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?

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History of Knowledge Forum in GHI Bulletin

The Fall 2016 issue of the free access GHI Bulletin includes a thematic forum on the history of knowledge with the following three articles:

For more on this image, see p. 30 of Simone Lässig’s article.

Welcome to ‘History of Knowledge’

Knowledge does not simply exist, awaiting discovery and use. Knowledge is produced, adapted, forgotten, rejected, superseded, expanded, reconfigured, and more—always by human beings (at least in this more-or-less pre-AI age), alone or in communities, always in culturally, socially, economically, and institutionally specific contexts.

Knowledge is central to most purposeful human practices, whether at work, in the family, or for worship, whether implicitly or explicitly, whether passed down by hands-on training or through books and other storage and retrieval systems. Both product and basis of human interactions, knowledge has a history. Indeed, human history cannot be understood apart from the history of knowledge.

This blog aims to serve as a venue for the exchange of ideas and information on the history of knowledge. It is currently managed by a small team at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC, but it desires contributions by and engagement with scholars working elsewhere.