Knowledge society is one of the catchphrases of the contemporary world. It reflects a fascination with knowledge, compounded by a strong belief in the connections between the free flow of information, technology, and the organization of a democratic society. Our future well-being as individuals and societies, even as a global community, seems to depend on an ever increasing amount of knowledge. It is therefore remarkable that this contemporary cult is not mirrored in academic research. There is a vast literature on the history, philosophy, and sociology of science, but less on the more general and elusive concept of knowledge, in particular from a historical point of view.

This project seeks to put our present knowledge-permeated discourse in perspective by developing a new field of scholarly inquiry: the history of knowledge. Our point of departure is that knowledge is in essence a historical phenomenon that must necessarily be studied in broad societal contexts.

In recent years, the history of knowledge has slowly started to be written, albeit piecemeal by a handful of research initiatives. It remains a young and still far from coherent field; its greatest benefit is that it puts knowledge—not science, culture, or ideas—at the centre of the historical endeavour. Our purpose, however, is to embark on a comprehensive programme, combining theoretical considerations and empirical analyses. By doing so, we will explore how history—by contrasts and comparisons, as well as by linkages and genealogies—can elucidate contemporary conditions.

In this programme we deliberately avoid the term ‘knowledge society’ and instead privilege ‘knowledge cultures’ as our chosen analytical concept. In that way we stress the plurality of the cognitive structures at a given moment, and the way in which different orders of knowledge can co-exist or superimpose on one another.

The general purpose of this project is to promote and develop the history of knowledge as a scholarly field. Our aims are:

—to explore essentially different cultures of knowledge over an extended time axis in order to form a multifaceted empirical basis for a historical examination of knowledge

—to enlarge on the fundamental understanding of knowledge by developing a conceptually refined historical framework

—to strengthen the academy’s and the public’s ability to reflect on knowledge as a cultural, political, and existential phenomenon, and thereby situate today’s discourse in a wider historical context.