A Social History of Knowledge

A Social History of Knowledge
Volume II: From the Encyclopedie to Wikipedia
Peter Burke
Polity Press   359pp   £17.99

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How do we know what we think we know? That the Earth is round, for example, and rotates around the Sun, or that Napoleon’s armies retreated from Moscow 200 years ago, or that Renoir was an Impressionist and Anthony Blunt a spy? On what grounds, for that matter, are we inclined to deny what others have believed to be true, such as that certain ‘races’ are inherently superior to others, that skull shapes suggest various levels of intelligence or that a house is haunted? My ‘knowledge’ (like yours, I suspect) is mostly based on information I have received from sources I trust. But that was true of people in earlier times, too. So by what paths did we reach our present state of collective knowledge? This is the question Peter Burke sets out to answer.

The result is a glittering cabinet of intellectual curiosities, a systematic study of the collecting, analysing, disseminating, storing, accessing, using and losing of knowledge in the western world from the mid-18th century to the ‘information overload’ of today. You might expect a book about the social history of knowledge to consist of a broadly chronological account of what sort of people knew what and when. But Burke, one of our foremost cultural historians, has long been driven to seek connections across time, place and intellectual field. This cross-disciplinarity has marked much of his oeuvre, from a comparison of elites in Venice and Amsterdam and books on the sociology of the Renaissance and the ‘fabrication’ of Louis XIV to histories of popular culture and of the media. And it is evident in his latest book, formally the second part of a two-volume study (the first dealt with the period from Gutenberg to Diderot).

Burke’s quest for how knowledge has been gathered, used and abused leads him to consider the institutions that have housed and controlled it such as labs and libraries, universities, governments and private companies, while along the way there are revealing instances of how it has been obtained as well as of its classification, suppression and deliberate or accidental destruction. Burke concludes with a section on the ‘geographies’ of knowledge: its ‘nationalisation’, for example, or the shifting relationships between western and non-western bodies of knowledge; its ‘sociologies’ (including the issue of who has funded research); and the ‘chronologies’ by which forms of knowledge came to be institutionalised.

If this review contains a number of lists, this reflects the style of the book itself. The sheer range of Burke’s scholarship leads him to pack page after page with instances and references. I was familiar with some, mentally ticking off such names as Herschel and Humboldt, Malthus, Marx and Malinowski. But I found myself in less familiar territory when encountering, say, the titles and foundation dates of a string of international learned journals or of women’s colleges in the US, Britain, Japan, India, Switzerland, Russia and Germany. Burke’s own intellectual reach is prodigious; thus his Latin American expertise is in abundant evidence and he makes frequent forays into aspects of Dutch, Scandinavian or Russian intellectual history. But even he has his limits. Those familiar with the Arabic world might find him lacking, while some might question the predominantly institutional focus of the book. Overall, its structure and style adopt a certain formality, almost self-effacing at times; Burke’s copious endnotes, for example, merely cite sources where a little critical guidance might have been welcome. Within this treasure chest, however, there beats an endearingly human heart and one warms to a scholar who expresses the earnest hope that his readers ‘will not feel that I have contributed to information overload as well as discussing it’. 

Daniel Snowman’s books include a study of the ‘Hitler Emigrés’ and The Gilded Stage: A Social History of Opera (Atlantic, 2010).

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