History of Knowledge

Seminar Series @ Utrecht University : :


 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)

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)

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.