Peter Burke on writing The Social History of Knowledge

Photo: Peter Burke

Here is the full text of Peter Burke’s seminar on ‘Writing The Social History of Knowledge’, given in the History Department of Birkbeck College, University of London, on 2nd November.

We also provide links to our earlier interview with Peter on the TCS Blog, to the podcast and written text of his lecture on his forthcoming sequel to A Social History of Knowledge, and to his article on Jack Goody that we published in TCS in 2009.

Writing the Social History of Knowledge

‘There is no history of knowledge’ declared the management theorist and futurologist Peter Drucker in 1993, predicting that it would become an important area of study ‘within the next decades’. For once he was a little slow, for the rise of interest in the history of knowledge was already under way; witness books by historians with titles such as Knowledge is Power (1989), Fields of Knowledge (1992) or Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge (1996).

When I wrote A Social History of Knowledge from Gutenberg to Diderot (2000) I still thought of myself as taking an individual initiative that drew upon a long-standing interest in Karl Mannheim, but it has become obvious that I formed part of a group, stimulated, consciously or unconsciously, by the current debates about the ‘knowledge society’ which had provoked Drucker’s prediction. In 1998, two writers on the subject already referred to a ‘knowledge boom’. Since the year 2000, the trend has become still stronger, reflected not only in publications but also in research programmes, especially though not exclusively in the German-speaking world.

The book I’m currently writing (on knowledge from the Encyclopedie to Wikipedia) can be read either by itself or as a continuation of Knowledge from Gutenberg to Diderot (I hope before long to produce a revised version of both volumes under the title, From Gutenberg to Google). Its origins were in personal curiosity, in an attempt to answer the question, by what paths did we reach our present state of collective knowledge? At a time when retirement liberated me from professional ‘periods’ and ‘fields’, it was easier than before to indulge this curiosity.

Continuing Gutenberg to Diderot, this volume offers a general view of changes in the world of learning from the Encyclopédie (1751-66) to Wikipedia (2001). Its main themes are processes, among them reform, quantification, secularization, professionalization, specialization, democratization, 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. 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. Only technologization seems to march onwards without encountering serious opposition.

The book focuses on the West, trying not to confine itself to the ‘Big Five’ – Britain, France, Germany, Russia and the USA – but to bring the rest of Europe and also Latin America into the story, at least from time to time. For example, a small country such as the Netherlands has produced a considerable number of studies about the history of its own knowledges. In an attempt to compensate for national biases, this study adopts a comparative approach.

Many excellent monographs have been published on aspects of the vast topic surveyed here, especially in the case of the history of science. What is lacking is synthesis. What follows is an attempt at synthesis, a work of distillation or more exactly of ‘raiding, rearranging and sometimes revising the works of my fellow historians’. All the same, many gaps remain, so that plugging holes is another aspect of the task. So is making connections between developments in different places or in different fields. The point is to present a big picture of the kind that is often invisible to specialists, one that includes a general description of specialization itself. This big picture will be defined by contrast to the early modern period in which I have worked for most of my academic life, without forgetting continuities between the two. My hope is to encourage dialogue between two kinds of scholar who do not often speak to each other, historians of the early modern and late modern periods.

The book’s title raises two questions that require a preliminary discussion. What is social history? What is knowledge?

Social Histories
In the first place, the term ‘social’ is a obviously a problematic one. It is employed here primarily to distinguish what follows from a general intellectual history of the period 1750-2000. The individual thinkers that loom large in such histories will not be left out, but the protagonists of this study are institutions or organizations, understood as groups of people who meet regularly in pursuit of common aims, following rules that create different social roles from bishop to sergeant and from Prime Minister to CEO.

Where the Polish sociologist Florian Znaniecki wrote of ‘the social role of the man of knowledge’, this essay will be concerned with the many social roles of knowledgeable people, roles produced by such knowledge organizations as universities, archives, libraries, museums, think tanks, learned societies and scientific journals. The processes by which knowledge is institutionalized will also be discussed. Ideas will not be omitted from this study – institutions cannot be understood without them – but their external rather than their internal history will be privileged, intellectual environments rather than intellectual problems.

Attention will also be paid to small face-to-face groups, whether as teams or as competitors, since these groups often do the work for which a single individual receives the credit. Despite the myth of the heroic explorer, for instance, by the late nineteenth century, if not before, ‘the agents of exploration were groups, not individuals’. Again, in the course of the period, laboratory research was increasingly carried out by teams.

In short, what follows is a social history in the manner of earlier social histories of archaeology, for instance, of anthropology, cartography or medicine (which has its own society, founded in 1970, and its journal, founded in 1988). Alternatively, it might be described as a historical sociology of knowledge. Like the sociologists, it emphasizes the fact that knowledge is always situated, in contrast to the view of scholars as remote from the world in their laboratories, observatories, libraries and other ivory towers. Scholars do need ‘a space of their own’ in order to work without distraction, but this remoteness is only relative. They take the world, including politics, into the lab with them, while their results are often used, as chapter four describes, for worldly purposes.

