The History of Knowledge will be featured in several panels at the 136th Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in Philadelphia from January 5-8, 2023. If you’ll be attending, please check out some of the sessions below. One of this blog’s editors, Mario Peters, is also presenting, so feel free to find him at his talk Friday afternoon,“The Intercontinental Railway and the Contentious Production of Knowledge,” to talk about submitting a contribution for the blog! (See Session 128 below.) For more information on the specific papers, please follow the link to the AHA Annual Meeting Program.
A Frontier in the History of Knowledge
In September 2021, Peter Burke gave a talk at Lund University in which he spoke about the challenges that historians of knowledge face as we attempt to understand not only what was known in the past, but what people did with their knowledge. One approach to this puzzle, he suggested, lies in studying decision-making. If we assume that people have at least some control over their actions, then decisions are among the most significant, and common, situations in which what we know interacts with what we do. Decision-making is, thus, not only a proper subject for political or economic historians but also for historians of knowledge. If we are to pursue this insight, we must either develop tools of our own for studying decision-making, or borrow existing tools from adjacent disciplines. Considering the tools available for investigating these subjects, Burke said, he was most attracted to bounded rationality. But what is bounded rationality, and how can we apply it to our research?
“It may safely be said,” wrote naturalist and U.S. Commissioner for Fisheries Spencer Fullerton Baird in 1878, “that wherever the white man plants his foot and the so-called civilization of a country is begun, inhabitants of the air, land, and the water, begin to disappear.” Particularly salmon at the heart of the thriving Pacific Northwest fishing industry were subject to this “fatal influence.” Baird’s warnings regarding overfishing and habitat destruction were among the earliest written accounts to caution against overexploiting the region’s resources. In other parts of the world, like northern Europe and Japan, it had long been “evident to every one how important it is to carry on the fisheries in accordance with certain well-defined rules based on a thorough knowledge of the nature and mode of life of the fish,” as Baird phrased it. He concluded that such knowledge was crucial for Americans, too, “if the future of the fisheries is not to be seriously endangered.”1 Today, salmon are at five percent of the abundance recorded at the beginning of the twentieth century, and the ecosystem of the Pacific Northwest is perhaps irreparably damaged.2
Nearly two years ago, Shadi Bartsch tweeted five tenets for understanding knowledge that now appear the on website of the center she directs at the University of Chicago, namely the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge. These tenets deserve further elucidation and discussion, a process I'd like to begin on this blog, starting at the end:
- Knowledge at any given time is exactly equal to what people think is true. As such, sub-knowledges, unauthoritative knowledges, and disputed knowledges can all exist simultaneously inasmuch as “people” is a plural concept.
We are publishing the following information in conjunction with the German Studies Association’s 2020 virtual conference, which runs from September 29 to October 4.
With instructors and students facing many more months of online teaching and learning, I would like to briefly highlight some blog posts in the history of knowledge that might prove useful to those working on various aspects of German history, culture, society, and language. The selection comes from two blogs that I co-edit for the German Historical Institute, Washington, DC, and its Pacific Regional Office at UC Berkeley, namely, History of Knowledge and Migrant Knowledge. I was initially inspired to identify such pieces by the German Studies Collaboratory’s own efforts to foster collaboration and experimentation during the pandemic. Appropriately, none of the articles are behind a password or paywall, and their average length is only some 2,000 words. They might be useful for students’ own research or for assigned class readings. If you are using blog posts as assignments, the posts in this list might also serve as instructive examples, for better or for worse, depending on the assignments you envision.
What is the history of knowledge? That bigger question came up more than once at the conference Political Culture and the History of Knowledge, as Kijan Espahangizi and Monika Wulz’s report shows. One helpful response to the debates were the 5 Tenets that Shadi Bartsch initially posted on Twitter for the SIFK.