Interview with Peter Burke on the social history of knowledge


For the original version of this interview, and other TCS material, go to the TCS Website


Last week, Peter Burke gave a public lecture entitled ‘Loss and Gain: The Social History of Knowledge, 1750-2000’ at Birkbeck College, University of London.

Simon Dawes interviewed him about his lecture, his forthcoming book, and about knowledge, ignorance, trust, encyclopedia projects and ‘agnotology’.

Simon Dawes: Your recent lecture is taken from the book you’re currently writing, which is in effect the second volume of A Social History of Knowledge, this time bringing it up to the present by looking at knowledge from the Encyclopédie to Wikipedia. Could you begin by telling us how the work-in-progress will follow on from that earlier book, and in what ways it will offer something different? (For instance, has your methodological approach changed, or are you looking at different countries?)

Peter Burke: Volume two is designed as a continuation of volume 1 but it differs in at least 2 ways. Volume 1 was originally a series of lectures at the University of Groningen. They were named lectures, the Vonhoff lectures, which meant that the audience would come from different disciplines. That encouraged me to organize the lectures and then the book according to disciplinary approaches, the economics, politics, geography, sociology, anthropology of knowledge.

Volume 2, on the other hand, began life as a book project, even if I have sometimes given chapters as lectures, as in the case of Birkbeck. I also discovered, though I expected this, that the 250 years 1750-2000 was a time of much more rapid change than the 300 years 1450-1750 to which the first volume was devoted. So I decided to organize the 2nd volume around trends, such as specialization, nationalization or loss, as well as adding a chronological overview as a final chapter.

As for the countries involved, the first volume could concentrate on Europe, while the 2nd volume had to say a great deal about the USA, as well as discussing globalization and the exchange of knowledge between the West and other parts of the world. I don’t think the methodology has changed, though.

SD: How possible is it to demonstrate what counts as knowledge or ignorance in any given context? Just because a ‘state secret’ is officially hidden, for example, doesn’t mean the public don’t know about it. Likewise, knowledge that is in the open can be interpreted in various ways, suggesting the possibility of multiple truths or knowledges. And to what extent is even the concept of ‘knowledge’ problematic or context-dependent?

PB: ‘Demonstrating’ anything in a strict sense is virtually impossible in a volume of 100,000 words concerned with knowledge over 250 years! The idea of ‘hiding’ needs to be approached sociologically, to discuss what is hidden to whom. Rather than the dichotomy hidden/revealed, it is more illuminating to think in terms of what is more or less accessible, more or less widely-known. As for the concept of ‘knowledge’, it raises problems that I discuss right at the start in the introduction to the book (which I summarized in a seminar for the Birkbeck historians on 2 November).

SD: In discussing the practical necessity of editing and deleting knowledge in even online contexts, you refer to proposals for a ‘Wikimorgue’ or ‘Deletopedia’ for rejected entries to Wikipedia. But what about the reliability of the knowledge in Wikipedia articles, and on the internet (or in the context of so many competing sources of information and claims to authority) more generally – what role does trust play in the social history of knowledge?

PB: I don’t think that the information in the Wikipedia articles (or indeed in articles in the Britannica and other printed encyclopaedias) is always reliable. Trust does indeed play a role in the social history of knowledge, like its opposite, distrust. In practice we have to operate with a provisional or revisable trust in the face of knowledge claims that we are not in a position to verify at the moment or possibly at all, while remembering that many such claims have been proven false in the past. One advantage of Wikipedia is that it carried intellectual ‘health warnings’, notices to readers that articles may be biased or based on too few sources. I only wish these notices could be placed on printed encyclopaedias too!

SD: The focus of your lecture is really on ignorance and the loss of knowledge – specifically, the hiding, destroying and discarding of knowledge – and represents a history (or ‘agnotology’) of what and how knowledge is ignored at different times in different places. What does this sort of history have in common with Foucault’s attempts to demonstrate the discontinuities as well as the continuities, and the unsaid as well as the said?

PB: On the unsaid, ‘tacit knowledge’, there were good discussions before Foucault came along, notably by the Hungarian chemist turned philosopher Michael Polanyi. As for discontinuities, I think Foucault overemphasized them, though every historian needs to consider the balance between continuity and change. I admire and use Foucault’s work for other reasons, and cite him on various occasions in the book in other contexts.

SD: You emphasise the trends and counter-trends, the coexistence and interaction of contradictory processes and the ‘equilibrium of antagonisms that tips over into disequilibrium from time to time’. This approach explicitly challenges the notion of progress and assumptions of knowledge accumulation. Others (such as Jack Goody, whom you wrote about in TCS last year) have critiqued Western triumphalist assumptions by demonstrating the renaissances, progress and modernities of other cultures; and you yourself have suggested (in your article in TCS) the possibility of reversing the approach, and seeking Western equivalents of the phenomena of those other cultures. But to what extent are you now trying to problematise those concepts themselves?

PB: I think that all the concepts we use need to be problematized, the difficulty is to do this and to use them at the same time! I continue to be interested in concepts that have originated from outside Western Europe and the USA, e.g. in the project of the Brazilian Gilberto Freyre (about whom my wife and I published a book in 2008) to ‘tropicalize’ sociology, as he put it in the 1950s, by creating concepts based on the experience of the tropics (cf the more recent discussions of ‘Southern Theory’). But I must admit that the concepts on which most weight is placed in the book (apart, perhaps, from intellectual hybridization, interpenetration or transculturation), come from the Western tradition: Weber, Veblen, Mannheim, Bourdieu etc.

Peter Burke was Professor of Cultural History, University of Cambridge, until his retirement and remains a fellow of Emmanuel College. His books include The European Renaissance: Centres and Peripheries (1998), A Social History of Knowledge (2000) and What is Cultural History?

Simon Dawes is the Editor of the TCS Website and Editorial Assistant to Theory, Culture & Society and Body & Society

To listen to a podcast of Peter Burke’s public lecture, ‘Loss and Gain: The Social History of Knowledge, 1750-2000’, which took place at Birkbeck College, University of London, on 9th November 2010, go here

To read Peter Burke’s article ‘Jack Goody and the Comparative History of Renaissances’ (published in TCS, vol 26.7-8, Dec 2009) and the rest of the articles in the Annual Review 09, go here

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