We are all historians of the present. At least we should be. Many fellow historians of knowledge are currently using a wide variety of media to share their experience and research in an effort to put the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic into context. Twitter is one medium where this conversation is especially lively, as Eileen Sperry has noted on Nursing Clio, a wonderful group blog that is also active on Twitter. One can find these parts of Twitter by searching for the relevant hashtags, for example, #histmed (history of medicine) and the much more generic #twitterstorians (historians on twitter).
Today we offer two examples of academic knowledge on the move in tandem with the Migrant Knowledge blog. Anna Corsten looks at the reception of two German-speaking refugee historians in West Germany, and Razak Khan discusses the place of certain travel experiences in Magnus Hirschfeld’s thought.
In Germany today, Hans Rosenberg (1904–1988) and Raul Hilberg (1926–2007) are viewed as important pioneers in the study of National Socialism and the Shoah. Because of their Jewish background, they had been threatened by Nazi persecution and had emigrated to the United States.1 In the postwar era, Rosenberg’s work was initially embraced in the United States and marginalized in West Germany, whereas Hilberg’s was both praised and attacked in the United States, and ignored in West Germany. How and why did these historians move from the margins to the mainstream of German historiography? How did migration figure in their work and its reception?
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.”
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.1 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.2
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”
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.”1 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.
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.
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.
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?
Historiographical notes blogged by a PhD student in New Zealand, S.D. Carpenter:
A number of scholars of British India have sought to understand the ways in which British power was exercised through constructing knowledge about Indian societies, including their histories and literatures, languages and geographies. At one end of the spectrum, intellectual followers of Edward Said argue that the British imposed their own knowledge and cultural forms on India. At the other end, some historians argue that the British had necessarily to work with what they found, relied on local informants, and had to tailor any ‘exotic’ ideas from Britain to different Indian contexts so as to make their rule acceptable.
Featured image: “Mission station, Rangihoua, 1830,” The Encylopedia of New Zealand, s.v. “Cultural go-betweens” by Mark Derby.
Update, August 31, 2017: The image is no longer included in the entry at https://teara.govt.nz/en/cultural-go-betweens, although other images are.