This question has been a staple of academic philosophy since the eighteenth century. But it seems to be taking on new urgency at this historical moment, which is characterized by public disagreement over basic “facts.” Promiscuous Knowledge, a new book by John Durham Peters and Ken Cmiel, charts two processes that have shaped the modern world, from Francis Bacon to Buzzfeed: first, the multiplication of facts and of new forms of knowledge to contain them; and second, the multiplication of knowers and of new hierarchies to discipline these knowers. The heart of this historical narrative is the nineteenth century, the era of workingmen’s associations, penny tabloids, public museums, and the entrance of women into higher education—the century that initiated the democratization of knowledge and the one that shrank in horror from its consequences.
Nowhere was this development clearer than in east central Europe, where the fate of liberalism was uniquely precarious and was linked, for better or worse, to educational institutions. And nowhere did the problem of how to progress from facts to knowledge receive more attention than in the German-speaking world. It’s no coincidence that German has at least four different words for knowledge. “Kennen,” “Können,” “Wissen,” and “Erkenntnis” can all be translated into English as “knowledge.” We can learn a lot about the politics of knowledge by considering how German-speaking elites began to draw fine distinctions among these terms, imposing a vocabulary that has endured to our present day.
In the 1860s and ‘70s, access to higher education was expanding in central Europe, particularly for Jews. This was also the era when younger advocates of newer “scientific” medicine were staking their claim to authority against the gentleman practitioners of an older generation. The most famous spokesperson for the turn to scientific medicine was the Heidelberg physiologist Hermann von Helmholtz. In his widely circulated lectures on the theory of vision from the late 1860s, Helmholtz famously differentiated between Wissen and Kennen. Wissen was superior to Kennen, he argued, because it was subject to expression and therefore to synthesis: “[S]peech makes it possible to collect together the experience of millions of individuals and thousands of generations, to preserve them safely, and by continual verification to make them gradually more certain and universal.” This hierarchy of knowledge implied a hierarchy of knowers. As the Viennese physiologist Sigmund Exner put it in the 1890s, “A man can be very intelligent, but at the same time exceedingly inept in the motivation of his judgment. The associations of a clever farmer can be quite plentiful, the judgment of the significance of individual series of ideas can be correct, but since all this unfolds in him without conscious intervention, he can be very far from being able to clothe these processes in words.” This class-based hierarchy of knowledge was also gendered. Exner privately observed that the university’s newly admitted female students always studied diligently, but tended “to focus more on the exam than on utilizing what has been learned.” Women might study medicine, he implied, but they were unlikely to participate in the making of so-called universal knowledge.
And yet, to many citizens of the vast multinational, multireligious Habsburg empire in the late nineteenth century, universality was becoming a questionable virtue. Promoters of women’s education asked why women would even aspire to universality—after all, men seemed to adore women’s idiosyncrasies. They urged educational institutions to avoid “homogenizing” the female population. The late nineteenth century also saw the decisive influence of nationalist politics on higher education. Whether they were Czech, Polish, or Serbian, nationalists insisted that education should contribute to national progress at least in part by transmitting a particular cultural heritage. Socialists, meanwhile, might have embraced internationalism, but they were equally critical of the idea of universal knowledge—which they rightly saw as a barrier to the use of higher education to promote social mobility. In other words, by the turn of the twentieth century, despite the linguistic subordination of “Kennen” to “Wissen,” the particular mode of knowledge it stood for had fallen into doubt.
What then is the relationship between facts and knowledge?
The history of the question itself holds important clues for us today. Rather than pressing ahead blindly to answer it, we would do well to reflect on the implications of posing the question in this way.
Do we agree that experiential and embodied knowledge is inferior to abstract propositions? Must we assume that knowledge is made up of many small, separate components? Why equate knowledge with the state of one individual’s mind, rather than with a community of knowers?
Like the “promiscuous” critics of liberal humanism of late nineteenth-century central Europe, we should be wary of forms of expertise that deny their own histories and biases, and that rely on arbitrary forms of exclusion to maintain their status.
Professor of History and History of Science and Medicine, Yale UniversityView Bio
Deborah R. Coen is a Professor of History and Chair of the Program in History of Science and Medicine at Yale University. Her first book, Vienna in the Age of Uncertainty: Science, Liberalism, and Private Life (University of Chicago Press, 2007), focused on an extraordinary scientific dynasty, the Exner-Frisch family. Vienna in the Age of Uncertainty won the Susan Abrams Prize from the University of Chicago Press, the Barbara Jelavich Prize from the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, and the Austrian Cultural Forum Book Prize. Her latest book, Climate in Motion: Science, Empire, and the Problem of Scale (University of Chicago Press, 2018), won the 2019 Pfizer Award from the History of Science Society in recognition of an outstanding book dealing with the history of science. Climate in Motion is the first study of the science of climate dynamics before the computer age. It argues that essential elements of the modern understanding of climate arose as a means of thinking across scales of space and time. More recently, Coen is interested in the physical and social science of climate change. Her goal is to acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to bring history to bear on some of the implicitly historical questions that anthropogenic climate change raises.
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