History of Knowledge

Seminar Series : :


 Medieval pattern poems from Rabanus Maurus’s De laudibus sanctae   crusis (9th century)  

26 November 2020: Jim Secord 
’Against Revolutions’

‘Despite cogent critiques, the long-durée history of science continues to be understood in public discussion largely as a sequence of conceptual revolutions. The Scientific Revolution, which has had something of a revival during the past decade, is seen to have been followed by Chemical, Darwinian, Einsteinian and Plate Tectonics and other dramatic upheavals. The durability of revolutionary assumptions is not surprising, for the ‘Scientific Revolution’ originated not in the Cold War era as is usually assumed, but in American school and university textbooks in the wake of the First World War. The ambiguous attitude of historians towards this legacy is summed up by Steve Shaping’s famous opening to his 1994 survey, ‘There was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution, and this is a book about it’.

This compromise, which advertises science as ‘revolutionary’ while simultaneously disavowing the implications of such a view, is no longer sustainable. A focus on revolutionary changes within science involves a displacement, in which epistemic violence occurs within scientific communities rather than through the colonial and imperial encounters in which knowledge was forged. This is damaging both to the reputation of contemporary science (which is currently under attack anyway) and to understandings of the place of science in history. It has only gradually become possible, for example, to see the conquest of the Americas in the 1500s and the emergence of colonial empires in the 1800s as key episodes in the simultaneous emergence of Western power and scientific forms of enquiry. The narratives of resistance, exchange and subjugation involved in these new stories are rapidly providing an alternative - important for engaging audiences and suggesting new research questions - but they cannot be maintained simply by adapting the old historiography. 

︎ This talk will take place online (via Microsoft Teams)

23 September 2021: Nicola Miller 
’Republics of Knowledge: Nations of the Future in Latin America’

My talk will discuss ways in which the history of knowledge can help to illuminate histories of nation-state formation in Latin America over the course of the century after independence, as explored in the book of the same title (published by Princeton University Press in 2020). For this seminar I will focus on two themes: i) the idea of nations as knowledge communities; and ii) the recognition of knowledge.

On the first theme, my suggestion will be that thinking about nations as communities of shared knowledge makes it possible to bring into a common analytical framework a series of factors in nation-formation that are often treated separately, sometimes in different historiographies. Notable examples include state power and cultural community; international and local dynamics; or ideas and materiality. While many historians have been inspired by Benedict Anderson's emphasis on processes of imagining in explaining 'the origin and spread of nationalism', the "imagined community" is less effective at explaining why nationalism has continued to matter to such a wide range of people in so many different societies across the world. Adapting Anderson's idea to think of nations as knowledge communities may be a fruitful way forward here, drawing on all the insights of the emerging field of the history of knowledge over the last 25 years or so.

The second part of the talk will develop the argument that the recognition of knowledge matters as much as its production or distribution in analysing outcomes of struggles (both past and current) to improve knowledge equity. How is it that certain ways of knowing are deemed of being received as knowledge? Who decides what actually counts as knowledge, even before it becomes subject to processes of validation? The answers to these questions in relation to nineteenth-century Latin America are revealing about the construction of global hierarchies of knowledge still evident today.

︎ This talk will take place online (via Microsoft Teams)

19 May 2022: Liba Taub, Alex Butterworth, Boris Jardine & Sarah Middle 
’Tools of Knowledge: Challenging Ontologies’ 

The ‘Tools of Knowledge’ project is an investigation of the communities that made and traded scientific instruments in Britain between the sixteenth and early-twentieth century, using digital methods. The project is developing a semantic data model to enable analysis of the complex graph of data assembled from a legacy database of makers, multiple museum collections catalogues and diverse complementary sources. This data model encompasses the business, guild and familial relationships between instrument makers, while a new ontology is proposed for the instruments they produced. A further model describes the association between persons and instruments at various levels of conceptual resolution, while accommodating temporal and spatial fuzziness and uncertainty. The presentation will reflect on this work-in-progress from the perspective of both the data modelling and the historical investigations that it will support.

︎ This talk will take place online (via Microsoft Teams)


12 March 2020: Lorraine Daston
’Knowledge Has Its Own Rules - And They Have a History’

‘The promising new field of the history of knowledge has been mostly defined by what it is not, namely the modern natural sciences. As a result, the history of knowledge threatens to become a miscellany, embracing practical know-how, the academic humanities disciplines, various ethno-studies (ethnobotany, ethnomusicology, etc.), and much, much else. The challenge is to give the history of knowledge its own shape and coherence, without losing the scope and openness to new topics that are its main attractions. One possibility might be to look at a form of rationality that is both ubiquitous but multifarious: attempts to order and codify ways of doing and knowing by rules, whether the subject matter is the weather, carpentry, or grammar. Because the modern natural sciences also formulate rules (e.g. natural laws), this approach might serve as a model for investigating knowledge and science together, rather than in opposition to one another.’

