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.

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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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Notes on Colonial-Imperial Knowledge Formation

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.

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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.

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:

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