How to Rethink the Global History of Knowledge Making from a Central European Perspective

We are publishing this article in conjunction with the conference Empire of Circulation: Habsburg Knowledge in Its Global Setting.

Empire of Circulation

The Habsburg Monarchy constituted a linguistic, religious, and legal patchwork that was conditioned both by its internal diversity and the region’s centuries-long imbrications and entanglements with the adjacent Ottoman, Spanish, and Holy Roman Empires. It was what Mary Louise Pratt has called a “contact zone,” one that bred innovation.1 Moreover, Central European scholars and scientists creatively grasped and shaped the religious and linguistic plurality of the Habsburg imperial polity, and they did so by entangling their region with the wider world.2 They tweaked, deracinated, and readjusted practices across contexts. They compared, translated, and amalgamated bodies of knowledge, unfolding a set of activities and processes that recent historians of knowledge have termed “circulation.”

Since the 2000s, “circulation” has turned into a key concept for the study of knowledge regimes.3 While previous scholarship sought to assign a clearly defined locality to science-making, studies by historians like Kapil Raj, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, and Simon Schaffer emphasize that knowledge fabrication happens translocally. No place is an island; there is no pristine, pure, primeval knowledge lodged in a single place of origin. “Circulation,” in Kapil Raj’s use of the term, implies that “interactions are themselves a locus of knowledge construction.”4

Here we deploy these most recent advances in the history of knowledge circulation in order to place Central European knowledge production afresh in its global settings. We do not thereby wish to surreptitiously promote the global-historical significance of Central Europe as an end in itself. Instead, we believe that integrating Habsburg Central European history into the global history of knowledge will enable us to rethink some of the latter’s governing premises. Our research initiative seeks to rediscover Habsburg Central Europe as a catalyst and clearinghouse for the circulation of people, goods, ideas, and practices in order to build a framework for rethinking the global history of knowledge making. In pursuing this agenda, we need to constantly follow and blend two trajectories of inquiry: the global ingredient in Central Europe and the Central European lineaments of world history. We contend that this approach cannot merely be applied to the Habsburg constellation but that the Central European configuration can be used to enrich and further refine the conceptual toolkit being developed by historians of knowledge making.

Interactions on Site

Fig. 1  This 1795 portrait of Bernhard von Tschoffen, mastermind of the Wiener Neustadter Canal, exudes civic pride. Tschoffen had himself painted with a pommelled stick and velvety purple frock by Heinrich J. Füger, one of the most eminent portraitists of his age. Courtesy of Belvedere, Vienna.

Our focus on interaction helps us to move beyond the benignly mellifluous language of self-propelled global-historical “flows” or “transfers.”5 While talk of “transfers” evokes the shipping of readymade packages of ideas, emphasizing circulation makes us aware of the constant reconfigurations that occur in small-scale transactions, thus enabling us to locate the situated prerequisites, linkages, feedback loops, and obstacles that fostered or curbed exchange. Focusing on circulation also permits us to avoid a rose-colored image of exchange as a hierarchy-free, reciprocal symbiosis. Instead of tracing the paper trails of epistolary networks, we can bring power and materiality to bear on the study of knowledge systems and unearth multiple interlaced social, religious, and technological histories.

These advantages can be thrown into relief by looking at the project of a canal between Vienna and the free port of Trieste, hatched in the 1790s by the Wiener Neustadt coal craftsmens’ guild. Actively concocted by the versatile wholesaler Bernhard von Tschoffen and the Lorraine-trained military engineer Sebastian von Maillard, the canal scheme became the core business of a chartered imperial stock corporation (Figs. 1 and 3).

Fig. 2  Statue of the Egyptian scribe and priest Chai-hapi, discovered during the excavations for the Wiener Neustadt Canal. Dating from the second half of the nineteenth dynasty (ca. 1250 to 1200 B.C.E.), the statue shows Chai-hapi wearing an apron, a wig, and a sistrum used in worship of the goddess Hathor. Courtesy of Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, KHM-Museumsverband

Tschoffen and Maillard were sent to Britain to study watergates, spall drains, and sewage slicks. There they tested narrowboats and towing equipment before bringing English hydraulic engineers to the foothills of the Alps.6 In 1799, the excavation works for the canal yielded evidence of Vienna’s entwined oriental and classical pasts, uncovering a statue of the Egyptian scribe and priest Chai-hapi that had once adorned a temple of Vindobona (Fig. 2). While the Central European canal project was foiled by the crevices and crumbly geological formation of the karst in the hinterland of Trieste, the modest Lower Austrian leftover of the grand scheme, located between the Alpine foothills and Vienna, became a vital avenue traveled by a completely different group of beneficiaries: Protestant log drivers who originally came from Upper Austrian Gosau and harvested the giant forests of the Rax. These ingenous raftsmen, who founded a Lutheran community at Naßwald, supplied sprawling Vienna with firewood, while the canal itself fed the water wheels of Vienna’s canon foundries and metal works, drove the screw press of the imperial mint, and irrigated Prince Metternich’s private garden.7

