Knowledge has long garnered the attention of historians, although their explicit focus has been primarily on science, scholarship, and professional or technical expertise. For a long time, a progress-obsessed notion of society’s inexorable scientification underlay this research interest. Processes of descientification or tendencies to marginalize knowledge received little attention. This lack of attention was also apparent for those forms of knowledge that guided practical and moral behavior or that were considered religious.1
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.
Commenting on his famous work Le Penseur, or The Thinker, a century ago, the French sculptor Auguste Rodin described his subject in terms of its utter (masculine) physicality. “What makes my Thinker think is that he thinks not only with his brain, with his knitted brow, his distended nostrils and compressed lips, but with every muscle of his arms, back, and legs, with his clenched fist and gripping toes.”1 Rodin’s corporeal Thinker embodies the tension between thought and action, spirit and body. It reminds us that thought and knowledge are crafted not only in one’s mind but though ones actions and experiences. Moreover, one’s physical existence impacts how one interacts with the world, how this knowledge is formed, and how it becomes manifest, that is, how one displays and conveys it.
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?
The Fall 2016 issue of the free access GHI Bulletin includes a thematic forum on the history of knowledge with the following three articles:
- “The History of Knowledge and the Expansion of the Historical Research Agenda” by Simone Lässig
- “Old and New Orders of Knowledge in Modern Jewish History” by Kerstin von der Krone
- “Data, Diplomacy, and Liberalism: August Ferdinand Lueder’s Critique of German Descriptive Statistics” by Anna Echterhölter
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.