J. Östling u.a. (Hrsg.): Circulation of Knowledge

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Circulation of Knowledge. Explorations in the History of Knowledge


Editor(s)
Östling, Johan; Sandmo, Erling; Larsson Heidenblad, David; Nilsson Hammar, Anna; Nordberg, Kari H.
Published
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256 S.
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€ 31,79; kr 299,00
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Christoffer Basse Eriksen, Department of Philosophy and History of Ideas, University of Cambridge

In recent years, history of knowledge has gained increasing attention. As new ways of communicating knowledge emerge, questioning established forms of knowledge, some historians are now seeking to illuminate what has been perceived as knowledge in the past: how hierarchies of knowledge have been established and overturned, how some knowers have been included while others have been excluded, and how knowledge has travelled around the world and been transformed in the process. The present volume, which is the product of a conference arranged by the New History of Knowledge network at Lund University that took place in August 2016, seeks to further establish history of knowledge as a historiographical approach while presenting the diversity of analyses that can be made under this new umbrella. While the volume generally succeeds with the latter aim, the arguments describing history of knowledge as a new direction for the historical sciences are less convincing.

The introduction – signed by the five editors, but penned by principal organizers Johan Östling and David Larsson Heidenblad – outlines the field of history of knowledge and the volume’s focus on circulation. History of knowledge, we learn, is not a new concept, and perhaps not even a new approach, but it has emerged as a scholarly field thanks to the work of historians like Philipp Sarasin, Peter Burke, Simone Lässig and Lorraine Daston. The editors discuss their contributions and their motives for identifying themselves as historians of knowledge, but they provide few comments regarding the approach. I would have liked to hear more about what history of knowledge is as a method, practice, and strategy, and also what it is not. The editors seem to take for granted that this historiographical innovation is needed, but they do not explicate the reasons behind it. As such, it is hard to tell what the specific approach of history of knowledge allows them to do that, say, book history, global history of science or visual and material culture does not. The editors could have been clearer about their own purpose with the project, instead of using the introduction primarily to point out forerunners. In the second part of the introduction, the editors give their reasons for focusing on circulation. Although the editors share the conviction that „the concept of the circulation of knowledge has the potential to transform historical research“ (p. 17), they choose to leave the definition of this concept open, which makes it difficult to see what this potential comprises.

While the introduction is only one of 13 chapters, the need for the editors to be less vague regarding their own ambitions is made all the more crucial by the fact that the remaining 12 chapters travel in so many different directions. Circulation is a broad term, and it is not made any narrower here, as the chapters take us from sea-pigs and Luther translations in the 16th century to current debates on cholesterol and university teaching. The volume is divided into three parts – „Public circulation of knowledge“, „Conditions of circulation“ and „Objects and sites of knowledge“ – with each containing four chapters, but these distinctions seem to be pragmatic groupings rather than planned themes to be covered. In the first section, Laura Hollsten discusses the roles of the state and media in the communication of knowledge about health, with public debates on cholesterol in Finland as her starting-point; Kari H. Nordberg details the highly interesting history of Inge and Sten Hegeler, who communicated sexual knowledge to the Danish public in the 1960s and 1970s; in a short chapter, Heidenblad presents his work on the circulation of Gösta Ehrensvärd’s 1971 pessimistic predictions for the future; and Erik Bodensten offers insights into the mechanisms of knowledge in the public sphere of 18th-century Sweden.

The second section emphasises the challenges of the volume. Here, we are presented with four very different chapters, in terms of both material and approach. The first chapter, by Anna Nilsson Hammar, is a methodological investigation of how to study practical knowledge of everyday life. She suggests that we should distinguish between theoria, poiesis and phronesis as three different „forms of knowledge“ in order to study knowledge as a socially relevant phenomenon, and in this way, she provides some of the theoretical discussion lacking in the introduction. The following chapter is Anders Ahlbäck’s case study on the introduction of didactics to Finnish universities from the 1960s to the 2000s. While this is an interesting chapter, it is difficult to see how it is informed by history of knowledge, or which new insights it brings to this approach. Isak Hammar looks at public debates on education in early 19th-century Sweden, while Kajsa Brilkman makes a very convincing argument regarding the different public spheres in the 16th-century Swedish realm. Brilkman studies the ways in which Lutheran literature was translated into Swedish, and argues that we should not consider translation as mere diffusion or dissemination of preexisting knowledge, but as a distinct way in which the translator could achieve certain cultural and political ends. Here, the merits of the study of circulation of knowledge are brilliantly exemplified.

In the third section, easily the strongest of the volume, Erling Sandmo begins by telling the story of two monsters from the 16th century: the sea-pig and the walrus. Analyzing Olaus Magnus’ maps and histories of Scandinavia, Sandmo delicately argues that while the walrus was turned into an epistemic thing in Hans-Jörg Rheinberger’s terminology, the sea-pig „ends up as an untruth“ (p. 192) because knowledge of this creature did not survive circulation. In Camilla Ruud’s brilliant chapter, matter circulates in the form of a skeleton transported from Peru to Madrid, actors circulate in the form of a Danish naturalist travelling to Madrid and reporting his observations back to Copenhagen, and texts circulate in the form of translations of Blumenbach’s earth-scientific writings from German to Danish. Here, the importance of understanding circulation, and thereby knowledge, in the most concrete way possible is illustrated clearly as Ruud highlights all the intermediary steps necessary for the expansion of natural-historical knowledge in the Danish capital. Ruud’s chapter is followed by Susann Holmberg’s analysis of circulation of the wood species guaiacum as a cure for syphilis in the 16th century, and Helge Jordheim’s discussion of Fontenelle’s book Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes as a site of knowledge circulation. Jordheim’s chapter ends with an analysis of the translation of Fontenelle into Danish.

This leads me to my final remark. In my view, one of the greatest strengths of the volume is that all of the contributions deal explicitly with Scandinavian sources, with the best of them managing to put these sources into a broader geographical context (Brilkman’s and Ruud’s chapters being the finest examples). Here, Scandinavia (rightly) is alternately presented as peripheral and central in the analyzed knowledge networks. If one of the merits of history of knowledge is that it allows for a more nuanced global history of science, the editors appear to have missed an opportunity to offer reflections on Scandinavian countries’ place within the global perspective. This aside, the editors are to be complimented for bringing together so many fine case studies, even if the book struggles with its cohesion.

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Published on
01.11.2019
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