Conceptual Benefits

Why does the study of circulation seem particularly congenial to historians of the Habsburg lands? Habsburg Central Europe was the locus of intensified encounter and exchange. What unfolded there was a remarkable interlocking and clustering of actors’ networks in a plurireligious and multilingual setup with mediators, brokers, and go-betweens who jostled on all echelons of the imperial polity.8 The work of these intermediaries linked ostensibly domestic levels of circulation to each other as well as to regional and global systems. The focus on circulation is so valuable precisely because it permits us to rediscover hidden interactions, vanished realities obfuscated by national historians, who sliced the history of the empire into self-contained patrimonies.9 Prioritizing circulation can thus help us to better understand the internal workings of the monarchy and recover its enmeshment with the world.

But what about the history of knowledge as such? What can the study of Habsburg Central Europe offer for the further conceptualization of the global history of knowledge? This question can be answered in both temporal and methodological terms.

Until recently, students of knowledge circulation have been chiefly concerned with the early modern age, conjuring a vivid cast of pirates and merchants, printers of purloined manuscripts, shamans and spice traders. Our approach broadens the temporal scope, expanding it into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It addresses the impact of modern institutions (associations, business enterprises, research initiatives based on public-private partnerships) on circulation while also shedding new light on the relationship between empires and nations. We seek to retrieve the interplay between imperial knowledge making and nationalized science, the circulation-based techniques of statebuilding nations patterned after imperial models, as well as (for the twentieth century) the scientific, legal, and sociocultural legacies of empire in the nations emerging from its shambles.10

Finally, let us consider two methodological aspects. If circulation is a basic feature of knowledge production, why was it then glossed over by historiography for so long? If we survey the history of the humanities since the eighteenth century, we can identify a sustained strategy of disentanglement that made science and scholarly culture the exclusive product of the West, which transferred them to emulative populations beyond the North Atlantic. This disentanglement had vast consequences not only for the large parts of human history it thereby rendered illegible but also for the methods of the humanities: Upon closer inspection, a strange continuity links imperial and post-imperial paradigms. The agendas of both imperialist and post-imperial self-authentication presupposed the existence of neatly confined, autarkic cultures and encouraged the study of their respective perceptions or representations.11 We question the status of such representations of the exotic other by exposing how these imaginaries are the result of previous encounters, that is, are co-produced. Culturally encoded differences no longer appear as immovable barriers but can be read as products of the prior interactive processes they occlude.

Fig. 3  Cajetan Schiefer’s detailed 1831/32 plan of the canal mouth shows the sluice and fulling mill located where the Wiener Neustadt Canal flowed into the Wien River. Source: Detailplan des Hauptkanales vom Schiffahrtshafen in der Walke bei der Stubentorbrücke, Wiener Stadt- und Landesarchiv,

The Central European material amplifies this point: The region’s epistemic toolkit was conditioned by its pluricultural situation, which required pragmatic first-hand transactions in multilingual and multi-religious lifeworlds. A significant number of Habsburg savants encountered as neighbors and co-citizens those whom British, German, and French scholars chose to idolize or orientalize, for example, Greeks and Ottomans. This led to a specific, interaction-based variety of the reception of ancient Greece and to a form of orientalism that cannot be conflated with the British or French models.12 By historicizing the cultural techniques of representation, we can unearth the histories of interaction that conditioned them.

The final key methodological dimension concerns the crucial role of imperial diversity and its cognitive management, that is, the capacity to mold the coexisting and overlapping lifeworlds of Central Europe with their respective languages and practices. We propose to understand imperial diversity not as a mere backdrop setting or framing cue, but instead as a hotbed of conceptual and practical innovation as well as one of the chief subjects these innovative efforts grappled with. Salient examples for this cognitive diversity management include Hans Kelsen’s Pure Theory of Law, Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis, Julius Hann’s pathbreaking world climate research, Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek’s concept of a liberal economic world order, and the Vienna Circle’s neo-positivist philosophy of science.13 All of these cases illuminate how the circulation of knowledge and the processing of imperial diversity shaped the Habsburg Empire’s knowledge order. They also suggest that the emerging knowledge was particularly amenable to globalization, which brings us to our concluding point: The conceptual tools produced in the empire linked its local pluralism to global concerns, and it was precisely this nexus that gave the Central European epistemic portfolio its worldwide resonance.

