Burke, Peter, What Is the History of Knowledge?

Peter Burke, What Is the History of Knowledge? (Cambridge: Polity Press 2016) 160 pp. $19.95 Pb, $59.95 Hb. ISBN: 9780745669830

Peter Burke is Emeritus Professor of Cultural History at the University of Cambridge, and has published a large number of books on cultural and intellectual history. What Is the History of Knowledge? is one of a series which includes titles such as What Is Cultural History? also by Peter Burke, and What Is Intellectual History? by Richard Whatmore; the overall series title is What is History?

The series title suggests to the reader that books in the series could be seen as a handbook for current historical researchers looking for a theoretical justification for their methods of research. If so, the reader may be a little disappointed. The books in the series seem to be more of examinations of ‘why we are here now’ rather than being ‘how to’ guides.

Most historians today need to find a contemporary point of reference for their writings, and Burke is no exception. In What is the History of Knowledge? Burke begins by suggesting that the importance of this topic derives from the recent digital revolution (1); the main point is that, as with Marshall McLuhan, the medium is the message. Burke describes how the knowledge holders in different cultures and in different periods of time, have utilised different media for the promulgation of knowledge, He contrasts, for example, the power of those such as the Catholic Church, whose medieval monks conveyed knowledge on parchment (17)  with those who undermined this power and monopoly of knowledge utilising the rise of paper and printing (86).

The opening section makes clear that in fact there is no one history of knowledge, but rather ‘histories’, defined differently by period, culture, and religion This is of course a postmodern stance, the claim that there is no single truth, even in science. This postmodern idea derived from the French intellectual school, and Burke here claims allegiance with Foucault (7). He also describes the growing popularity of this topic in academic circles, with courses at a variety of universities using this umbrella title ‘history of knowledge’ (2-3).

Chapter Two offers a helpful treatment of defining concepts, including such concepts as ‘authorities and monopolies’, which reinforces the point again that knowledge is power-based: ‘knowledges may be plural but they are not equal’, bringing to mind research into post-colonial literature, and women’s writing. Other concepts treated in this way include the idea of ‘Order of Knowledge’, which again reiterates the point that such systems are ‘not planned, but are shaped by the values of the culture’ they are in. In another definition, ‘disciplines’,  Burke makes several pertinent points, including the idea that, in order to be ‘interdisciplinary’ one must also be a serial polymath (22) and master the variety of intellectual practices required by each individual discipline (19). Burke also makes the point that such interdisciplinarity has also been dismissed by its critics as ‘knowing more and more about less and less’ (23).

Later chapters cover topics such as ‘Processes’, and ‘Problems and Prospects’.  The chapter on ‘processes’ reminds us that, to qualify as ‘knowledge’ ‘items of information’ need to be discovered and then analysed first, In doing so he uses the German word Verwissenschaftlichen to define this process, translating it as ‘systematization’ 45)., and again makes the postmodern point that these methods of interpretation are not objective, even if we think they are, but are, rather, shaped by the times. Even the idea of scientific objectivity (ie ‘an attempt to separate knowledge from the knower’) has a history. This idea is then continued in a discussion of the search for objectivity when writing history itself (45-46). The chapter then gives a historiography of the four stages needed in creating ‘knowledge’, which he defines as ‘ gathering, analysing, disseminating and employing’, making the point that in the West during the  nineteenth century (and also during the twentieth century?) a higher academic regard  was given to the second of these activities, ‘analysing’.

When retrieving knowledge, Burkes makes the point that, of course, we now have access to so much more ‘information’ via databases, and are no longer bound by mere human memory (54). This is then followed by a digression on the history of archivism – how such information was originally stored (54-57).  Of course, databases too are not objective sources, but have been curated and managed by a human, who is influenced by the customs and times in which they live.

The section on ‘analysing knowledges’ is broken up into smaller sections, suggesting various means of classifying knowledge, such as description (58); quantification (60); comparing (63); interpretation (66); verification (67). In each section , historical examples  are narrated, showing how such classification of knowledge has changed through time.  One example, under the heading of ‘verification’ is that of the medical autopsy, which could verify the cause of death, in contrast to the earlier diagnosis which had been based on symptoms (67); Burke then proceeds to give a potted history of autopsy, which apparently began in Ancient Egypt.

Overall, Burke’s book offers an interesting summary of ‘where we are at’ with regards to the post-modern view of history. Historians cannot be objective, as we are influenced, obviously by our own culture. However, new interdisciplinary areas seem to be frowned upon by the author. What is left is the task Burke considers an important element of being a historian today, to ‘help their fellow citizens to see the problems of the present in a long- term perspective’ (5). To sum up, this book is essential reading for advisors to today’s politicians.

Anna Brunton, University of Oxford