Practical Knowledge

Practical Knowledge Traditions and Scientific Change, 1750–1870

H. Otto Sibum

This project focused on a historical period in which modern science took shape, a period of critical importance for exploring the fruitful interactions between science and other forms of knowledge. It spanned the period from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century, a time of major cultural transformation. This was the age of Enlightenment, with its ideal of “useful knowledge.” As historians came to appreciate the close ties between epistemology and practice, they have adopted a new terminology. Economic historians who once spoke of the Industrial Revolution can now be heard referring to the “Industrial Enlightenment.” Historians of science, once comfortable with the “second scientific revolution” (understood as the quantification of the Baconian sciences) followed suit by speaking of the rise of “a quantifying spirit,” and now typically stress the implications of the specific locations of knowledge production during the Enlightenment.

What does working in a scientific workplace mean, or laboring in a scientific laboratory? What kind of knowledge is involved in these specialized performances of work? These questions lay at the heart of the project. These issues took on new meanings in this period. The terms episteme, scientia, scienza, science, and Wissenschaft originally meant "knowledge" or "skill" in general. Only gradually did they turn into specialized terms denoting a more certain and authoritative form of knowledge, safely demarcated from “ordinary knowledge.” This linguistic distinction was intimately related to a social division between those working with their heads and those working with their hands. It also partook into the establishment of a great divide between “The West,” endowed with modern science—and the Rest.

This project aimed to study the changing character and status of work in the formation of the exact sciences in the 100 years after 1750, emphasizing the changing form of intellectual work in relation to physical labor. From this perspective, the field, the workshop, the cabinet, the laboratory could all be studied as sites of knowledgeable labor.

On this basis we sought to reconstitute past practitioners’ knowledge of different kinds of experimental work regardless of disciplinary boundaries. A detailed reconstruction of practices of exchange between these individuals and collectives provided further insights into a hitherto unknown web of practitioners’ knowledge. The large-scale mapping of such knowledge traditions and their interactions allowed the detailed study of the historical and epistemological conditions of the emergence of scientific knowledge in this period.

  • „Maschinen, Fledermäuse, Schriftgelehrte. Experimentalwissen im späten 18. und 19. Jahrhundert,“ forthcoming in H. Schramm, L. Schwarte, J. Lazardzig (eds.) Instrumente in Kunst und Wissenschaft. Zur Architektur kultureller Grenzen im 17. Jahrhundert. Berlin. De Gruyter Verlag 2004
  • „Experimentalists in the Republic of Letters.“ Science in Context, 16, 1-2 (2003), 89-120
  • Scientific Personae. (co-edited with Lorraine Daston) Double volume Science in Context, vol. 16, 1-2 (2003)
  • Instruments, Travel and Science. Itineraries of Precision from the 17th to the 20th Century. (co-edited with Marie-Noelle Bourguet, Christian Licoppe) New York, London: Routledge 2002