Peter Burke on the Social History of Knowledge, 1750-2000

Photo: Peter Burke

Here is the full text of Peter Burke’s public lecture ‘Loss and Gain: The Social History of Knowledge, 1750-2000’, given at BirkbeckCollege, University of London, on 9th November.

Read more to find out about the three forms of knowledge loss: the hiding, destroying and discarding of knowledge. 

We also provide links to our earlier interview with Peter on the TCS Blog, to the podcast of the lecture, and to his article on Jack Goody that we published in TCS in 2009.


My title comes from a novel by John Henry Newman, Loss and Gain (1848) describing Oxford University and the conversion of a student. But that is not what I mean to talk about.

This lecture forms part of a book I am currently writing on the social history of knowledge from the Encyclopédie to Wikipedia, a sequel to an earlier volume on knowledge from Gutenberg to Diderot.

Its main themes are processes, among them reform, quantification, secularization, professionalization, democratization, nationalization, globalization and technologization.

It is also necessary to discuss countervailing trends, such as counter-secularization. Indeed, if this essay has a single thesis, it is the importance of the coexistence and interaction of trends in opposite directions, an equilibrium of antagonisms that tips over into disequilibrium from time to time. Thus the nationalization of knowledge coexists with its internationalization or globalization, secularization with counter-secularization, democratization with attempts to counter or restrict it, professionalization with amateurization and specialization with attempts at interdisciplinarity.

Even the accumulation of knowledge is offset to some degree by its loss. Most of the book is concerned with gaining knowledge, at two levels. In the first place, acquiring more information, whether by exploring the interior of Africa, for instance, by excavating archaeological sites, organizing social surveys such as national censuses, or doing experiments in a chemistry laboratory.

In the second place, analysing the information gathered, producing the general theory of relativity, for instance, or deciphering forgotten scripts such as cuneiform or the Maya glyphs.

In writing about the history of knowledge, it is all too easy to adopt a triumphalistic tone. There were indeed many triumphs in the story, both discoveries and solutions, but the negative side should not be forgotten.

‘Every positive assertion about science and knowledge should be confronted with its negations and contradictions; every feat of science with defeat; every gain with loss’ (Fabian 2000, 10).

Tonight I shall emphasize the negative side. In this sense the lecture might be described as a contribution to ignorance, or to ‘agnotology’, as the subject was recently christened. The field, as it is rapidly becoming, is currently attracting increasing attention, especially in business studies, since people in business are naturally concerned with risk management in conditions of uncertainty. However, an older sociological tradition of interest in ignorance is also in the course of revival.

On the other hand, few historians have so far been tempted to enter this field. The exile of scholars, notably the ‘Great Exodus’ of Jewish scholars from Central Europe in the 1930s has been studied more from the point of view of the benefits to the host countries than of the costs to the countries the scholars left behind. The deprovincialization of Britain and the USA was matched by the provincialization of Germany and Austria.

Again, the transport of books, manuscripts or statues from one part of the world to another is necessarily and simultaneously a subtraction of knowledge from one place as well as an addition to knowledge in another. Objects that are now visible to millions of visitors to the British Museum, for instance, are no longer accessible to scholars in Tibet or Nigeria.

The rise of western empires resulted in the wider dissemination of western knowledge, but also in the destruction of much non-western knowledge, from the burning of manuscripts by missionaries to the extinction of local languages.

Knowledge is also lost at the stage of analysis – discarding or at least ignoring information that does not fit the current theory, illustrating what might be called the dark side of paradigms. For example, in the classic age of social anthropology, c.1920-1980, the emphasis on experience in the field, which brought great gains in understanding, came at the price of neglecting wider perspectives in both space and time. In similar fashion, the revolution in historical method associated with Leopold von Ranke entailed costs as well as benefits, making the discipline more rigorous at the price of narrowing its former range to the study of political events from above.

Some losses were accidental or figure among the unintended consequences that form such an important part of history. Without forgetting this aspect of change I shall concentrate in what follows on intentional losses and on three processes: hiding, destroying and especially discarding knowledge.

