Developing the History of Knowledge

In March 2020, our new edited volume Forms of Knowledge: Developing the History of Knowledge (Nordic Academic Press) will be published. The book is a product of the newly established Lund Centre for the History of Knowledge (LUCK) and brings together some twenty historians from different scholarly traditions to develop the history of knowledge. In the weeks to come, we will publish a series of samples from the book. The first one is based on our introductory chapter.

 

The history of knowledge endeavour has attracted growing interest, especially among early career researchers. Over the last five years, it has brought together a growing number of scholars with highly diverse research interests. Early modern theological tracts; crop failures in the eighteenth century; the promotion of racial knowledge by the UNESCO; the internal workings of Wikipedia: whatever the field of study, the history of knowledge has something to offer. Simone Lässig’s proposition that knowledge can be regarded as a ‘phenomenon that touches on almost every sphere of human life’ and therefore can be ‘used as a lens’ in a wide array of historical scholarship would seem to hold true.[1] Without shifting focus, scholars have been able to draw on and add to ongoing discussions in the history of knowledge.

Moreover, the history of knowledge endeavour has succeeded in bridging the chronological divides between scholars. Scholarly discussions about interdisciplinary and integrative approaches do not typically focus on epochal divides, yet, in practice, chronological boundaries are often just as divisive, if not more so, than thematic, theoretical, geographic, and subdisciplinary boundaries. Hence, we want to stress the fruitfulness of a deliberately interchronological approach.

Historians of knowledge have been reluctant to impose programmatic definitions of key concepts such as ‘knowledge’, ‘circulation’, and ‘society’. This is, we maintain, a direct consequence of the fields’ integrative and interchronological character. There are no one-size-fits-all definitions that are useful for everyone—historians cannot study the sixteenth century and the 1960s in the same way—and so practitioners apply the analytical concepts in different, and sometimes contradictory, ways. Yet, the scholarly conversation has not broken down. On the contrary, productive disagreements have become a distinguishing feature of the history of knowledge. As Maria Simonsen and Laura Skouvig have argued, rather than try to define knowledge, there is a need for a pragmatic conceptualization. It behoves researchers to sharpen their arguments, be precise, and remain alert to their own particular standpoint and its confines.[2]

The core questions cannot be given definite answers—none of a transhistorical character, at any rate—yet they are undoubtedly productive, as they help us explore the many roles that various forms of knowledge have had in past societies. The research group at Lund seeks to enable and foster this larger scholarly conversation. This integrative capacity is demonstrably one of the greatest merits of the field. However, the generative capacity of the history of knowledge is also under development.

Crucial to this emerging quality is a programmatically broad research agenda, with strong roots in social, political, and cultural history. While the discussions in Lund are certainly inspired by recent developments in neighbouring fields, the majority of scholars involved are trained as general historians. Hence, we would argue that it is vital that the history of knowledge strives to invigorate the discipline of history, and build upon its disciplinary tradition. To this end, the volume Forms of Knowledge is a conscious effort to demonstrate that the history of knowledge is concerned with many different forms of knowledge, and that it seeks to strengthen our understanding of historical societies and larger processes.

The first part of Forms of Knowledge shows how the scope of history of knowledge inquiries can be expanded. The second part highlights vital theoretical and conceptual discussions in the history of knowledge. The third part engages with the movement of knowledge and knowledge actors. Taken together, the essays demonstrate both the integrative and generative capacities of the history of knowledge.

 

 

[1] Simone Lässig, ‘The History of Knowledge and the Expansion of the Historical Research Agenda’, Bulletin of the German Historical Institute 59 (2016): 44.

[2] Simonsen & Skouvig, ‘Videnshistorie’: 24.

 

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