für Neuere Geschichte mit Schwerpunkt Wissensgeschichte der Geistes- und Sozialwissenschaften,” Universität Konstanz, Die Zeit, 23.03.2016, archived by WebCite at
  2. Quotation: Raymond Aron, Die industrielle Gesellschaft und die Drei Welten (Zurich, 1960), 15. 
  3. For more on these developments, see David C. Engerman, “To Moscow and Back: American Social Scientists and the Problem of Convergence,” in American Capitalism: Social Thought and Political Economy in the Twentieth Century, ed. Nelson Lichtenstein (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), 47–70.