A social history of knowledge

Lincoln Seligman, Wrapped Wine Bottles, Number 1, 1995.


Commentary on Peter Burke's book

Em A social history of knowledge – II – from Encyclopedia to Wikipedia, Peter Burke distinguishes between an “intellectual history of knowledge” focused on debates and a “social history” focused on social groups, such as the clergy, and institutions, such as libraries and universities.

The role of the clergy in the production and dissemination of knowledge, in the period 1750-2000, gradually lost its importance. Libraries have been secularized since the second half of the XNUMXth century, in the sense of being transferred from religious institutions, such as Jesuit colleges, to secular institutions, such as universities.

In the domain of knowledge institutions, secularization, that is, “a transition from a religious domain to a worldly or lay one”, appears as the dominant trend. Even so, there are reactionary defenders of counter-secularization, when, in addition to political pressures, scholars also suffer religious pressures.

For example, creationism—the belief that humanity, life, Earth, and/or the universe are the creation of an omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient supernatural being—remains alive and well in the United States and other backwater places. On the other hand, a series of judgments in American courts between 1975 and 2005 declared it unconstitutional to teach in science classes in public schools that the world was created by God, that is, the rejection of biological evolution for religious reasons.

Burke asks: what are the major turning points in the period 1750-2000? Some historians like to divide the past into generations, but the union of a generation occurs through a common experience of some type of change, such as a war, a revolution or a crisis.

Several scholars claim to have discovered several crises and revolutions in the history of knowledge. For example, historian of science Thomas Kuhn identified a whole series of scientific revolutions with dominant paradigm shifts.

The previous volume of this Social History of Knowledge ended with the publication of Encyclopedia (1751-66) by Diderot. The subsequent period is characterized by the use of knowledge in the service of reform.

It was a time of “knowledge reform”, in a double sense: not only social reforms based on knowledge, but also attempts to remodel the organization of knowledge itself. “Reform” was a keyword at that time, just like “advancement”, “improvement”, etc. It was a secular version of a religious concept, used during this period in various contexts or fields, including education.

Knowledge was usually seen as an aid to the task of undertaking social, economic and political reforms. The reform of encyclopedias can be understood as a response or expression of a broader reform of knowledge, including systematization. In addition to “improvement” and “research”, another keyword of the period was “system”.

In English, the verb systematize was coined in the 1760s. Encyclopedia Britannica (1771) addressed scientific and artistic systems. He defined the system as “a meeting or chain of principles and conclusions, or the set of any doctrine, the various parts of which are linked and follow or depend on each other, in this sense in which we speak of a system of philosophy, a capitalist system, etc. .”.

Today, at the frontier of complexity science knowledge, a complex system is defined as one emerging from interactions between its multiple components. From a holistic view or systemic approach, the whole is observed to be distinct from the parts and the importance of these parts is considered with different weights.

For example, in economics, the frontier is a financial systemic approach. It integrates personal, corporate, public, banking and international finances.

The changes that occurred from 1750 onwards can be understood more as a reorganization rather than a revolution in knowledge. The revolution itself would appear after the American (1783) and French (1789) political revolutions, with radical changes in the knowledge system.

There was the destruction of an old knowledge regime and its replacement by a new one. The old regime was hierarchical, with theology as its leader, followed by law and medicine, then the humanities or liberal arts, and finally the mechanical arts, such as agriculture and shipbuilding. In the early XNUMXth century, however, advocates of technology and the natural sciences challenged the dominance of the traditional humanities.

Historians of science consider the years around 1800 to be the era of the “second scientific revolution.” The fall of the old hierarchy was associated with a greater recognition of the plurality of knowledge, erudite and popular, encompassing the “what” and the “how”.

The perception of the existence of other knowledge, especially sources of knowledge outside the European cultural tradition, was like a discovery of the “other”, both in time (historicism) and in space (the East) or in society (the discovery of the people by the middle and upper classes). There was a deeper perception of change and the cultural distance between the past and the present, “the past seen as a foreign country”, from a Eurocentric perspective.

Behind the middle-class enthusiasm for popular culture, as in the enthusiasm for the Middle Ages and “Oriental wisdom,” was a reaction against the Enlightenment. The people were considered mysterious, described as the opposite of the self-reference of the discoverers: the people of the people were natural, simple, instinctive, irrational, without their own individuality, rooted in tradition and in the soil of their corners.

The years around 1850 are not as defined as the eras of reform and revolution. But the second half of the XNUMXth century was a fundamental period in the history of specialization because Western science was transformed into a series of densely professionalized disciplines, highly centralized within each nation, and often subsidized by direct commercial and state support.

The doctorate (ph.D.) was created as an academic qualification and several disciplines began to occupy, in increasing numbers, autonomous departments. At the time of positivism, natural sciences were taken as a model for any intellectual work, scholars from the most varied disciplines said they carried out “scientific” work.

A second major aspect defines this period: popularization. Science was explained to laypeople in a multitude of publications, including periodicals created for this purpose.

The second of Kondratiev's economic waves began in the Mechanical Age, from the mid-1840s onwards. The technology of the Age of Steam – trains and ships – transformed the knowledge community, allowing the periodic holding of international conferences on various disciplines, in addition to cycles of erudite lectures and dissemination on both sides of the Atlantic.

The years around 1900, however, were presented as a time of crisis in many disciplines. This crisis was defined as a “revolt against positivism”, a system created by Auguste Comte (1798-1857) with the proposal to organize experimental sciences, considering them the model par excellence of human knowledge, to the detriment of metaphysical or theological speculations. .

Nietzsche's “perspectivism” said there was no true way of seeing the world, but only a variety of perspectives or points of view. Our assumptions about the external world should be replaced with, in their place, an analysis of the lived experience of the world.

Albert Einstein's famous “General theory of relativity” (1915) encouraged relativism, while “the uncertainty principle”, in relation to quantum mechanics, undermined certainty in a widespread way. Pretensions to objectivity have been eroded in several fields, along with confidence in general laws and methods of general application.

For example, among professional historians, the conviction that “history is a science” gave way to the idea that “history is an art”, a branch of literature, with a personal point of view being inevitable. Art relates to the ability to construct narratives.

The First World War had many consequences for knowledge, in addition to helping to erode old certainties. On both sides of the conflict, there was the recruitment of various academic skills and academics themselves to assist in the war effort. She drew attention to the national importance of science and research.

The war was a great stimulus to industry and, thus, to certain forms of knowledge. Kondratiev's third wave had already begun in the 1890s, the Era of the Electric Revolution and innovations in information technology.

*Fernando Nogueira da Costa He is a full professor at the Institute of Economics at Unicamp. Author, among other books, of Brazil of banks (EDUSP). [https://amzn.to/3r9xVNh]


Peter Burke. A social history of knowledge – II. From Encyclopedia to Wikipedia. Rio de Janeiro, Zahar, 2003, 416 pages. [https://amzn.to/3R0p4GL]

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