Stop Doing Philosophy! Unity, Distinctiveness, and Relevance in Historiography

It is easy to stumble upon conceptual questions and debates in historiography, especially in the historiography of science and knowledge. Historians are often wondering how to define historiographical subfields and their subjects of study. What counts as historiography of science? What is knowledge? Often these questions are centered around the issues of unity and distinctiveness of the historiographical fields. What is (or should be) the shared core of the historiography of knowledge? What separates the historiography of science from other fields?  

It is often difficult to understand what is at stake in these philosophical inquiries. Why should a historiographical field be unified and distinct? I will focus on these questions by analyzing the historiography of science and knowledge. I will argue that neither unity nor distinctiveness is necessary or sufficient conditions for historiographical relevance.

The historiography of knowledge is a rising subfield of historiography. However, there have been worries about the nature of the field recently. For example, Östling and Larsson Heidenblad (2020) have been worried about what is distinct about the historiography of knowledge. Moreover, Bergwik and Holmberg discuss

“different ways of thinking and talking about history of knowledge. Is it a ‘new’ field, or rather a convergence of trends found in several disciplines? Does the distinction matter, and if so, why? We will address the vexing question of analytical language, what knowledge might mean, and what degree of conceptual rigour is needed for the history of knowledge to be a coherent undertaking.” (2020, 283-284.)

They argue that conceptual rigour is needed in order to (a) guarantee that historians talk about the same thing when they talk about knowledge, and (b) to make sure that the results of the field can be connected with each other. Also, Daston notes the heterogeneity of the historiographical subjects in historiography of knowledge and ask “Can the history of knowledge be saved? Is it worth saving?” (2017, 144).

From a philosopher’s perspective, these questions are difficult to understand. It is almost impossible to achieve conceptual rigour and clear-cut conceptual classifications even in the concept-centered analytic philosophy. How can it be that the life and death of a historiographical field are taken to be dependent on such impossible requirements? It is time to pause for a moment and analyze the nature of these conceptual requirements.

In order to understand the situation, we have to consider three issues:

1. What separates historiography of knowledge from other fields of historiography?

2. What, if anything, unifies historiography of knowledge?

3. Why is historiography of knowledge relevant?

The conceptual problems above seem to stem from the mistaken idea that the answers to these questions are dependent on each. In reality, each question has to be answered separately.

First, a subfield can be unified even if it cannot be separated from other fields. For example, one could suggest that historiography of knowledge is unified by the aim of deepening our understanding of historical knowledge-systems, production of knowledge, circulation of knowledge, and maintenance of knowledge. In such cases, historiography of knowledge is not separated from other fields but integrated into them. One advocate of such view is Peter Burke who believes that “that the history of knowledges needs to be integrated into general history, histoire totale” (2020).

Similarly, a field can differ from other fields but still lack unity. For example, if we follow Östling and Larsson Heidenblad (2020) and “put emphasis on socially relevant forms of knowledge that have had rather weak links to learned spheres and formal education”, we probably will face quite different types of knowledge in different eras. Already the fact that the amount of people who receive higher education has increased through history indicates that there have been changes in what forms of knowledge have and have not been linked to learned spheres and formal education.

Secondly, a subfield can be relevant even if it cannot be separated from other fields. If historiography of science can deepen our understanding of knowledge-related phenomena, it surely is relevant even if gets integrated into other fields of historiography. Similarly, a field can be irrelevant even if it can be separated from other fields. Finding a historiographical phenomenon that has not been studied before does not mean that the related historiographical field is relevant. This is where the historiography of knowledge has to be very careful. The mere fact that there is much, much more knowledge in historical societies and groups than we might be inclined to think does not mean that all this knowledge is equally interesting, historiographically speaking.[1]

Thirdly, a subfield can be relevant if it is not unified. Even though the historiography of science has suffered from the problem of the disunity of science (e.g. Dear 2012; Virmajoki 2019), it and the related fields have made, paradoxically enough, enormous progress in making science historically understandable. There are hardly any agreements in the historiography of science, philosophy of science, and science studies, but despite – or because of – this plurality, we understand the complexities of science. Similarly, a subfield can be irrelevant even if it is unified.  If we are interested in the diversity and complexity of past science and knowledge, a unified research tradition hardly is optimal for the achievement of these goals.

These considerations imply that the relevance and significance of a historiographical field are not determined by its unity or distinctiveness. This also means that the relevance of a historiographical field is not dependent on our ability to conceptually define and delimit the field. The questions concerning the relevance and significance of a historiographical field can only be answered by looking at its results. We need to also notice that the possibility of cumulative historical knowledge does not depend on conceptual rigour like Bergwik and Holmberg argue. Historiography provides understanding by accounting for the phenomena and lines of development in the past and the connections between different phenomena, not by classifying historical items under general concepts. Historiographical studies whose results provide understanding about intertwined phenomena can be connected even if their subjects need to be conceptualized differently. The relationship between Bletchley Park mathematicians and their knowledge was rather different from the relationship between the citizens and propaganda but we can nevertheless see them intertwined in grand narratives of the WW2. In fact, it is not too far-fetched to say that the study of the interconnections between different forms of knowledge is the best thing that historiography of knowledge can provide.

The historiography should be shaped by the history and its structure, not the other way around. Let’s forget about philosophical pondering about concepts, differences, and unity. As the Beatles sang:

When I was younger, so much younger than today
I never needed anybody’s help in any way
But now these days are gone, I’m not so self assured
Now I find I’ve changed my mind and opened up the doors

Only time will tell the relevance of a historiographical field and to which other fields it will lean on. Identity-crisis belong to youth.


Bergwik, Staffan & Holmberg, Linn (2020): “Concluding reflections. Standing on whose shoulders?”. Teoksessa Forms of Knowledge. Toim. Östling, Johan & Larsson Heidenblad, David & Nilsson Hammar, Anna.

Burke, Peter. 2020. “Response”. Journal for the History of Knowledge 1 (1)

Daston, Lorraine. (2017). “The history of science and the history of knowledge”. KNOW: A Journal on the Formation of Knowledge 1 (1).

Dear, Peter (2012). “Science Is Dead; Long Live Science.” Osiris 27 (1). 37–55.

Östling, Johan, and Larsson Heidenblad, David. 2020. “Fulfilling the Promise of the History of Knowledge: Key Approaches for the 2020s”. Journal for the History of Knowledge 1 (1).

[1] Please do not argue that historians should not say what is interesting and what is not. Everybody knows that with limited resources, the subjects of study are always chosen by using some sort of value-judgement. See my 2020 paper on historiographical explanation.

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