︎ This talk is co-sponsored
by the Descartes Centre and
the Evert Willem Beth Stichting


     15 April 2021: Johan Östling
     ‘Circulation, Arenas, and the Quest for Public                  

     The recent surge in publications on the history of
     knowledge may obscure the fact that there are
     several parallel understandings of what the field is.
     In this presentation, Östling discerns five major
     historiographical directions in contemporary
     scholarship regarding the history of knowledge.        
     The analytical framework that has so far attracted
     the most attention is the circulation of knowledge.
     As productive as it is, the very concept of
     circulation is in need of both elaboration and
     theorization. In order to achieve this, he focuses
     on the public circulation of knowledge. This kind
     of circulation implies that knowledge should be
     studied as a broad, societal phenomenon. There
     are a number of possible methodological
     approaches to study the processes, situations, or
     contexts where knowledge
     has or gains public significance. Here he focuses
     on and develops the concept of public arenas of
     knowledge, which might be virtual, physical, or
     hybrid spaces. Drawing on several new studies, he
     demonstrates how different public arenas of
     knowledge functioned during the postwar period
     and how they were part of a larger infrastructure of

     ︎ This talk will take place online (via Microsoft Teams)

      15 April 2021: Elaine Leong
      ‘Vernacular Medicine and “Agents of Knowledge” in Late 
       Seventeenth-Century London’ 

This talk focuses on two historical figures - George Hartman (fl. 1668-82) and Christopher Packe (fl. 1670-1711) - largely familiar to historians as the English translators of Sir Kenelm Digby and Johann Rudolf Glauber's works. However, further investigation into the printed worlds of Hartman and Packe reveal that their translation and book production activities were part and parcel of a commercial medical enterprise offering a range of drugs and health technologies to Londoners. Building on recent studies depicting translators as knowledge-mediators and go-betweens, I unpack Hartman and Packe's work as "agents of knowledge" and recover a world where the production and transfer of textual knowledge, expertise and experiential know-how and medical goods were closely intertwined, and promoted as connected commercial health-services.' 

         ︎ This talk will take place online (via Microsoft Teams)

ies, he demonstrates how different public arenas of knowledge functioned during the postwar period and how they were part of a larger infrastructure of knowledge.”

24 September 2020: Peter Burke 
’Local Knowledge(s)’ 

‘Taking an overview of Europe over the last 500 years, and focusing on encounters between cultures, I should like to distinguish two recurrent attitudes on the part of scholars and scientists to local knowledges, the knowledges current in other cultures or among artisans or peasants in their own culture. The negative attitude, which has been the dominant one for a long time, has been to dismiss these claims to knowledge as false. The positive attitude has been a minority one, but it is already visible in the Renaissance, became more important in the Enlightenment, declined in importance in the 19th century but revived in the 20th, when it even became institutionalized in the discipline of anthropology.

︎ This talk will take place online (via Microsoft Teams)

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10 June 2021: Christine von Oertzen & Sebastian Felten
‘Bureaucracy as Knowledge’

Bureaucracy was a term of critique that in Europe around 1900 became an analytical concept for world-historical comparison, most prominently in the work of Max Weber. Against this background, the multi-authored publication develops a non-Weberian approach of analysing bureaucratic procedures as knowledge processes, a method we term "bureaucracy as knowledge." This approach builds on historical epistemology and aims to recover actors' ways of organising social and natural world rather than to judge them by modernist, Western standards. We found surprising similarities across our cases, such as the use of questionnaires in the medieval Latin West and in colonial German New Guinea, or of calendars in the Ottoman Empire and Central Europe.

Could richly contextualised case studies such as the ones united in this volume show the way to a long-term and global history of bureaucracy? We suggest three potential ways of writing such a history: recovering genealogies of bureaucratic genres; tracing bureaucratic personae; and re-constructing cross-cultural entanglements. We end by placing Weber's conceptual work in a wider context of transnational debate and reform. 

9 December 2021: Sietske Fransen
‘Visualizing the Unknown: Visual Studies and Re-Enactment’

Most of us will recognize the images of a flea and a louse from Robert Hooke's Micrographia, published in 1665. And some of us might remember the images of sperm cells from our biology books, as they had been discovered by Antoni van Leeuwenhoek. But how did these authors decide what to depict and what to describe, as they had never seen so much detail in either insects or semen. Which decisions did they make for the visual representation they had engraved to be send into the world?  

In the new NWO-funded project "Visualizing the Unknown," a collaboration between the Huygens ING, Bibliotheca Hertziana, and Rijksmuseum Boerhaave, we will be using re-enactment as one of the methods to understand better the visual world and visual decisions, restrictions, and commonplaces of seventeenth-century microscopists. And in this seminar I will discuss these methods alongside those of visual analysis, and the "deep reading" of historical source material. 

17 April May 2023: Fei-Hsien Wang
‘A Posterchild Lost: Historians at the Margins, the “Modernization in China” Project, and the Changing Cold War Politics of Theory’

In 1973, the Institute of Modernization History at Academia Sinica in Taiwan embarked on an ambitious project aiming to examine China in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century through the lens of modernization theory. In the next sixteen years, a total of seventeen historians contributed to this “Modernization in China: A Regional Study” project; each assigned a province to study. However, more than half of their research outcomes were never published. Is this project a failure? Why did these historians at the margins of American knowledge hegemony enthusiastically initiate this project in the first place but later decided to abandon most of what they’ve found? By exploring the making and the anguish of this seemingly unsuccessful project, this talk illuminates the complex interplays of local and international politics, social sciences theory, and historical research in the Cold War knowledge production nexus in East Asia.