The Limits of Book Learning

In 1737, the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus bitterly complained about the haphazard naming practices of his contemporaries. “The names bestowed on plants by the ancient Greeks and Romans I commend,” he wrote, “but I shudder at the sight of most of those given by modern authorities: for those are for the most part a mere chaos of confusion, whose mother is barbarity, whose father dogmatism, and whose nurse prejudice.”[1] But even after the many editions of Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae ostensibly brought order to the chaos of naming things in the natural world and structuring Western scientific understanding of it, the problem of accurately describing new natural phenomena persisted. Continue reading “The Limits of Book Learning”

What Rumors Have Taught Me about Knowledge

Rumors have interested me for a long time—not merely the occasional bits of chatter from my work life but rumors as historical phenomena. In my second semester of undergraduate studies, one of my professors mentioned in passing that the rumor about Christopher Columbus’s return from his first voyage travelled from the Iberian Peninsula to Paris faster than the actual messenger dispatched with the news. Although I have never found any confirmation of that story, it continues to resonate. With that professor’s comment, I began saving any article about rumors I ran across to my computer for future use. Continue reading “What Rumors Have Taught Me about Knowledge”

Spreading the Good News: International Family-Planning Activism and Grassroots Information Networks in the 20th Century

In August 1939, the newly formed Jamaica Birth Control League opened the island’s first birth control clinic in Kingston to distribute diaphragms at cost or free to working-class women. To advertise their services, the League published a small, discreet notice in the “Wanted” section of the Daily Gleaner, the island’s main newspaper. Within a year, some 500 women had written passionate letters to the League from across the island; thousands more would show up at the clinic’s doorstep, eager to seize on new methods for controlling reproduction. Continue reading “Spreading the Good News: International Family-Planning Activism and Grassroots Information Networks in the 20th Century”

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. Continue reading “From Cultural History to the History of Knowledge”