class="csc-default"How does one think of knowledge as an open-ended process?

Zentrum Geschichte des Wissens

Universität Zürich

Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich

Zentrum Geschichte des Wissens

Universität Zürich

Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich


History of Knowledge

To begin with: Our 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.

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)


Research at the ZGW

We promote research on the history of knowledge on different academic levels: in early stage research, i.e. with PhD projects at the Graduate Center, with the temporary association of PostDocs, with financial and organizational support for workshops, conferences, colloquiua and other academic forums on all stages, with collective publication projects like the Zurich Yearbook for the History of Knowledge, with academic guest programs and last but not least by cultivating and supporting the collaboration of the ZGW members on the design and realization of research projects.

What we are interested in

In our research we deal with forms, circulations and practices of knowledge. For example, we are interested in...

... the ways in which »data« turn into »facts« and how they turn into knowledge, e.g. looking at the history of electronic data bases; the role of modern media like film and scientific images as well as the material dimension in the production and circulation of knowledge;
... in the history and epistemology of the life sciences and their impact on the self-perception of mankind in the human sciences and in popular culture;
... in grammars and epistemic structures of knowledge, which form our social practice, be it through semantics of discrimination or assimilation or through the impact of discourses on risk and human capital;
.... in the global genealogies of modern knowledge societies, e.g. in the context of colonial medicine in the 19th and early 20th century;
.... in the embedding knowledge production and circulation in urban infrastructures and ecologies;
... in the relation of history and philosophy of knowledge in general.


Ongoing / completed major projects

Conditio extraterrestris

The Inhabited Galaxy as the Space of Literary Imagination and Communication (1600-2000)

(Project Period: 2013-2017)
Project leader: Philipp Theisohn

The imagination of outer space as a potentially inhabited, or inhabitable, living environment has mastered the self-image of the modern human being to date. Whoever wishes to understand this, must take the history of the imagery and of the narrative of extraterrestrial life seriously, and account for it.
Since Kepler, the astronomical exploration of outer space has been indissolubly linked to the origination of a phantasy of the extraterrestrial. Indeed, the constellations of planets have long occupied the human mind; yet, not as much as how they are, or could be, inhabited. In this regard, literary imagination undertakes a coordinating function since it conveys images of alien worlds and beings, while its narratives outline the inhabited galaxy as a phenomenal order bound to carry meaning for human beings and their knowledge (from the Christian theology of creation to the theory of evolution). The project investigates the creation and the mediation of extraterrestrial space in three steps. First, it examines the poetic strategies, which assisted early modern literature to moderate the conflict between astronomy’s evidence for the multiplicity of planets and the theological truth of humankind as being at the centre of creation. Second, the project locates the history of intergalactic communicative media within the perspective of the history of a theory of modern inspiration. Third, the project carefully considers, and clarifies, the impact of the rise of the “extraterrestrial reader” on the development of new forms of narrative in European literature since the 18th century.
»Conditio extraterrestris« involves literary fiction as well as philosophical and theological speculations or astrobiological investigations. As long as the project conceives outer space as the historical product of intertwining poetics of knowledge, its investigations shed light both on the historical dimension of imaginary galaxies as well as on the cultural bases for contemporary and future outer-space expeditions.
The mimetic practices will be considered, firstly, from the media theory perspective, secondly, as visual and material cultures, and thirdly, they will be analyzed in the light of cultural studies, as connections between people and things.

Mimetic Economies

(Project Period: 2013-)
Project leader: Monika Dommann

Under the key word »mimetic economies« entrepreneurial and creative practices of invention, innovation and imitation will be considered against the backdrop of their regulation by brands. Mimetic economies operate between the poles of a modernist postulate (understood since Charles Baudelaire as the act of constant renewal) and the appropriation of traditions. They operate also through their connections both to the logic of the law (as well as to its circumvention or even transgression) and to the rules of the game on capitalist markets. By means of a study of brand management, brand protection and fake branding, mimetic practices will be identified quasi through the back door, then analyzed in the light of cultural studies and media theory.

