From Cultural History to the History of Knowledge

The history of knowledge is flourishing. Exciting conferences are being arranged, new institutional arrangements are emerging, and a whole range of fresh studies are being published. German-speaking scholars have led the way by proclaiming that Wissensgeschichte (the history of knowledge) is something different than Wissenschaftsgeschichte (the history of science and scholarship), and in the 2010s the field has started to attract considerable attention in other countries and contexts too.1

How should we interpret the appeal of the history of knowledge? Why are historians and other scholars suddenly drawn to the field? And what are the roads that have led them there? An initiative from the Nordic countries could shed light on these questions.

In a newly established Nordic Network, we have gathered researchers from Sweden, Norway, and Finland to develop the history of knowledge and discuss its empirical, historiographical, theoretical, and methodological implications. The members of the network come from different historical subdisciplines. Even though most of us share an interest in the character of and conditions for knowledge in society at large, we have diverse reasons for embracing the history of knowledge.

For historians of science or medicine, for example, the history of knowledge seems to offer a refashioning of traditional objects of inquiry and a broadening of this history’s context. For those with a background in intellectual history or the history of the university, the widening of scope is similarly welcome, and so is the introduction of new methods and frameworks, for instance, the mediality and materiality of knowledge.

Most of the network’s members, however, are trained as cultural historians in a broad sense. Just like in many other regions of the world, cultural history has been the dominant historiographical current in the Nordic countries since at least the late 1990s. With its emphasis on constructions, concepts, worldviews, images, narratives and discourses, cultural history has enriched historical writing and opened up new vistas. But today, as we approach the 2020s, the new cultural history is not so new anymore. This is as true in the Nordic countries as anywhere else.

The first reason why the history of knowledge seems to appeal to so many of us has to do with this very circumstance: the history of knowledge stands for something new without necessarily breaking with the fundamental assumptions of cultural history. In this way, the history of knowledge is a response to the general call to renew or revitalize cultural history that has been heard in the 2010s.2 Peter Burke’s trajectory is illuminating in this case. He was an early proponent of both cultural and media history but has in recent years published several books on the history of knowledge.3

Second, the history of knowledge provides a broad, albeit not all-encompassing, object of study. This is attractive for many cultural historians because it narrows down the subject matter and sharpens the analytical focus. In contrast to historians of science, medicine, or the book, cultural historians are not in need of widening their scope or scaling up their studies. On the contrary, there is a need to move beyond sweeping generalizations and delimit scholarly inquiry in order to foster more precise investigations.

Third, the emerging analytical concept “circulation of knowledge” has attracted substantial attention among cultural historians in the Nordic countries and beyond.4 We ourselves have proposed that this concept might make it possible to distinguish the history of knowledge from neighboring fields such as intellectual history and the history of science. By closely examining how knowledge is set in motion in society at large, and how it is continuously molded in this very process, the concept of circulation can substantiate a shift of analytical focus—from the study of production and origins of knowledge towards its broader social settings and political consequences.5

Fourth, the history of knowledge alters the historiographical landscape and enables cultural historians to look at the past from a new perspective. This is especially true if deliberate priority is given to the societal circulation of knowledge. Such a history will not revolve around situating scientific discoveries or searching for intellectual precursors; rather, it will center on processes and moments where various bodies of knowledge have become societally significant. The history of climate change knowledge, for example, will not start in the eighteenth century, when the first scientists made their observations. Instead, it will focus on how the issue emerged as a public and political concern in the late 1980s.6

Last but not least, the history of knowledge invites scholars to take an active part in some of the pressing issues of our time by providing historical points of reference. Today, the status of knowledge is fundamentally contested. On the one hand, political and economic aspirations are closely bound up with institutions of knowledge. On the other hand, leading politicians question scientific truths, and so-called alternative facts are abundant in the new media landscape.

Against this background, it behooves us to scrutinize knowledge itself and its place in other chronological contexts. As an intellectual enterprise, the raison d’être of the history of knowledge is ultimately to strengthen our ability to reflect on of one of life’s fundamental issues: the role of knowledge in society.

Johan Östling is Associate Professor of History and Pro Futura Scientia Fellow at Lund University and the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study (SCAS) in Uppsala, Sweden.

David Larsson Heidenblad holds a PhD in History and works as a postdoctoral researcher at Lund University, Sweden.

  1. Peter Burke, What is the History of Knowledge? (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016); Simone Lässig, “The History of Knowledge and the Expansion of the Historical Research Agenda,” Bulletin of German Historical Institute 59 (Fall 2016): 29–58; Daniel Speich Chassé, “The History of Knowledge: Limits and Potentials of a New Approach,” History of Knowledge, April 3, 2017.  ↩
  2. See, for instance, James W. Cook, Lawrence B. Glickman, and Michael O’Malley, eds., The Cultural Turn in U.S. History: Past, Present, and Future (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009); Sasha Roseneil and Stephen Frosh, eds., Social Research after the Cultural Turn (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012); and a number of the contributions in “AHR Forum: Historiographic ‘Turns’ in Critical Perspective,” American Historical Review 117, no. 3 (2012): 698–813.  ↩
  3. Peter Burke, A Social History of Knowledge: From Gutenberg to Diderot (Cambridge: Polity, 2000); Peter Burke, A Social History of Knowledge: From the Encyclopédie to Wikipedia (Cambridge: Polity, 2012); Peter Burke, What is the History of Knowledge?; and Peter Burke, Exiles and Expatriates in the History of Knowledge, 1500–2000 (Waltham, Massachusetts: Brandeis University Press/Historical Society of Israel, 2017).  ↩
  4. James Secord, “Knowledge in Transit,” Isis 95 (2004); Kapil Raj, Relocating Modern Science: Circulation and the Construction of Knowledge in South Asia and Europe, 1600–1900 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007); and Philipp Sarasin and Andreas Kilcher, “Editorial,” Nach Feierabend: Zürcher Jahrbuch für Wissensgeschichte 7 (2011): 7–11.  ↩
  5. Johan Östling and David Larsson Heidenblad, “Cirkulation – ett kunskapshistoriskt nyckelbegrepp,” Historisk tidskrift 137, no. 2 (2017): 269–84; and David Larsson Heidenblad, “Mapping a New History of the Ecological Turn: The Circulation of Environmental Knowledge in Sweden 1967,” Environment and History (forthcoming), preprint available at Moreover, a number of scholars from the Nordic network are currently working on an edited volume that explores circulations of knowledge. The book is scheduled for release in 2018.  ↩
  6. Mike Hulme, “The Public Life of Climate Change,” in Exploring Climate Change through Science and in Society: An Anthology of Mike Hulme’s Essays, Interviews and Speeches (London: Routledge, 2013), 1–12.  ↩
Suggested citation: Johan Östling and David Larsson Heidenblad, “From Cultural History to the History of Knowledge,” History of Knowledge, June 8, 2017,