Book Review: A Social History of Knowledge

Photo Credit: Beans on Broad

Guest Post by Tabitha Sikich
Book Review of A Social History of Knowledge: From Gutenberg to Diderot 

We live in a world full of words. It seems just about everyone is talking. About everything.

And all this talk centers upon what people know, or think that they know — ideas, insights and understanding, what is true or not true. We are people. And we like to know things. So we talk as a means of discovery.

It has always been this way. People have been talking about what they know since the beginning of the ages. We have simply joined the conversation.

It’s a very human undertaking: this endeavor to define the substance of what we know. But since it’s beginning, both the content and manner in which the dialogue regarding knowledge has been carried has dramatically shifted across centuries and societal structures.

In 2000 Peter Burke, author of A Social History of Knowledge, wrote the book about exactly that — the ever-evolving manner of human conversing about what we know to be true. The work is, analogous to its name, a survey of the development of knowledge as it has been fashioned in the hands of successive generations throughout the ages.

“The suggestion that what individuals believe to be truth or knowledge is influenced, if not determined, by their social milieu is not a new one.”[1]

We are communal creatures, us humans, and inextricably connected to and informed by the social contexts in which we are brought up.

With that understanding Burke addresses the rise and trends in the formulation of knowledge as it developed right along with each of the intellectual societies that claimed to have significant charge of its definition. Burke focuses upon knowledge as it was established in early modern Europe, primarily by the european intelligentsia, and moves chronologically from the Renaissance through the time of the Enlightenment. In a style that is coherent and engaging, he follows the tracks of the learned men, the main influencers or “disseminators of knowledge,”[2] as they continue the conversation.

He paints well the picture of the movements of society’s definition of knowledge, telling the story of societies’ and even entire generations’ approaches and reactionary movements in the quest to establish the breadth and boundaries of truth. And he connects these movements to their contemporary manifestations in culture. For example, during the Enlightenment there was a sort of rebellion against the establishments of the University and Academy by those scholars who had found themselves on the fringes of the intellectual institutions. Rather than the formal organizations of academia, these contemporary men of learning moved their scholarship and banter to the coffee houses and libraries — two venues that became the most popular locales for the development of ideas from the seventeenth century onwards.[3]

Not only is the book a rich collection of brilliant anecdotes and a well-penned historical narrative, A Social History of Knowledge also leaves readers with a clearer understanding of this significant insight: We all have our existence within a context. And that context substantially informs how we define and what we believe to be the substance of human understanding.

By being born into the ranks of humankind, we have stepped directly into the middle of an ongoing narrative. We are all in some way a part of this conversation. And we’re all part of this conversation from the perspective of our current human context, which is not the same as it has been or will be in the future.

So as we carry on our conversing about things that we know, and about the issues that matter to us — being agents of justice in a broken world, pressing further into the life of faith — we must not be ignorant of the context in which we find ourselves. We must not ignore the movements and trends of the conversation of which we have become a part.

As believers, we acknowledge that there is certainly Truth that is unchanging — God’s goodness, His faithfulness, and His Word that’s been revealed to us. But most of the issues that we encounter — those that require an understanding of history and cultural context, and, namely, our interpretation of them — must be approached with humility. Just think, it was not that long ago that the vast majority of our nation, and globe for that matter, unthinkingly endorsed the sale and ownership of human beings. Put simply: We haven’t yet arrived.

So speak. Join the conversation. But in your conversing, speak from a level of understanding that has been informed by the narrative of history being written with the unravelling of the decades.


[1] Peter Burke, A Social History of Knowledge: From Gutenburg to Diderot (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000); 2.
[2] ibid., 18.
[3] 46048, 55-57.

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Categories: Justice & Culture

Theology and Culture