class="csc-default"Is historical epistemology a contradiction in terms?

Zentrum Geschichte des Wissens

Universität Zürich

Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich

Zentrum Geschichte des Wissens

Universität Zürich

Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich



The Center »History of Knowledge« (ZGW) is a scientific center of excellence of the University of Zurich (Center of Competence) and the ETH Zurich (D-GESS) that aims to promote and coordinate cultural, historical and philosophical research and teaching on modern knowledge systems and knowledge societies. The ZGW is a center for scientific research as well as a platform for public reflection on the role of knowledge in modern societies.

As decreed by the Board of Directors of the University of Zurich, the Center »History of Knowledge« was established as a joint center of the ETH Zurich and the University of Zurich effective January 1, 2005 and once again accredited January 1, 2010.

Currently, ZGW faculty comprises twelve professors from the University of Zurich and seven professors of the ETH Zurich. At the moment the associated faculty consists of 32 members (Post-Doc`s). In this way, we bring together expertise in theoretical and practical philosophy, literary and cultural as well as historical science (history of science, art, medicine, architecture, technology and global history), creating a strong interdisciplinary, internationally-oriented research group.

The ZGW also has a master program and a SUK-doctoral program.

Our Research

To begin with: The ZGW has no unité de doctrine. Our common starting point is rather an assumption: We assume that the historical development of knowledge – with all its epistemic, technological, and cultural premises as well as its consequences – has to be understood as an open-ended process. Therefore, our center sees itself as a place where we reflect on knowledge dynamics from a historical, cultural and philosophical perspective.
In order to avoid premature epistemic demarcations in the analysis of modern knowledge societies, e.g. between scientific and popular knowledge, we put our methodical focus on the circulations of different forms of knowledge through society. This means we ask how scientific, technical and medical forms of knowledge, as well as its practices, semantics and materiality, are generated, sustained and how they decline and turn obsolete. Moreover, we cultivate a certain sensibility concerning non-scientific forms of knowledge and their impact on values and practices in the Lebenswelt.

The key category of our center, i.e. »knowledge«, is distinct from the term used traditionally in science and the history of science:

Forms of Knowledge
Knowledge includes academic, but also various forms of non-academic »public« and »popular« knowledge. This dynamic and complex concept of knowledge differs substantially from the old epistemic privilege of scientific knowledge.

Circulation of Knowledge
Knowledge circulates within and between social spheres. In these exchange processes between academic and non-academic forms of knowledge, new knowledge is generated, disseminated and continually changed.

Practices of Knowledge
Knowledge is not free-floating: On the one hand, knowledge is associated with institutions, thus, it is part of power structures; on the other hand, knowledge is always intertwined with and constituted by physical practices, It depends on media, representation and visualization techniques, as well as forms of speech and discourse.

See our projects.

For further reading:
Pidgin-Knowledge. Wissen und Kolonialismus (Harald Fischer-Tiné 2013)
Was ist Wissensgeschichte? (Philipp Sarasin 2011)
Wissensgeschichte - Eine Standortbestimmung (David Gugerli 2012)
All editorials of our Yearbook for the History of Knowledge (since 2005)

Our Teaching

We live in the age of knowledge. Therefore, we need experts for the epistemic, economic, political, social, ethic and aesthetic premises and consequences of the production and circulation of knowledge. The knowledge society needs academically trained strategists who are able to analyze different bodies of knowledge and their entanglements. We need professionals who are able to translate scientific knowledge into a discourse which is intelligible for all.

Since 2007, our competence center houses a graduate center with, at present, 26 PhD students and a master program with, at present, 44 students. In addition, we offer various courses for PhD students and master students of the ETH Zurich and the University of Zurich, e.g. an introduction into the history and philosophy of knowledge.


Program Spring 2017

Like in the past academic year, we alternate between two different types of events: an academic colloquium covering topics related to the history of knowledge (ZGW Kolloquium) is followed by an event at the Cabaret Voltaire focused on current public debates. In addition, we are very much looking forward to welcoming, Prof. Dr. Tobias Rees at the ZGW.

The following events are scheduled for the upcoming semester:
March, 8: ZGW Kolloquium with Prof. Dr. Joseph Masco
March, 22: Wissen in Gesellschaft "Ethnological exhibitions"
April, 5: ZGW Kolloquium with Prof. Dr. Mark Solovey
April, 26: Wissen in Gesellschaft "Wherefore libraries are good"
Mai, 17: ZGW Kolloquium with Prof. Dr. Tobias Rees, guest at ZGW

See the complete program here.

The Emergence and Dissolution of (Medical) Knowledge

Uncertainty and Openness (Flyer)

Workshop: May 31, 2017

with ZGW Guest Professor Tobias Rees (McGill University)

Knowledge is not fixed, but unstable, uncertain and evolving. In his recent book Plastic Reason (2016), Tobias Rees anthropologically investigates brain research in twenty-first-century Paris and the ‘plasticity’ of knowledge. Based on several years of fieldwork with neuronal researchers, he argues that knowledge – like the experimental systems of the natural sciences – is ‘contingent on unarticulated conceptual presuppositions’ that differ from place to place. Scientific thinking and knowledge production is, therefore, a very regional and relational, but also unstable and inherently uncertain affair.

