Cross-border cooperation urged for research of global knowledge history

Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2023-11-24

Amidst the prevalence of numerous challenges on a global scale, it becomes imperative to contemplate the significance of the global history of knowledge. In light of the focal points of global knowledge history, prevailing challenges, and the issue of knowledge centrality, CSST recently interviewed Rens Bod, a professor of Computational and Digital Humanities from the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, and Joseph Martin, an associate professor of the History of Science and Technology at Durham University in the United Kingdom.

Knowledge history amid globalization

According to Martin, global historians are actively wrestling with the relationship between the global history of knowledge and the globalization of knowledge. In his view, knowledge has been global since long ago. For example, paleoanthropologists have demonstrated that knowledge of stone tool construction circulated around the globe with remarkable speed, many thousands of years before the development of written language. “Wherever we see traces of knowledge systems in the past, in the written record, in material culture, we find evidence that they were embedded in global networks.”

“It would therefore be a shame to think about the global history of knowledge as primarily concerning the history of globalization,” Martin said. “Knowledge and its circulation are of course all crucial to understanding the history of globalization, but the global history of knowledge is a much, much larger subject.”

According to Bod, the globalization of knowledge is the phenomenon by which knowledge is shared across the world. This globalization greatly benefited from the advent of the internet, but it already existed in the 19th century, and perhaps even earlier.

The global history of knowledge, as Bod interpreted, is a field of study that comparatively explores how humans in different periods and cultures have acquired knowledge. He told CSST that this field can clarify how the globalization of knowledge actually took place, and its major research questions include how to write a polycentric history of knowledge that treats all regions and cultures on par, what routes human knowledge took to grow from its humble beginnings into a modern understanding of nature and culture, and whether there are universal patterns and principles in the history of knowledge.

Bod emphasized that examining the global history of knowledge is not merely an “intellectual pastime.”

“In many cases, famous laws of reasoning, mathematical theses, and physical laws have been incorrectly attributed to Western scientists and scholars. And this is wrong: it was often Indian, Chinese or Arabic scholars who were the initial inventors, sometimes several centuries before these laws or theses were discovered in Europe,” Bod continued. “Of course, also the opposite has happened (that a law was first discovered in Europe), and it is one of the tasks of historians to explore and possibly explain this particular history.”

Bod further mentioned that the global history of knowledge serves another purpose.

“In my book World of Patterns from 2022, I have shown how ancient Babylonian pattern searching is currently being used in Artificial Intelligence for creating generative tools. And I have argued how Indian, Arabic, and Chinese linguistic and philological ideas were taken up by linguists in 20th-century Europe and the United States,” Bod said. “These are long-term influences that are not always easy to discern in the global history of knowledge. But it is of utmost importance that we unveil these influences and that we make the historical body of human knowledge available, so that both researchers and the public have access to them for possible future use.”

Cross-border cooperation essential

According to Bod, the research on the global history of knowledge faces numerous challenges, with accessibility being the foremost concern. “Not all cultures have written down their knowledge (often it has been orally transmitted). And even when we have written forms of knowledge, not all archives or libraries are accessible.”

“Just think of the famous Timbuktu manuscripts: there are more than half a million manuscripts lying in family libraries, but only 6,000 are accessible to researchers. Yet they are highly important for the history of knowledge in that they deal with disciplines like astronomy, mathematics, history, logic, theology, musicology, linguistics, and other fields,” Bod said.

Another problem is comparativism: how can we compare concepts from different cultures that seem to have nothing in common? In such cases it is crucial to search for so-called family resemblances and underlying patterns between linguistic, historical, artistic, and scientific concepts, Bod said.

In Bod’s view, the most challenging issue lies in striving to achieve a polycentric history of knowledge that accords equal significance to all regions and cultures. This highlights the need to move away from a Eurocentric, Sinocentric, or Afrocentric history of knowledge, and instead consider each region or culture as a “center” in its own right, subsequently comparing the knowledge productions within and across these centers.

“This means in practice that we must deal with all the languages spoken in these centers, which brings me to the last problem. That is, the goal to arrive at a truly global history of knowledge. To achieve this, historians and linguists will have to join forces and collaborate with each other,” Bod said.

Martin expressed a similar perspective, stating that the global history of knowledge poses several unique methodological challenges. The most apparent challenge is its inherent multidimensionality, encompassing multiple locations, cultures, languages, and the technical expertise required to comprehend the content of the knowledge under consideration. “That’s a lot for one person to master!”

Many of the questions that are raised by the global history of knowledge really require the coordination of diverse sets of expertise, Martin said.

Like other global topics, the global history of knowledge also faces the discourse issue. Bod explained that this field is largely dominated by Western actors, and in Europe and the United States (and in the rest of the Global North), there is a very strong bias towards Western history of knowledge.

Many historians have only a vague notion of what happened elsewhere in the world. This is partly due to the fact that most historians do not read other languages than European ones. But things are changing: an increasing number of historians have learned Chinese, Arabic, Japanese, or other languages, and they increasingly explore the history of knowledge from several continents, such as historian Jack Goody who has compared Renaissances in different cultures across the world in his 2010 work Renaissances: The One or the Many and the abovementioned World of Patterns, Bod said.

Editor:Yu Hui

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