Frederick the Great (1712–1786) was not a homosexual. Or so claimed the German physician and amateur medical historian Gaston Vorberg in 1921. Scurrilous rumors about the sexual desires of the legendary Prussian monarch had circulated ever since the eighteenth century. Vorberg sought to debunk them using the tools of critical scholarship and source analysis. In his essay "Gossip about the Sex Life of Frederick II," Vorberg defended the straightness of the king on the basis of his “long and arduous research.”
Continue reading “Queer Ancestry as a Problem of Knowledge in Early 20th-Century Germany”
T. S. Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions has had a profound and enduring impact on the social history of knowledge. It has provided an analytical template not only for the history of the natural sciences but also for the history of many other forms of systematic knowledge, including history itself. However, this very versatility has been an object of criticism. A central point of contention has been the central concept of a “paradigm,” which Kuhn understood to be (among other things) a “relatively inflexible box” of accepted scientific rules and procedures for defining and resolving research “puzzles,” whose solutions can be predicted and replicated. The question then becomes whether paradigms pertain uniquely to knowledge in the natural-science fields, in which the precise and regular operation of principles can be demonstrated experimentally. If so, the concept of paradigm becomes inappropriate as a guide to the history of humanistic disciplines (like history), in which issues of meaning and human value are central and knowledge is anchored in hermeneutic strategies of inquiry. The validity of paradigms is governed accordingly by the contrasting characteristics of the “two cultures” of knowledge.
The object of these reflections is not to contest this proposition. It is instead to emphasize that the distinction between the natural and what became known as the “human sciences” has a history of its own (and how could it not?). Continue reading “Kuhn and Lamprecht”
Marc Flandreau. Anthropologists in the Stock Exchange: A Financial History of Victorian Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.
Victorian London can be seen as multiple cities at once: the imperial metropole par excellence, where different political visions clashed in the course of establishing and governing the British Empire; the thumping heart of global capitalism, busily circulating capital from one corner of the world to another through its formal securities markets and in private deal-making; and the origin point of the modern network of interconnected “learned societies.” Flandreau, formerly of the University of Geneva and now the Howard Marks Chair of Economic History at the University of Pennsylvania, nimbly navigates the history of these three different Londons in Anthropologists in the Stock Exchange: A Financial History of Victorian Science. Continue reading “Technologies of Trust: Marc Flandreau’s Examination of Financial and Anthropological Knowledge in Victorian Britain”
If you are new to the history of knowledge, but not new to history, the following freely available online readings can help you find your bearings.
- Paul N. Edwards et al., AHR Conversation: “Historical Perspectives on the Circulation of Information,” The American Historical Review 116, no. 5 (December 2011): 1393–1435.
- “Interview with Peter Burke on the Social History of Knowledge,” Theory, Culture, and Society, November 15, 2010.
- “Peter Burke on Writing The Social History of Knowledge,” Theory, Culture, and Society, December 21, 2010.
- Simone Lässig, “The History of Knowledge and the Expansion of the Historical Research Agenda,” Bulletin of the German Historical Institute 59 (Fall 2016): 29–58.
- Jürgen Renn, “From the History of Science to the History of Knowledge—and Back,” Centaurus 57, no. 1 (February 2015): 37–53.
- Henk Wals, “How Does Knowledge Accumulate? Circulation Processes in a Long-Term Perspective,” in The Global and the Local: The History of Science and the Cultural Integration of Europe, Proceedings of the 2nd ICESHS (Cracow, Poland, September 6–9, 2006), edited by M. Kokowski.
What would you add? Please let us know.
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.
As long as scholars viewed religion and religiosity as the antipode to a modernity defined by rationality and secularism, knowledge as an analytical lens did not appear to offer any insights for the history of religion. The reverse was also true. At most, there were histories of theology and of the scientification processes that had helped bring about the Enlightenment and Haskalah in Christianity and Judaism respectively. Continue reading “Religious Knowledge and Social Adaptability in the Face of Modernity”
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.
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”
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.” 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? Continue reading “The History of Knowledge: Limits and Potentials of a New Approach”