Hiding Knowledge

Technical knowledge has often been kept a trade secret. The eighteenth century, an age of technological innovations, was also an age of industrial espionage, in which spies were sent on missions to discover the secrets of the success of competitors at home or abroad. The rise of private research laboratories in Germany and the USA at the end of the 19th century intensified the trend to secrecy. After all, ‘When an industrialist supported research he did not want publication of potentially profitable results’.

In the political as in the economic domain, the hiding of information by classifying it as ‘official secrets’ is of course routine, formalized in 50-year or 30-year rules. For example, the now famous code-breaking activities at Bletchley Park during the Second World War were only allowed to become public knowledge in the year 2000. Despite the Freedom of Information Act in the USA, historians interested in the activities of the CIA in universities, for instance, are still forbidden to see the documents they require.

Official secrets may include topography. In Soviet Russia, for example, the naukograds or cities of science, centres for nuclear research such as Sarov, Seversk and Dubna, remained invisible on maps and other public documents until 1992, when Boris Yeltsin lifted the veil.

The statistics that governments were collecting in increasing numbers from the later eighteenth century onwards, as we have seen (above, 000) were originally treated as secrets of state. Even Sweden kept its statistics secret at first, leading to the protest that ‘tables are not intended to be buried in archives’. The rise of national censuses in Europe and elsewhere raised the problem of ‘data protection’, in other words confidentiality.

There is obviously a good deal to say about censorship throughout the 250 years with which the book is concerned, extended in our time to the blocking of access to databases by means of a ‘firewall’. There is also quite a lot to say about knowledge that is mislaid rather than deliberately hidden. In the early nineteenth century, the Musée d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris was still cluttered with unopened boxes of specimens brought back from the French expedition to Egypt in 1798.

Again, the US Exploring Expedition to the South Seas (1838-42) sent many boxes of specimens back to the newly-founded Smithsonian Institution, but the Institution lacked the staff needed to unpack specimens, clean shells or stuff bird skins.

However, I would rather devote the time that remains to the processes of destroying and above all of discarding knowledge.

Destroying Knowledge

The destruction of knowledge includes the death of knowledgeable people. Notorious incidents include explorers who failed to return from their expeditions as well as the murder of scholars by the state, in Stalin’s purges, for instance, or following the German invasion of Poland in 1939. At an everyday level, the death of knowledgeable people always involves a loss, since individuals are never able to pass on everything they know to others.

Tacit knowledge or knowhow is particularly vulnerable to loss because it is held inside the heads of individuals who die or migrate. Companies are becoming increasingly aware of losses to what is sometimes called ‘corporate memory’, when employees leave without passing on what they know.

Other forms of loss by chance or negligence include the Assyrian sculptures lost by shipwreck on their way to France in 1855 and the CDs that went missing in Britain in 2007 and contained information about seven million families claiming child benefit, including their bank details.

Another kind of negligence allowed the destruction of many local knowledges in the age of empire. A survey made at the beginning of the twenty-first century estimated that 96% of the world’s languages were spoken by only 4% of the population, that ‘nearly five hundred languages have less than a hundred speakers’ and that three thousand languages would become extinct by 2100.

Let us turn to destruction, whether accidental or purposeful. Fires in libraries are a recurrent historical phenomenon, from Alexandria to Sarajevo. The negative side of the great archaeological discoveries of the nineteenth century was the destruction of artefacts on their exposure to the air for the first time in thousands of years. Archaeologists admit that ‘All excavation is to a certain extent destruction’.

The deliberate elimination of knowledge stored in libraries, archives and museums is also common. In France after the Revolution, the Legislative Assembly ordered the destruction of what it called ‘feudal’ documents. The records of the Belgian regime in the Congo were deliberately burned in 1908.

New technology has been called in to assist with the work of destruction. Evidence Eliminator, for instance, produced by Robin Hood Software, based in Nottingham, is a computer software programme that claims to delete secret information from hard disks or at least make this information difficult to salvage.

A more subtle form of loss concerns what literary scholars call ‘context’, and art historians ‘provenance’. In 1796, for instance the Frenchman Quatremère de Quincy denounced the looting of Italian works of art by Napoleon, Lord Elgin and others on the grounds that this uprooting or déplacement deprived the objects of their cultural value. Quatremère’s point was that the associations, meaning and power of an artefact depends on its uses and its location. To displace it is to destroy it. The appropriate setting for Italian artefacts was Italy itself, which he described as “le Museum intégral”, in other words a museum without walls.