Franz L. Fillafer and Johannes Feichtinger are researchers at the Institute of Culture Studies and Theatre History (IKT), Austrian Academy of Sciences, Vienna. Their specializations include the history of science and scholarship, intellectual history, and Habsburg history.

  1. See Mary Louise Pratt, “Arts of the Contact Zone,” Profession (1991): 33-40, ↩︎
  2. See Moritz Csáky, “Culture as a Space of Communication,” in Understanding Multiculturalism: The Habsburg Central European Experience, ed. Johannes Feichtinger and Gary B. Cohen, (Oxford: Berghahn Books 2014), 187–208. ↩︎
  3. Lynn K. Nyhart, “Historiography of the History of Science,” in A Companion to the History of Science, ed. Bernhard Lightman (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons and Blackwell 2016), 7–22. More recently, see also Johan Östling et al., eds., Circulation of Knowledge: Explorations into the History of Knowledge (Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2018). ↩︎
  4. Kapil Raj, “Beyond Postcolonialism… and Postpositivism: Circulation and the Global History of Science,” Isis 104 (2013): 342–43. ↩︎
  5. Franz L. Fillafer, “A World Connecting? From the Unity of History to Global History,” History and Theory 56 (2017): 3–37. ↩︎
  6. Valerie Else Riebe, Der Wiener Neustädter Schiffahrtskanal: Geschichte eines niederösterreichischen Bauwerkes von seinem Entstehen bis zur Gegenwart nach archivalischen Quellen (Wiener Neustadt: Gutenberg, 1936). ↩︎
  7. See Fritz Lange, Vom Dachstein zur Rax: Auf den Spuren von Georg Hubmer (Erfurt: Sutton Verlag 2007), 60–61; Gerhard A. Stadler, Das industrielle Erbe Niederösterreichs: Geschichte, Technik, Architektur (Vienna: Böhlau 2006), 493. ↩︎
  8. On go-betweens, see Simon Schaffer, Lissa Roberts, Kapil Raj, James Delbourgo, eds., The Brokered World: Go-Betweens and Global Intelligence, 1770–1820 (Sagamore Beach: Watson Publishing International 2009). ↩︎
  9. Sanjay Subrahmanyam, “Du Tange au Gange au XVIe siècle: Une conjoncture millénariste à l’échelle eurasiatique,” Annales: Histoire Sciences Sociales 56, no. 1 (2001): 83. ↩︎
  10. See, for example, Mitchell G. Ash and Jan Surman, eds., The Nationalization of Scientific Knowledge in the Habsburg Empire, 1848–1918 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan 2012); Pieter M. Judson, “‘Where our Commonality is Necessary’: Rethinking the End of the Habsburg Monarchy,” Austrian History Yearbook 48 (2017): 6; Sayaka Chatani, Nation-Empire: Ideology and Rural Youth Mobilization in Japan and its Colonies (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press 2018). ↩︎
  11. See Sanjay Subrahmanyam, “Par-delà l'incommensurabilité: Pour une histoire connectée des empires aux temps modernes,” Revue d'histoire moderne et contemporaine 54 (2007): 35; Jürgen Osterhammel, Unfabling the East: The Enlightenment’s Encounter with Asia, trans. R. Savage (Princeton: Princeton University Press 2018). ↩︎
  12. Wendelin Schmidt-Dengler, “Grillparzer liest Euripides. Notizen zu einem ungewöhnlichen Lektürevorgang,” Jahrbuch der Grillparzer-Gesellschaft, 3rd series, 18 (1992): 329–340; Johannes Feichtinger, “‘Orientalistik’ in the late Habsburg Monarchy between Imperial Pragmatism and ‘Pure’ Scholarship,” in Science and Empire in Eastern Europe, ed. Jan Arend (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 2020). ↩︎
  13. See Franz L. Fillafer, “Imperial Diversity, Fractured Sovereignty, and Legal Universals: Hans Kelsen and Eugen Ehrlich in their Habsburg Context,” forthcoming in Modern Intellectual History; Peter Gay, Freud: A Life for our Time (New York: Norton 1987); Deborah Coen, Climate in Motion: Science, Empire, and the Problem of Scale (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2018); Qinn Slobodian, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press 2018); Johannes Feichtinger, Franz L. Fillafer, and Jan Surman, eds., The Worlds of Positivism: A Global Intellectual History, 1770–1930 (New York: Palgrave 2018). ↩︎
Suggested Citation: Franz L. Fillafer and Johannes Feichtinger, “How to Rethink the Global History of Knowledge Making from a Central European Perspective,” History of Knowledge, October 9, 2019,