The Fall 2020 issue of KNOW focuses on a specific theme: "The Political and the Epistemic in the Twentieth Century: Historical Perspectives." Emphasizing the first half of the twentieth century, in particular, guest editors Kijan Espahangizi and Monika Wulz point to an emerging "politicized understanding of scientific inquiry" in the interwar period, which "shaped a new social epistemology." (163) The starting point for the contributors to this issue is the interrelation between "heated disputes over the political and economic foundations of society" and the equally contested and pressing debates about "the role of knowledge in society and the economy." (163) The payoff:
By analyzing histories of antagonistic and competitive forms of knowledge, it becomes possible to paint a more detailed picture of not only the relations between the epistemic and the political but also of the inherently political strategies involved in the boundary work of knowledge regimes. (166)
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As historian of science Lorraine Daston recently remarked, COVID-19 has thrown us back into a state of “ground-zero empiricism.” The manifold manifestations of COVID-19 and the many unknowns involved are provoking scientific speculation that is often based on nothing more than chance observations and personal anecdotes. The radical uncertainty of the current situation, writes Daston, has catapulted us back to the seventeenth century, with almost everything up for grabs, “just as it was for the members of the earliest scientific societies—and everyone else—circa 1660.”
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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).
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J. Laurence Laughlin, Methods of Teaching Political Economy (1885), chap. 5, at Irwin Collier, Economics in the Rearview Mirror.
No matter how clear the exposition of the principles may be [in a lecture], no matter how fresh and striking the illustrations, it still remains that the student is relieved by the instructor from carrying on the mental processes which he ought to conduct for himself.
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In my initial academic encounters with Germany in the late 1980s and early 1990s, one of the things that impressed me was the availability of handbooks as well as specialized encyclopedias such as Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe. The textbook series Oldenbourg Grundriss der Geschichte was a new experience for me. Each volume offered a concise, chronologically organized survey (with key terms in the margins for rapid orientation), followed by a substantial historiographical discussion and bibliography. At the time, I did not appreciate the massive effort behind such compilation and systematization efforts. I just found these tools were quite practical for orienting myself in a given historical subject. Why didn’t we have such useful tools in the United States?
Continue reading “Organizing and Communicating Historical Knowledge: Some Personal Observations” →