Again, the anthropologist Franz Boas criticized collectors for their failure to record sufficient information about the items they collected; their origins, their local names and so on. In botany and zoology too, the lack of labels or the destruction of labels indicating the origin of specimens has often meant a loss of valuable knowledge.

Discarding Knowledge

A third form of knowledge loss is the result of obsolescence, or at least of what some individuals or groups believe to be obsolescence. The growth of knowledge is associated with what has been called collective ‘forgetting’, in other words ‘getting rid of past falsified or obsolete beliefs’. This process of forgetting has accelerated in an age of the so-called ‘explosion’ of knowledge together with the problem that it brings in its train, the increasingly acute problem of ‘information overload’.

Discarding old knowledge may be seen and has been seen as a form of what the economist Joseph Schumpeter called ‘creative destruction’, making space for the new. Literal space in the case of archives, libraries and museums, and metaphorical space in the case of encyclopaedias or the curricula of schools and universities.

Discarding knowledge in this way may be desirable or even necessary, up to a point at least, but we should not forget the losses as well as the gains. Hence the need for historians to study what is discarded over the centuries, the intellectual rubbish that includes information, ideas and even people.

It has often been observed that historians are generally prejudiced in favour of winners, although in order to understand the past it is necessary to reconstruct the ‘vision of the vanquished’. Trotsky once described losers as consigned to ‘the dustbin of history’, and it is notorious that successive editions of the Soviet Encyclopaedia left out people, ideas and things that came to be regarded by the Party as politically incorrect, including of course Trotsky himself after his break with Stalin.

It is tempting to ridicule the Soviet Encyclopaedia, but this example simply illustrates in extreme form a process that is much more common. The history of knowledge has come to include a long row of excluded ancestors, individuals who have become so many intellectual skeletons in the closet, often for political reasons, although they may be rediscovered later.

Criminologists, for example, may not wish to remember that one of the founders of their discipline was Cesare Lombroso, a firm believer in the existence of ‘born criminals’ recognizable by the shape of their skulls and other physical characteristics, just as anthropologists may prefer to forget the former association of their discipline with the idea of the superiority of the white or Caucasian race.

Again, the Brazilian sociologist-historian Gilberto Freyre, celebrated in the 1930s for his contribution to national identity, was virtually excommunicated by many of his colleagues following his support for the military regime that came to power in 1964. He became an awkward ancestor, often unacknowledged or more exactly ‘de-acknowledged’, until a revival of interest in his work began in the 1990s (Pels, 2000; Burke and Pallares-Burke, 2008).

Yet again, for a generation, and for obvious political reasons, students of political thought did their best to forget one of the leaders in their field in the 1920s, Carl Schmitt, the author of studies of Political Theology (1922) and The Concept of the Political (1927). He later joined the National Socialist party, and was therefore excluded from academic life after 1945 and from reading-lists for a generation. It was only in the 1980s and 1990s that Schmitt’s reputation was restored and that his work began to be translated into English.

The process of displacement extends to objects and to information as well as to people. In the course of time knowledge is subjected to a process that might be called ‘cultural selection’. As new knowledge enters a given culture, some old knowledge is displaced.

Take the case of archives. It was in response to the Italian government’s plan to throw out the majority of returns from the census of 1921 that the statistician Corrado Gini developed his famous sampling method.

Again, take the case of libraries. In the eighteenth-century, the idea began to be entertained of destroying books not because they were heretical or subversive but because they were useless. As David Hume wrote in his Inquiry into Human Understanding (1748), ‘If we take into our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Consign it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion’.

Most librarians have not gone so far as Hume but some do choose to ‘de-accession’ books, a recent euphemism for throwing them away. Others simply banish what they regard as the less useful books to remote parts of the library such as basements, a half-way house or intellectual limbo, out of the limelight but not yet in the dustbin. A study of the books that a major library has rejected in these ways over the centuries might reveal a good deal about changing priorities. The longevity of ideas might be studied through the ‘shelf-life’ of the books in which these ideas were expressed.