The mimetic practices will be considered, firstly, from the media theory perspective, secondly, as visual and material cultures, and thirdly, they will be analyzed in the light of cultural studies, as connections between people and things.

Dealing with Human Capital

(Project Period: 2011-2014)

This SNF project aims to explain the rise of the human capital theory. It intends a comprehensive historical analysis of those administrative and informational technologies that were used for (1) the assessment, (2) the allocation and (3) the production of human capital from 1960 to 2000. We will argue that »human capital« has become a central resource of the information and knowledge society and stands for the theoretical and practical transformation of work in the second half of the 20th century. David Gugerli is the director of this project.

Allocation (David Gugerli)
Assessment (Brigitta Bernet)
Production (Malte Bachem und Eneia Dragomir) 

History of the Swiss Academy of Sciences

(Project Period: 2011-2014)

Project leader: Patrick Kupper
Project members: Bernhard Schär, Franziska Hupfer

This research project contributes to the history of knowledge from a transnational perspective. Our aim is to examine the two hundred year history of the Swiss Academy of Sciences in relation to social change. We analyze which functions, services and duties the Academy fulfilled for society and how tasks altered over time. We are especially interested in three contexts: First, the Academy’s performance in organizing the Swiss scientific community; second, its relation to the Swiss nation state; and third, its function in moving knowledge from the regional to the international level and vice versa.

Project partner: Swiss Academy of Sciences

Imitation - Assimilation - Transformation

(Project Period: 2010-2013)

The SNF Sinergia Projekt Imitation - Assimilation - Transformation was designed by the ZGW members Andreas Kilcher, Michael Hampe and Harald Fischer-Tiné. Since 2010, the project aims to analyze the role of categories of imitation, assimilation and transformation in epistemologies, semantics and practices of adaptation from the perspective of literature, historiography and philosophy. The project is funded by the Swiss National Foundation (SNF) and it is realized in cooperation with the University of Basel and the University of Zurich statt. (project homepage)

Colonialism without Colonies? A Discourse Analysis of Postcolonial Switzerland

(Project Period: 2010-2013)

Project leader: Patricia Purtschert
Project members: Marina Lienhardt, Jovita dos Santos Pinto

The aim of our SNF Ambizione project is to foster the transfer of postcolonial theory and knowledge to Switzerland and to develop a postcolonial perspective on Swiss society. In the last couple of years, historians of economy have shown the complex Swiss economic entanglement with colonialism and transatlantic slave trade: Switzerland was deeply involved in the project of colonialism without being a official colonial power. This seems to be true not only for Swiss economy but for Swiss society in general. Therefore, the project analyzes the meaning and relevance of colonial and postcolonial systems of knowledge and representation in a Swiss context. The project develops a critique of the widespread belief that Switzerland had nothing to do with colonialism.

Language and »Knowledge Society« in the Age of Globalization

(Project Period: 2013-2016)

Project leader: Harald Fischer-Tiné
Researcher: Dr. Vasudha Bhardwaj

The main objective of this project is to examine what a society considers »useful« knowledge and the consequences of such a perception, focusing specifically on the emphasis on the teaching and learning of English. This project analyses the educational and epistemological history of a specific case where English has had the maximum socioeconomic purchase for decades – postcolonial India – to infer what the future might hold in a world that privileges a single non-native language. It will test the working hypothesis that although English is undoubtedly »useful« given the current global conditions, an overemphasis on the language as a long-term vehicle for the creation and sustenance of a knowledge society risks actively undercutting the larger goals of true knowledge creation and dissemination, leading instead to an untenable loss of epistemological diversity.