The book might therefore have been entitled, like one of its sections, ‘a political history of knowledge’, were it not for the fact that its aim is wider, using the term ‘social’ as an umbrella covering economic and political history as well as social history in a narrower sense. Why not, then, a cultural history of knowledge? The phrase ‘cultures of knowledge’ (or ‘epistemic cultures’, or in German Wissenskulturen) is increasingly current and it is surely useful, reinforcing as it does the idea of knowledges in the plural. What follows is often concerned with practices such as observing, mapping or taking notes, practices that may equally well be described as cultural or social. All the same, the emphasis on institutions seems to require the term ‘social’, which has the additional advantage of evoking the tradition of the sociology of knowledge.

The second question, ‘what is knowledge?’ sounds uncomfortably close to the question asked by ‘jesting Pilate’, who, according to Francis Bacon, ‘would not stay for an answer’: what is truth? A first step might be to distinguish knowledge from information, as many writers do. ‘We are drowning in information’, we are told, but ‘starved of knowledge’. We may become ‘information giants’, but risk becoming ‘knowledge dwarfs’.

Borrowing a famous metaphor from Claude Lévi-Strauss, it may be useful to think of information as raw, while knowledge has been cooked. Of course, information is only relatively raw, since the ‘data’ are not objectively ‘given’ at all, but perceived by human minds that are full of assumptions and prejudices. Knowledge is ‘cooked’ in the sense of being processed. The processes, discussed at length in chapter two, include verification, criticism, measurement, comparison and systematization.

Knowledges or knowledge traditions should be imagined in the plural, as they already were by Michel Foucault in the 1970s, although they are still often regarded as singular, a familiar part being taken for the whole. To quote Drucker again, ‘We have moved from knowledge to knowledges’. London taxi-drivers who speak of ‘the knowledge’ when they mean the topography of the capital are far from the only people to share the assumption maliciously attributed to a Master of Balliol that ‘what I don’t know isn’t knowledge’.

Among the many distinctions between knowledges are explicit and implicit, pure and applied, local and universal. Although histories of skills are rarely written, ‘Knowing how’ clearly deserves a place alongside ‘knowing that’. In similar fashion, dominated knowledges (savoirs assujettis) deserve a place alongside, rather than underneath dominant ones.

This book is mainly concerned with academic knowledge, as it is with knowledge in the West. A more exact title would therefore be ‘a social history of western academic knowledge’. The problem is that besides being rather cumbrous, such a title gives the false impression that this kind of knowledge will be treated in isolation.

In fact, interaction between knowledges is central to this study. Hence the recurrent references to detectives and spies, for instance, or to governments and corporations, as well as the discussion of the links between new academic disciplines such as chemistry, economics or geology and the practical knowledge of apothecaries, merchants, miners and so on.

In any case, the frontier between academic and intelligence work was often crossed. In the USA, the wartime Office of Strategic Services recruited a number of professors. In Britain, Peter Russell, best known for his distinguished contribution to Spanish studies, joined the secret services in the 1930s, while the art historian Anthony Blunt worked for both MI5 and its Soviet equivalent, the NKVD.

Again, despite the focus on Europe and the Americas, the book discusses other parts of the world, especially though not exclusively in chapter eight, for two obvious reasons.

In the first place, because western knowledge spread outside the West in this period – although the term ‘spread’, implying that what moves does not change, is not the most appropriate one. It is more realistic to think in terms of an active reception in which individuals and groups outside the West appropriated and adapted western knowledge for their own purposes.

In the second place, there was traffic in the opposite direction, the importance of which has only been recognized – in the West – relatively recently. Explorers, for example, in this period as in early modern times, depended on indigenous guides and maps. So did botanists, linguists, and other scholars, even if they presented the resulting ‘discoveries’ as their own. At a practical level, the locals taught the newcomers how to hunt indigenous animals, for instance, though the newcomers taught the locals how to use firearms.

It will be clear enough that this book is written from a personal point of view. My own knowledge of knowledge is, to say the least, uneven, and I have often been torn between a desire to do justice to the natural sciences and an attraction to case-studies in fields that I know better, from art history to anthropology. The approach is all the more personal because I have lived through and been involved in changes in knowledge regimes over the last half century, twenty per cent of the period.

In other words, what follows is an essay, impressionistic in its methods and provisional in its conclusions, making no pretence to cover the ground of its vast subject but rather to offer a bird’s eye view. In a sense it is a sequence of essays. The first four chapters focus on the processes of gathering, analysing, disseminating and employing knowledge, emphasizing the historicity of activities that are often assumed to be unchanging granted.

Chapters five and six attempt to counter the common assumption of the continuous progress of knowledge or ‘advancement of learning’, recognizing the problematic aspect of accumulation. Chapters seven and eight examine the history of knowledge from two points of view, geographical and sociological, while the final chapter makes more explicit the book’s essential concern with change over time.

Specialization has affected the historiography of knowledge as well as its history. The history of science, for instance, is an autonomous department in many universities. Again, an International Intelligence History Association has been founded (1993) together with a Journal of Intelligence History (2001). The secondary literature on the history of knowledge is itself organized for the most part either by nations or by disciplines. The aim and indeed the justification for this enterprise is the attempt to cross frontiers, bearing in mind E. M. Forster’s advice, ‘Only connect’, and trying to evade what Aby Warburg called the intellectual ‘border police’ .

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 from Gutenberg to Diderot (2000) and What is Cultural History? (2004).

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 the full text of the lecture, 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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

5 + two =

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.