History of Knowledge (Huygens ING)

In What is the History of Knowledge? (2016), Peter Burke describes the history of knowledge as a new field: it is a research field that studies the translation of information into knowledge in social processes, in sequence: discussion, verification, order, classification and dissemination. Next, various groups in society appropriate the knowledge for various purposes.

Research programme

The line of research of the history of knowledge group underwrites this approach. The old, positivist approach of the history of science as a linear development that led to the advent of modern science is herewith replaced by a model that offers more scope for complexity and nuance. The dynamic processes of knowledge production and changes in knowledge are studied along these lines over a long period, from the early Middle Ages to the eighteenth century.

However, whereas Burke develops his approach mainly endorsing the traditional methods of intellectual history and philology, our line of research in fact applies new methods and approaches: New/Material Philology and Visual and Material Cultures of Science.

This is how the history of knowledge department is working vigorously on the materiality of texts and knowledge objects. The networks, historical contexts and paratexts of primary sources that emerge as a result are considered crucial for a deeper insight into historical knowledge cultures and the associated dynamic processes.

Old and new methods

It should be noted that as a result, the department makes a powerful contribution to a general trend in the field of research, where the focus has been shifting for some time from the author to the reader and from the retailer to the consumer.

Apart from a strong emphasis on materiality, the department is convinced that new research methods arising from Digital Humanities will bring about a transformation in the field with methods such as distant reading, network analysis and topic modelling.

Experiments are hence already fully in progress, in collaboration with the developers of Huygens ING; they will continue and undergo further development. Aside from these methods based on pattern recognition, the promising developments in digital hermeneutics are particularly closely monitored.

With this combination of old and new methods, we interpret the dynamic processes of knowledge cultures throughout the centuries: the production of knowledge (mostly in the form of texts, but also in the form of objects), its dissemination and appropriation, but also its failure, consignment to oblivion and disappearance.

This happens based on many sources: manuscripts, heated public and scientific debates, correspondence and annotations penned by scholars, scientific instruments, drawings and art objects. In short: the research focuses on the dynamics of knowledge cultures in the pre-modern era, with a strong emphasis on new methods.

Research questions

1. Which factors are decisive for the dynamics of knowledge, not only in terms of knowledge production, dissemination and appropriation, but also for the suppression, failure, consignment to oblivion and disappearance of information and knowledge?

2. How can we optimally use methods of Material Philology, material knowledge culture and digital humanities to analyse these dynamic processes in knowledge cultures and to contribute to the emerging discipline of the digital history of knowledge?

Supplementary questions are:

More information in the Huygens ING Institute programme for 2018-2023


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