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

A good introduction for me was Peter Burke, What is the History of Knowledge (polity, 2016). It says more about what the field can encompass than it does about historiographical debates or plausible narratives. Still, for an outsider like me, the book offers helpful vocabulary and categories with which to begin thinking about this subject. A different kind of text that I also found useful is Ian F. McNeely and Lisa Wolverton, Reinventing Knowledge: From Alexandria to the Internet (W.W. Norton & Company, 2008). If the focus is on the West and elite knowledge, and if it offers generalizations that specialists might pick apart, it has the merit of offering a narrative that helps the reader to think about the production, preservation, transmission, and consumption of knowledge over a long span of time. I find such historical narratives absolutely necessary when first getting my feet wet in a subject.

Knowledge history can encompass faith traditions and the academic disciplines, of course, but it can go well beyond that to all walks of life, whether the knowledge is explicit or implicit, published or produced and transmitted in a workshop, and so on. With its interest in what people know and how they produce, use, and disseminate this knowledge, knowledge history does not feel all that strange from the perspective of social and cultural history. Indeed, knowledge history seems capable of dovetailing productively with these more familiar approaches.

In Isabel Hull, Absolute Destruction (Cornell UP, 2006), for example, we learn that army officers in Imperial Germany shared a certain understanding and approach to war despite their diverse training, career paths, and experiences; however, we never learn how they came to share this common military culture. If we consider what these men knew about war, we still have a phenomenon whose cultural logic can be unpacked, but now we can also start asking about the education, training, and acculturation that helped transform young men into military professionals. In other words, we can begin to think about how and what officers learned and knew as well as how they produced and transmitted this knowledge. In this way, a static image of culture becomes dynamic, capable of changing over time.

The history of knowledge is not all that foreign to the business and consumption history I edited under the previous director either, even if that history has not been written with the history of knowledge in mind or in the vein of cultural history. The most interesting book of this type I encountered was Hartmut Berghoff, Philip Scranton, and Uwe Spiekermann, eds., The Rise of Marketing and Market Research (Palgrave, 2012). The titles of its individual chapters might sound highly specialized, but together they show how different social and economic actors came to conceive and understand the markets in which they were operating in ways that modernday ideological adherence to capitalism as a natural, ahistorical phenomenon remains oblivious. The subtitle of the introduction includes the term “information” (not “knowledge”) but many of the examples in the book show entrepreneurs and others producing knowledge, that is, coming up with new ways to understand society and gather and use data to sell goods.

In hindsight, I think I found this particular book so interesting because of the knowledge aspect of the topic. For example, in “Making the Ledgers Talk: Customer Control and the Origins of Data Mining,” Josh Lauer shows how U.S. department stores in the early decades of the twentieth century had credit departments—not necessarily profitable—as a service to their customers. Yet some people in these departments came to understand how much sales data they were sitting on and began to use it to target specific kinds of customers with direct mail campaigns, based on their specific purchase histories. In other words, these credit departments took information already on hand and transformed it into new knowledge about their customers that could be used to increase sales.


  1. See Simone Lässig, preface, Bulletin of the German Historical Institute Washington DC 58 (Spring 2016), http://www.ghi-dc.org/fileadmin/user_upload/GHI_Washington/Publications/Bulletin58/bu58_3.pdf
  2. Karl Mannheim, Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge, ed. Paul Kecskemeti (London: Routledge, 1952), https://archive.org/details/essaysonsociolog00mann; Clifford Geertz, Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology (New York: Basic Books, 1983. 

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.