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Fusion of two images: "Dyers scraping stenciled fabrics," figure 235, Hommel & Mercer, China at Work 1937, and "Indian indigo-dye worker," photo A. Mamidipudi, 2017.

Dept. III

Artifacts, Action, Knowledge

Established in 2013, Department III studies the history of knowledge and action. The two main areas of interest are the processes and structures that lead to varying configurations of collaborative and individual bodies of knowledge as well as the changing role of artifacts—texts, objects, and spaces—in the creation, diffusion, and use of scientific and technological knowledge. The department currently pursues two research themes: Histories of Planning (since 2013) and The Body of Animals (since 2016). The former operates with action as an entry point. The latter sets out from artifacts. These conceptual approaches are complemented by a critical engagement with source-based research. In addition to individual projects, Working Groups are dedicated, at different levels of detail, to gathering together scholars interested in specific issues within larger themes.





“Although different in kind and color, lead, when

participating in vermillion making (cinnabar), can

function as vermillion. One has to grasp its ‘inner

workings’ (shu 數). Therefore, that which can be said

is not effectuated by intricate formula and elegant

phrases. Simply test the causes and that is that.”

Huainanzi Writings of the Masters, South of Huainan, 2nd century


Inspired by the Huainanzi’s explanation of vermillion production, Department III seeks to understand how people historically approached things and their “inner workings” in action and thought. In this core text of Han-Chinese statecraft, a major reference point for cosmological speculations, things testify to the materiality of existence that cuts across every domain of life and is nigh on impossible to escape. The things of the Huainanzi are everywhere. We interrogate this ubiquity by investigating how the materiality of existence impacts knowing or reflects what one knows. Our focus of analysis is on processes: how one understands inner workings when making things work or imagining such ways of working. In other words, our aim is to develop a historical epistemology of action. Our research agenda has three entry points:artifacts (things), action (making), and knowledge (work).



Artifacts (things)

What “knowledge” inhabits the Huainanzi’s myriad things, such as plants, ghosts, or stones? Without inquiring into life and artifacts and their boundaries and intersections we cannot fully understand what it means to know. Historians mainly engage with things that populate the human world via their material remains. As historians of science, we study the artifacts of human action and thought as sources, mediators, and products of scientific and technological change and question their boundaries in terms of materialism, material culture studies, materiality, and the ontological turn.Our research considers that all knowledge and knowing processes relate to materiality or have a material component far beyond the artifacts that remain. Hence, it is important to ask how people make things work.

Action (making)

How does one “know” as a process? Historically ephemeral, action leaves behind a residue of its most important reference points, imaginable as the pillars circumscribing the void of a room. The pillars are manifest in histories of codification: how textual, material, and visual means represent and explain “knowing” in different cultures and historical situations. The ceiling is formed by a scaffold of beams, interlocked by causality, correlation, or methodological assumptions of a category of knowledge, its consistency and expressions. Our focus is on the otherwise non-descript space: howpeople deal with the void and how they grasp it through approximation, inference, orestimation, or respond to its uncertainty, or even not-knowing. We analyze judgements and modes of decision-making by looking at how relations were drawn through management, organizational forms, or systemic choices. Thus, we unfold all that constitutes the room.

Knowledge (work)

What kind of work is it to make “knowledge”? Knowledge-making is work for brain and brawn. By emphasizing the physical side, our aim is to push the historical analysis of what and how people knew beyond the written traces of practices and the material remnants of products. We look into the varying conceptual roles of “action” as “knowing” and ask for the use histories of terms such as: техника, and సుళువులు, మెలకువలు, what are the methodological capacities of such concepts and their roles in the politics of knowledge, past and present?

Research Themes

Histories of Planning
The Body of Animals

Source-Based Initiatives

Department III Events

Bovine Regimes: Reproduction, Labor, Territory


News & Press

Executive Director Dagmar Schäfer Awarded Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize 2020


Executive Director Dagmar Schäfer awarded Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize 2020


Director Dagmar Schäfer interviewed in Tagesspiegel on being awarded the 2020 Leibniz Prize


Publications & Digital Resources