class="csc-frame csc-frame-default"What comes first, know-how or know-what?

Zentrum Geschichte des Wissens

Universitaet Zuerich

Eidgenoessische Technische Hochschule Zuerich

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Zentrum Geschichte des Wissens

Universitaet Zuerich

Eidgenoessische Technische Hochschule Zuerich



These days, everybody talks about knowledge. No doubt, we live in a society in which knowledge is fundamental. Above all scientific knowledge and technological innovations determine the individual and collective lives of the people in manifold ways. Knowledge is the most valuable resource for the designing our future. But in fact, what do we know about knowledge:

What is knowledge?
Where does knowledge come from?
How does knowledge become global?
How does knowledge change?
What validates knowledge?
How can knowledge be mediated?
How can knowledge beapplied?
How does knowledge circulate?
Does knowledge expire?

... last but not least: What do we not know?
And, what are we, in principle, not able know?



The Center »History of Knowledge« (ZGW) has been – from 2005 to the beginning of 2022 – a leading scientific center of excellence of the University of Zurich (Center of Competence) and the ETH Zurich (D-GESS) that aimed to promote and coordinate cultural, historical and philosophical research and teaching on modern knowledge systems and knowledge societies. The ZGW was a center for scientific research as well as a platform for public reflection on the role of knowledge in modern societies.

At the end of 2021, ZGW faculty comprised twelve professors from the University of Zurich and six professors of the ETH Zurich. The associated faculty consisted of 18 members (Post-Docs). In this way, the ZGW brought 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 had a master program and a doctoral program, which will both be continued after the end of the ZGW.


Our Research

To begin with: Our competence center 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.