As revealing as a study of libraries, and considerably easier to carry out, would be a similar investigation of the knowledge discarded from encyclopaedias. As knowledge has grown, encyclopaedias have become larger and larger. All the same, a comparison of successive editions of the same encyclopaedia is sufficient to show that editors and compilers, at least from the late eighteenth century onwards, have often rejected a great deal of old material in the process of bringing the book up to date. The editors and compilers themselves stressed this aspect of their work. When Abraham Rees produced his Proposals (1778) for revising Chambers’ Cyclopedia, he emphasized his intention ‘to exclude obsolete science, to retrench superfluous matter’.

The amount of material discarded in major encyclopaedias – Larousse, Brockhaus, the Enciclopedia universal ilustrada and so on – has grown more and more rapidly. There are obviously practical reasons for some of the omissions. All the same, we are entitled to suspect that the philosophy underlying them is often a more or less naïf belief in progress, as if the latest ideas are always the best. For this reason, for certain purposes (at least in the humanities) scholars often prefer the eleventh edition of the Britannica (published in 1911) to later versions.

A few concrete examples may serve to show what has been lost. In the case of political history, in the Encyclopaedia Britannica of 1911, King Charles I was allocated thirteen columns and the emperor Charles V eleven columns, reduced to five columns apiece in the New Encyclopaedia Britannica of 1974. In the case of the arts, Raphael was reduced from sixteen columns to five, Cicero from thirteen columns to four and Goethe, from twelve columns to six. Luther was reduced from fourteen columns to one and Plato from thirty-three columns to less than one, a vivid testimony of the decline of interest in both Christianity and classical culture.

Even online encyclopaedias discard material, despite their relative freedom from storage problems. Hence the proposals for a ‘Wikimorgue’ or ‘Deletopedia’ in which rejected entries would remain accessible, the online equivalent of old editions of Brockhaus or the Britannica.

Other forms of rubbishing are less easy to notice. Successive editions of classic texts, for instance, drop information as well as adding it. As an editor recently remarked, ‘I do not know of a single case in which an edited work did not represent a loss of something’.

Ideas, or if you prefer, ‘paradigms’, are also discarded, for a mixture of intellectual and social reasons. In the 1950s, for instance, structural-functionalism was the principal analytical framework in sociology and anthropology alike, but it was challenged in the 1970s and gradually declined. The decline of Marxist theory in a wide range of disciplines, from economics to literature, is one of the best-known recent examples of intellectual devaluation.

In a similar manner, unfashionable or ‘cold’ topics in many disciplines are in danger of being forgotten or at least marginalized. They become ‘devalued currency’ – although revaluation may sometimes occur generations later.

On a grander scale, the boundaries between genuine and fake knowledge, or science and pseudo-science are also subject to change over time, as groups of scholars attempt to exclude other scholars, or particular intellectual practices, from the commonwealth of learning, often on the grounds that a particular book, method or theory is not ‘really’ history, philosophy, science or whatever, a process that Foucault called ‘disqualification’.

Take the case of medicine. As professional scientific medicine established itself in Britain in the late eighteenth century, for example, alternative approaches were pushed to the ‘medical fringe’ or even beyond it and they were stigmatized as pseudo-medicine or ‘quackery’. In a sense, the professionals needed the quacks so that they could define themselves more clearly as scientific and orthodox.

Chinese medicine, including acupuncture, had been taken seriously by European doctors in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. However, when Western medicine was defined as scientific, alternative medicines were rejected. It was only in the late 1960s and 1970s that an interest in this technique revived in the West.

Whole disciplines (as their practitioners call them) may be rejected in this way, whether for intellectual or for political reasons, as in the cases of phrenology, parapsychology, eugenics and folklore.

Take the case of phrenology, a system of ideas about the shape of the skull as a sign of the nature of the brain within it, a system that was extremely popular in a number of countries and among a variety of social groups in the nineteenth century. Busts displaying the various sentiments and faculties appeared in the windows of chemist’s shops, while many practitioners at seaside resorts and elsewhere claimed to predict future success by feeling the ‘bumps’ on the head.