This project comes at a time when increasing global economic integration has led to arguments that the English language is the key to prosperity and growth, and is therefore the most »rational« and »useful« choice. However, the identification of English as the language of international science and business is also leading to a conflation of different concepts like »knowledge«, »skills« and »information«. Such a conflation may have consequences contrary to the ones desired. This project studies mainstream and alternate approaches to education in order to arrive at a better understanding of both the potential and pitfalls along the path of a an English language-based education in a non-English-speaking context.

The Global Anti-Alcohol Movement

(Project Period: 2010-2013)

The research project, basically funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNF), looks at the history of the global anti-alcohol movement in the period of ca. 1870-1940. It combines an analysis of transnational connections from different regional perspectives with a comparative view on local temperance and abstinence campaigns. In the first sub-project, »Mission and Social Hygiene« Francesco Spöring analyses how Swiss promoters of social hygiene and missionaries acted in international conferences, toward the League of Nations, and in German and British colonies in West Africa. In the second sub-project, »La defensa de la raza«, Sönke Bauck explores the connection between civil society activism and the circulation of scientific-medical knowledge in the countries of the Latin American Southern Cone. He particularly studies the role of expert activists in the »battle against alcoholism«. In cooperation with the research group »Actors of Cultural Globalization« Nikolay Kamenov’s associated doctoral thesis looks at the international connections of Bulgarian promoters of sobriety. Finally, the associated post-doctoral research of Jana Tschurenev explores the linkages between the international women’s movement and anti-alcohol activism
Project leader: Harald Fischer-Tiné.

Schreibtischstudien - Schriftgut als Forschungsmaterial in Natur-, Sozial- und Geisteswissenschaften

(Project Period: 2013-2016)

Aufzeichnungen, Dokumente und Literatur gehören zu jeder Forschungsarbeit in allen Wissenschaftsbereichen. In einigen Fällen kommt solchem Schriftgut aber ein besonderer Status zu: Es bildet dann die (häufig einzige) Materialgrundlage für die Bearbeitung einer Forschungsfrage und die Gewinnung von Erkenntnissen. In unserem Projekt untersuchen wir, wie in der historischen Klimaforschung, der empirischen Sozialforschung und der Geschichtswissenschaft Schriftgut für Forschungszwecke zusammengestellt und ausgewertet wird, wie also zum Beispiel aus Wetterdiarien des 17. Jahrhunderts Daten für Klimarekonstruktionen hervorgehen, wie aus der Aktenabgabe einer Behörde zuletzt eine Quelle in einer historischen Untersuchung wird oder wie Umfragen durchgeführt und die erhobenen Angaben in Daten und wissenschaftlich robuste Aussagen transformiert werden. Uns interessiert dabei unter vergleichender Perspektive, (1) welche Herausforderungen sich in den einzelnen Kontexten im Umgang mit Schriftgut einstellen und welche Praktiken entwickelt werden, (2) welche Standards der Bewährung für die Konstitution und Auswertung von Schriftgut jeweils gelten und insgesamt (3) welche Konsequenzen die Gründung von Forschungsfragen auf Schriftgut für die Forschungspraxis und den Geltungsanspruch von wissenschaftlichen Erkenntnissen hat.

Das Projekt wird in Form von drei Fallstudien zu den genannten Forschungszusammenhängen durchgeführt, in denen die Beobachtung der rezenten Praxis mit Sondierungen ihrer Geschichtlichkeit verbunden werden soll. Bei den untersuchten Unternehmungen handelt es sich um Forschungsfelder mit unmittelbarer alltäglicher Bedeutung. Empirische Sozialforschung wirkt mit ihren Ergebnissen zurück auf die Gesellschaft im Ganzen. Historische Klimaforschung liefert wichtige Inputs für die Untersuchung des Klimawandels. Die Geschichtswissenschaft formt entscheidend unser kulturelles Selbstbild. Insofern ist ein genaues Verständnis der Umstände und Bedingungen ihrer Forschungspraxis eine Voraussetzung dafür, Reichweite und Geltungsanspruch der gewonnenen Erkenntnisse einzuschätzen. Der Einbezug der Geistes- und Sozialwissenschaften in das Forschungsprojekt bildet für die Wissenschaftsforschung – mit ihrem traditionellen Fokus auf die Naturwissenschaften – eine neue Herausforderung. Die vergleichende Perspektive gestattet es ferner, Übereinstimmungen und Unterschiede zwischen den verschiedenen Bereichen des Wissenschaftssystems ‚von unten’ her zu akzentuieren. Von Interesse sind hier z.B. (neben einer Reihe von weiteren Aspekten) die jeweiligen Daten- bzw. Belegbegriffe in den untersuchten Unternehmungen und die damit verknüpften Vorstellungen vom Status des ausgewerteten Forschungsmaterials

