A Social History of Knowledge
How do we know what we think we know? That the Earth is round, for example, and rotates around the Sun, or that Napoleon’s armies retreated from Moscow 200 years ago, or that Renoir was an Impressionist and Anthony Blunt a spy? On what grounds, for that matter, are we inclined to deny what others have believed to be true, such as that certain ‘races’ are inherently superior to others, that skull shapes suggest various levels of intelligence or that a house is haunted? My ‘knowledge’ (like yours, I suspect) is mostly based on information I have received from sources I trust. But that was true of people in earlier times, too. So by what paths did we reach our present state of collective knowledge? This is the question Peter Burke sets out to answer.
The result is a glittering cabinet of intellectual curiosities, a systematic study of the collecting, analysing, disseminating, storing, accessing, using and losing of knowledge in the western world from the mid-18th century to the ‘information overload’ of today. You might expect a book about the social history of knowledge to consist of a broadly chronological account of what sort of people knew what and when. But Burke, one of our foremost cultural historians, has long been driven to seek connections across time, place and intellectual field. This cross-disciplinarity has marked much of his oeuvre, from a comparison of elites in Venice and Amsterdam and books on the sociology of the Renaissance and the ‘fabrication’ of Louis XIV to histories of popular culture and of the media. And it is evident in his latest book, formally the second part of a two-volume study (the first dealt with the period from Gutenberg to Diderot).