Skip to main content

Social History of Knowledge: From Gutenberg to Diderot



Social History of Knowledge: From Gutenberg to Diderot

Peter Burke

ISBN: 978-0-745-62485-3 December 2000 Polity 268 Pages


In this book Peter Burke adopts a socio-cultural approach to examine the changes in the organization of knowledge in Europe from the invention of printing to the publication of the French Encyclopédie.

The book opens with an assessment of different sociologies of knowledge from Mannheim to Foucault and beyond, and goes on to discuss intellectuals as a social group and the social institutions (especially universities and academies) which encouraged or discouraged intellectual innovation. Then, in a series of separate chapters, Burke explores the geography, anthropology, politics and economics of knowledge, focusing on the role of cities, academies, states and markets in the process of gathering, classifying, spreading and sometimes concealing information. The final chapters deal with knowledge from the point of view of the individual reader, listener, viewer or consumer, including the problem of the reliability of knowledge discussed so vigorously in the seventeenth century.

One of the most original features of this book is its discussion of knowledges in the plural. It centres on printed knowledge, especially academic knowledge, but it treats the history of the knowledge 'explosion' which followed the invention of printing and the discovery of the world beyond Europe as a process of exchange or negotiation between different knowledges, such as male and female, theoretical and practical, high-status and low-status, and European and non-European.

Although written primarily as a contribution to social or socio-cultural history, this book will also be of interest to historians of science, sociologists, anthropologists, geographers and others in another age of information explosion.

List of Illustrations.

Preface and Acknowledgements.

1. Sociologies and Histories of Knowledge: an Introduction.

2. Professing Knowledge: the European Clerisy.

3. Establishing Knowledge: Institutions Old and New.

4. Locating Knowledge: Centres and Peripheries.

Classifying Knowledge: Curricula, Libraries and Encyclopaedias.

6. Controlling Knowledge: Churches and States.

7. Selling Knowledge: the Market and the Press.

8. Acquiring Knowledge: The Reader's Share.

9. Trusting and Distrusting Knowledge; a Coda.

Select Bibliography.


'In Peter Burke's scholarly hands the notion of a social history of knowledge sheds its philosophical provocation and becomes judicious, prudent and historically rich. A beautifully written and accessible exercise in historical synthesis.' Steven Shapin, author of "A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England" (1994) and Professor of Sociology, University of California, San Diego

'Peter Burke is an exceptional historian: a polyglot, at home in a dozen languages; an intellectual, who is well versed in theoretical developments adjacent to history; a superb expositor, with the capacity to distil his findings in unpretentious and limpidly accessible prose; and an author of unflagging vitality, whose prolific studies in the cultural history of early modern Europe and in modern historiography constitute a formidable oeuvre ... He has succeeded in producing a balanced, judicious and highly stimulating work of synthesis. His book will be an indispensable starting point for years to come.' Keith Thomas, History Today

'Burke has made a significant contribution to cultural history ... [He] shows how knowledge was a form of exchange and how it became what we would recognize it as today. Burke's achievement in A Social History of Knowledge is to remind us that people in the past did not view knowledge in the same way as we do today.' History

This is a unique and original attempt to develop a social history of knowledge by one of the leading cultural historians todayDraws on the work of a wide range of historians and social thinkers including Bourdieu, Foucault, Weber and MannheimExamines the history of knowledge in Europe throughout the early modern period from the invention of the printing press to the publication of the EncyclopUdie Clearly written in an accessible style