Place & Time: ETH Zurich, Rämistrasse 101, HG F 33.5, 10am-7pm

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Petite Science. Ausseruniversitäre Naturforschung in der Schweiz um 1900

Book launch: June 14, 2017

Buchvernissage mit Dr. des. Tobias Scheidegger, Institut für Sozialanthropologie und Empirische Kulturwissenschaft – Populäre Kulturen, Universität Zürich.

Place & Time: Völkerkundemuseum, Pelikanstrasse 40, 8001 Zurich, Room: Hörsaal, PEA, 7-8.30pm

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Welche Rolle spielt die Öffentlichkeit für Vernunft?

Workshop: June 14, 2017 (Ankündigung)

with Prof. Dr. Stefan Gosepath (FU Berlin)

Vernunft als Fähigkeit von Personen, sich selbst und ihre Handlungen und Überzeugungen zu begründen, erschöpft sich nicht in privaten Überlegungen. Gerade auch in der öffentlichen Argumentation, verstanden als Austausch von Gründen zwischen Personen, wenden wir unsere Fähigkeit zur Vernunft an. Öffentliche Räume, in denen dieser Austausch stattfinden kann, scheinen demnach eine wesentliche Rolle für Begründungen oder Rechtfertigungen zu spielen. In dem Workshop wollen wir uns diesem Verhältnis von Öffentlichkeit und Vernunft widmen: Inwiefern muss Vernunft in den jeweiligen Problembereichen, derer sie sich annimmt, öffentlich sein?

Organised by Silvan Moser and Romila Storjohann (Professur für Philosophie II, ETHZ)

Information and registration here.

Place & Time: ETH Zürich, RZ F 21, Clausiusstrasse 59, 9.45am-6.30pm

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Saisir le terrain / Terrain und Kultur II

Wissensmedien des Raums (Program)

Symposium: June 15-16, 2017

Im Anschluss an eine erste Tagung „Saisir le terrain / Terrain und Kultur“ 2013 in Frankfurt am Main will das Zu?rcher Symposion das Querschnittthema der Wissensmedien und der mit ihnen verbundenen Praktiken in der historischen und ethnologischen Kulturforschung vertiefen. „Saisir le terrain / Terrain und Kultur II“ ru?ckt die Untersuchung der Techniken und Medien raumbezogenen Forschens in ihrer historischen Gewordenheit seit der Ausbildung einer differenzierten Fachlandschaft im Laufe des 19. Jahrhunderts (diachron) und in ihren Beziehungen zu sozialen und technischen Entwicklungen (synchron) ins Zentrum der Diskussion.

The number of participants is limited. We kindly ask you to register until May 19, 2017

Place & Time: University of Zurich, Rämistrasse 71, Room KOL-E-13, 15.7.: 1-7pm, 16.7.: 9am-6pm

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Academic Guest in May/ June 2017

From May to June we warmly welcome Prof. Dr. Tobias Rees from the Mc Gill University at the ZGW. More

Upcoming events:
Public Lecture: May 17, 2017
Title: How the Brain Outgrew its Histories. An Essay in Deteleologization
Place & Time: ETH Zürich, RZ building, Clausiusstrasse 59, 8092 Zurich, Room F 21, 6.15-8pm

Workshop: May 31, 2017
Title: The Emergence and Dissolution of (Medical) Knowledge. Uncertainty and Openness
Place & Time: ETH Zurich, Rämistrasse 101, HG F 33.5, 10am-7pm

New members

April 2017

We warmly welcome Prof. Dr. Sylvia Sasse (University of Zurich) as a new member at the ZGW and Dr. Sophie Witt (University of Zurich) as a new associated member. We are looking forward to stimulating exchange and productive discussions! 

Job offer

March 2017 

The Chair for History (Prof. Dr. Monika Dommann) at University of Zurich invites applications for 1 graduate assistant. See the job offer for further information.

The application has to be submitted by March 10, 2017.

Further information on the Chair: Website of the Chair

Trump Reveals the Use of the Humanities

February 2017

Read the article of Michael Hagner on democracy and science in the NZZ (Feb 10).

Job offer

January 2017

The Chair for Science Studies (Prof. Dr. Michael Hagner) at ETH Zurich invites applications for 1 PhD position. Further information on the Chair: Website of the Chair

In addition to a letter of motivation, CV, copies of academic degrees and certificates, your application should include an outline of your research project (approx. 2000 words), a writing sample (e.g. published paper or chapter of your Master thesis), and the contact details of two referees. The application has to be submitted by February 28, 2017. Please send it by email to Sara A. Booz

We wish you...

...all the best for 2017