Verantwortliche Projektleiter sind Michael Hagner (ETH Zürich, ZGW) und Christoph Hoffmann (Universität Luzern).

The Knowledge of Zionism

Form and Function of Knowledge and Science in Zionist Journalism and Literature 
(Project Period: 2013-)

Project leader: Andreas Kilcher

Wissen und Wissenschaft spielten bei der Herausbildung des Zionismus um 1900 eine herausragende Rolle. Die Realisierung der Ziele des politischen Zionismus erforderte verstärkt naturwissenschaftliches und technisches Wissen, der Kulturzionismus wiederum ging mit kultur- und geisteswissenschaftlichen Projekten einher und leistete grundlegende Reflexionen in Bezug auf das Wissen und seine kulturpolitische Funktion. Der engen Bindung an die wissenschaftlichen Erkenntnisse der Moderne wurde zugesprochen, dass sie der jüdischen Moderne zwischen Assimilation und Diaspora eine neue, nationale Dimension verleihen konnten. Vor diesem Hintergrund macht es sich das geplante Forschungsprojekt zum Ziel, Form und Funktion von Wissen und Wissenschaft innerhalb der zionistischen Publizistik und Literatur von der Entstehung der zionistischen Bewegung in der zweiten Hälfte des 19. Jahrhunderts bis in die Zeit der Staatsgründung um 1945 zu untersuchen. Es wird dabei davon ausgegangen, dass sich die Kon­stitution eines dezidiert ›zionistischen Wissens‹ vor allem auf der Ebene wissenschaftlicher Konzeptionen, ihrer publizistischen Konkretisierung und ihrer literarischen Verhandlung untersuchen lässt – daher die Lokalisierung des Gegenstandes in Publizistik und Literatur. Das ›Wissen des Zionismus‹ ist nicht nur von politischer Pragmatik, sondern wesentlich auch von rhetorischen, ästhetischen und poetologischen Schreibweisen bestimmt. Es soll mithin herausgearbeitet werden, wie sich Vorstellung, Konzep­tion sowie Verbegrifflichung und Funktionalisierung von Wissen in zionistischer Wissensverarbeitung und -vermittlung charakterisieren lassen.

Diese Formation und Transformation des Wissens im Zionismus setzt konkret auf zwei Untersuchungsfeldern (Subprojekt A und B) an, die sich den beiden zentralen Ausprägungen des Zionismus, dem politischen Zionismus und dem Kulturzionismus, widmen. Erstens soll der zionistische Wissensbegriff des politischen Zionismus untersucht und die vielschichtigen soziologischen, technischen und ökonomischen Diskurse in den Blick genommen werden. Zweitens ist die kulturpolitische Reflexion des Wissensbegriffs innerhalb des Zionismus zu erforschen. In der Zusammenschau dieser beiden Untersuchungsfelder sollen Dynamiken und Strategien herausgearbeitet werden, wie Wissen innerhalb politischer Bewegungen instrumentalisiert bzw. funktionalisiert und wie es in publizistischen und literarischen Diskursen – auch in rhetorischen und ästhetischen Formen – verhandelt wird.