U.S. Intellectual History Blog

History of knowledge and history of ideas

In history of science, my home field, we speak of knowledge: production, dissemination, transformation of knowledge; knowledge in context, geographies of knowledge, knowledge in transit, socially constructed knowledge, tacit knowledge, embodied knowledge, situated knowledge, indigenous knowledge. Random titles of history of science publications include “Cultivating knowledge in nineteenth-century English gardens” “Worthless knowledge: Science at the fringes of credibility” “Oxford Realism: Knowledge and Perception II” “Marketing knowledge for the general reader: Victorian popularizers of science.” Searching this blog, I found few posts with the word knowledge in the title and interestingly two of them had something to do with science: “Alice O’Connor’s Poverty Knowledge: Intellectual History in Action” (social sciences), “Workshop: “Knowledge and Science in Francophone Atlantic World” circa 1500-1800.” (The other two were “Blogging Academic Knowledge Part I & II“.)

However, my impression is that, and please correct me if I am wrong and excuse my grand generalizations, intellectual historians more often use terms like “ideas” rather than “knowledge.” I wonder if there is any significance to this? I am not sure. One possible difference which would lead to emphasis of knowledge is that histories of science often highlight communities, either scientific or lay, rather than individuals. Another possibility is that science is often analyzed as practice, often involving manipulation of images, instruments, and networks of many kinds. Maybe in such contexts speaking of knowledge more generally, is preferable to just speaking about ideas, beliefs and thoughts. Yet another explanations could be that history of science itself is an intertwining of intellectual, cultural, and social histories–all around the notion of the production of knowledge. Of course, historians of science use the notion of ideas as much as intellectual historians use the notion of knowledge, and neither seems very concerned with specifying what exactly is meant by those concepts. Nonetheless, there seems to be a perceptible difference in emphasis. I wonder what is a difference between history of knowledge and history of ideas?

(Full disclosure: in my dissertation I argue against using the concepts of “ideas” and “beliefs” in analyzing formation of scientific communities. However, my argument is idiosyncratic and does not reflect the wider community of historians of science, yet 🙂

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. A very interesting observation, Sylwester!

    Off the top of my head, I’d say that knowledge (i.e. justified, true belief) is a particular subset of ideas. And to talk of “knowledge” involves making a truth claim about one’s subject matter that talking of “ideas” does not entail. And further that this reflects a different relationship of (most) historians of science to science itself from the relationship that other intellectual historians have to the intellectual projects of the thinkers we’re studying.

    But it’s early and I’ve only had one cup of coffee….

  2. I think the term difference has something to do with precision: levels expected, levels attainable, surety of the concept/s at hand, etc. “Knowledge” conveys precision (whether rightly or no), and “ideas” conveys the notion that precision might not be attainable or is still in play.

    This might be a classic difference between the humanities and sciences—the kind of thing for which each might like to make fun of the other. You know, scientists think the humanities folks are fuzzy. And humanities folks scoff at the quantification of certain concepts, ideas, or knowledge.

    That said, I hesitate—indeed deplore—the notion that one branch should hold their noses at the others contributions. This goes to Ben’s comment about truth claims. Since I’ve had more coffee than Ben I’ll go further.

    Finding where precision fits within the larger categories of ideas is just as important as being precise once one finds a relatively proper category and proceeds toward specialization/quantification. Could it be, dare I hazard, that historians of science have a ~natural inclination~ toward precision at the expense of the larger taxonomy, and vice versa with intellectual historians/historians of ideas? Ideally you’d want both in your story, but we all know that time and space on the page limit our ability to explore both ideally.

    It’s nice to start your day with a little epistemology as evident in term usage. – TL

  3. Sylwester – Interesting and provocative post, I will need to give it further thought. A couple of possible explanations come to mind. There is, of course, an intellectual history to intellectual history, which traces back to and is interwoven with the history of ideas, and this emphasis on ideas may be a vestigial aspect of that history. More recently, however, I think that the challenges posed in the 1970s and 1980s by social and the new cultural history (and the associated disciplines they drew upon), may have something to do with this emphasis on ideas. Social history (re)sensitized many historians to the ramifications of power in society, and when that power wasn’t analyzed structurally, it was often characterized in terms of ideas rather than knowledge, whether gendered social norms, racist ideology or cultural hegemony. The new cultural history, in turn, which drew heavily on cultural anthropology, again emphasized values and beliefs – ideas – rather than knowledge. Much of the contemporary history of science is as you note interested in communities; it is also deeply influenced by the sociology of knowledge, which construes knowledge as an objective social fact capable, as Tim suggests, of precise study and analysis. This suggests that the history of science and intellectual history, despite areas of overlap, may be drawing on different analytical traditions and hence have distinct intellectual histories.

    Your insight would make an interesting panel topic for the 3rd Annual USIH Conference.

  4. In a first draft of my post I started to clarify what was meant by “knowledge” and my first observation was that it is definitely not Justified True Belief, e.g. situated or tacit knowledge by definition cannot be even expressed as beliefs. (I think my sloppy use of the term knowledge drove crazy the philosopher on my committee.) Of course this is an overgeneralization, but often when historians of science write of knowledge, they mean something like a set of beliefs and practices, assumptions, standards of who is allowed to participate in discourse, etc. That is a lot of the intelectual apparatus surrounding scientific practice. To me this concept is far from precise, and it the concept of ideas that seems much more precise. Interesting how we read each other’s primary fields so differently!

    As far as the relationship of historians of science to science, I would say that there is a whole spectrum from very hostile to very approving with the middle being sympathetic to the the enterprise in general, but somewhat skeptical about veracity of many specific claim (that is where I would say I stand).

    Tim, I am not sure I get all the way what you mean by “inclination toward precision at the expense of the larger taxonomy.”

  5. Sylwester – I am not sure if you are responding directly to my or Tim’s comment, but the operative word in my take on the history of science is that sociologists of knowledge *construe* knowledge as an objective social fact, not that knowledge has such an objective facticity or that I believe it does so in relation to ideas. I’m as comfortable seeing knowledge – even scientific knowledge – as discursive and socially constructed, as I am of ideas.

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