Information, Sociability, Reality Check

I’ve been off RSS readers for a while, in part because of Google’s exit from the game, but also because of information overload. Thinking about using it again and revisiting some old stomping grounds in the blogosphere, I found Dan Cohen’s relevant comments on Ann Blair’s Too Much to Know. Seems I am in good company with my occasional ignoring of information—ignoring that I prefer to think won’t lead to, might even prevent, ignorance.

I treat Twitter rather cavalierly too, as if it were a place to hang out, learn stuff, share things, and then leave—sometimes for longer spells. If I view all these information inputs in social terms, this is a perfectly rational way to engage with the Twittersphere. If I worried about missing some bit of news, some fascinating article or weird event, I would never get anything done and my mind would become a still murkier mess. Besides, meaningful ideas and conversations tend to have longer lifespans, and they make themselves felt in other contexts.

Dan’s piece, indeed his whole blog, reminds me of another thing. Much ostensibly older writing on the web has value, and sometimes we should take a moment to read bits of it instead of gulping down and spewing forth a remixed version of the latest clever insight or rant. (I’m talking about myself here, bigly, uh, big league.)

The History of Knowledge and Contemporary Discourse on Science

The polarizing contemporary debate on science in the United States could be extraordinarily interesting for historians of knowledge, if it were occurring in the past. Still, if we could divert our attention from the news for a moment, we might find it still offers some food for thought.

In the midst of the current conversation, which is experiencing renewed fervor under the new administration, the Twitterverse is exploding with talk of “truthiness,” “alternative facts,” “fact-based journalism,” “fake news,” and “lies.” This rhetoric encompasses not just climate science but also everyday policy-making and “s/he said” – “s/he said” arguments. It is easy to get caught up in this conversation, whose ideological and epistemological battle lines seem so clearly drawn, but one thing gets lost—most of the time, anyway. Continue reading “The History of Knowledge and Contemporary Discourse on Science”

Preparing to Fight the Last War? Maybe Not

I’ve been taking some time to think more about a slow-moving article on Wilhelm Groener I’ve been working on. It has received a big boost recently from the GHI’s new focus on the history of knowledge.

A truism holds that generals prepare to fight the last war, not the next one. Unable to peer into the future, they make do with the lessons of the past. Fair enough, perhaps, but this common-sense wisdom presupposes that military leaders will necessarily understand the salient features of the last war without preconceptions about war and officering affecting their discernment. In other words, the truism fails to account for the effects of prior training, experience, and acculturation in the production of knowledge about war. Instead, it implicitly assumes the existence of universal soldierdom, as if officering and soldiering—but for technology—were not culturally and historically contingent.

Wilhelm Groener (1867–1939) offers a case in point. A general staff officer in the German army who rose to prominence quickly in the First World War, Groener became an important spokesman in the interwar period for the so-called Schlieffen school, offering an interpretation of the war seemingly at odds with what actually happened. Instead of deriving new lessons from the stalemate, as his contemporary Erich Ludendorff did in a nightmarish vision of politics serving war instead of vice versa, Groener doubled down on the knowledge he had internalized in peacetime Wilhelmine Germany. Issuing from neither a military outsider nor an original thinker and steeped in antebellum military thoughtways and culture, Groener’s interpretation of the First World War can be analyzed in relation to his prewar training and wartime experiences to show the inner logic of the professional military knowledge and culture in which he was steeped.

Image: Prussian War Academy ca, 1900 via Wikimedia Commons.

A Few Notes on the History of Knowledge

One of the new research focuses at the GHI since our director, Simone Lässig, began her tenure last October is the history of knowledge.1 The study of knowledge in its societal context (as opposed to thought experiments about truth in the discipline of philosophy) has some tradition in sociology and anthropology, but it is still a relatively new focus in English-language historiography, at least in my experience here in the U.S.2

Continue reading “A Few Notes on the History of Knowledge”

Military History and Business History

My research deals with war and society, while my editorial work addresses mainly consumption history. One might think these are two different worlds, but I’m coming to doubt the validity of such assumptions. Indeed, the subfields of military and business history have a lot of similarities. Most obviously, they are both interested in organizations, knowledge, experts, and elites—among other things. They are also both informed by a tension between the historian’s ethos to understand the past for its own sake and the practitioner’s desire to learn lessons from that past for today. And they both have homes not only in history departments, but also institutions that train future generations of professionals, whether officers or MBAs. This tension also means that military history and business history are sometimes looked down on by the field of history more generally, even though bread-and-butter themes such as class, race, gender, citizenship, politics, and power more generally cannot be adequately understood without consideration of militaries and businesses.