Phrenology was never ‘accepted as an academic discipline’ and it entered a ‘precipitous decline’, in the second half of the nineteenth century. However, it was still taken seriously by individuals as distinguished and as different as Lord Palmerston and the zoologist Alfred Wallace.

Again, take the case of parapsychology or psychical research. In Britain, the Society for Psychical Research was founded in 1882 and formed committees concerned to investigate telepathy, mesmerism, mediums, ghosts, haunted houses and so on. One of its projects was a census of hallucinations. Societies on the model of the English one were founded elsewhere, from Denmark to the USA.

Initially, at least, the members of the British society could scarcely be described as outsiders, or its investigations as pseudo-science, given that its early presidents included the leading Cambridge intellectual Henry Sidgwick, and the chemist William Crookes, later president of the Royal Society.

Experimental methods were in use, as in the studies of ‘extra-sensory perception’ (ESP) carried out by Joseph B. Rhine at a research centre at Duke University. Some of his experiments were replicated elsewhere. However, his work lost credibility when his successor at Duke University was accused, in 1974, of faking his results.

For an example of obsolescence entwined with politics we might take eugenics, a term coined by Francis Galton in 1883 (in German the word ‘race hygiene’ Rassenhygiene was in use from 1895 onwards). Eugenics rapidly became a world movement, witness the International Eugenics Conference (1912). Eugenics was more than a programme, it was regarded as a science. The British statistician Karl Pearson was concerned with ‘founding eugenics as an academic discipline’. Thanks to Galton’s financial support, a Eugenics Laboratory and a chair in the subject were founded at University College London.

The scientific status of eugenics and racial studies were probably at their highest in Nazi Germany, only to fall like a stone thereafter. What sank the subject was the discovery of the German death camps and the experiments carried out at Auschwitz by Josef Mengele, who had once worked as an assistant at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Eugenics at Berlin. What had been a fashionable name became a taboo word, replaced by ‘human genetics’ or ‘social biology’.

The fate of folklore studies, especially in Germany and Scandinavia, following the collapse of the Third Reich, resembles the fate of eugenics. Folklore was an academic subject much more important on the Continent, especially in Northern Europe, than its marginal position in England might suggest. However, the subject became contaminated by the use made of it by the Nazis. Even the word ‘folk’ (German Volk), now associated with racism, became taboo. What had formerly been described as ‘folklore’ (even in Italy, where the English word entered the language), was redefined as ‘popular tradition’ or ‘ethnology’.

In all these cases of the devaluation of disciplines, something was salvaged. Neurologists like phrenologists point to the localization in the brain of particular faculties. A few parapsychological ideas, notably that of multiple selves, have been taken into psychology. Genetics has incorporated a substantial element of what we might call descriptive eugenics, in other words the analysis as opposed to the social programme. The continuity between ethnology and folklore is even more obvious.

It is clear that in this lecture I have been using the term ‘loss’ as an umbrella that covers a number of different processes: the accidental or deliberate destruction or discarding of texts and other artefacts, the death of knowledgeable people, and the devaluation of ideas or even whole disciplines, which may disappear from the curricula of universities.

Sometimes the loss is irreversible, as in the case of the extinction of a language before it was recorded. On other occasions, at least some of what had been devalued and discarded has been salvaged and brought back into use. What these diverse processes have in common, and my reason for emphasizing them here, is their challenge to any vision of the history of knowledge as simple progress or accumulation.

Thanks to History Today for allowing us to use this text. A slightly different version will appear on their website shortly.

Peter Burke was Professor of Cultural History, University of Cambridge, until his retirement and remains a fellow of Emmanuel College. His books include The European Renaissance: Centres and Peripheries (1998), A Social History of Knowledge (2000) and What is Cultural History?

To listen to a podcast of Peter Burke’s public lecture, ‘Loss and Gain: The Social History of Knowledge, 1750-2000’, which took place at Birkbeck College, University of London, on 9th November 2010, go here

To read Simon Dawes’s interview with Peter Burke on the social history of knowledge, go here

To read Peter Burke’s article ‘Jack Goody and the Comparative History of Renaissances’ (published in TCS, vol 26.7-8, Dec 2009) and the rest of the articles in the Annual Review 09, go here


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