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Response to Review of A Social History of Knowledge. Volume II: From the Encyclopédie to Wikipedia

I don’t normally respond to reviews, even negative ones, but on this occasion Dr Davies’s review of my recent book reveals some misunderstandings that may be worth clearing up. In the first place, I am supposed to have ‘endorsed’ certain trends in the history of knowledge and even to have ‘legitimized’ the employment of knowledge for any purpose. As a social historian I am not in the business of endorsing anything. Chapter five specifically warned readers of the dangers of a triumphal narrative of the progress of knowledge. As for legitimation, far from approving ‘any employment of knowledge’, I agree with Franz Boas (quoted on p. 119 of the book) that anyone ‘who uses science as a cover for political spying … prostitutes science in an unpardonable way’.

In the second place, the book is described as an example of ‘academic self-regard’ because it attempts to be reflexive, while the author is accused of presuming that knowledge is mainly academic knowledge and his book is described in terms of ‘sameness’. In fact, I suggested that ‘Knowledges and knowledge traditions should be imagined in the plural (p. 5). The book concentrates on academic knowledge simply because that is the kind of knowledge (or cluster of knowledges) with which I am (rather unevenly) familiar. In any case, it does not treat academic knowledges in isolation, but discusses their interaction with the practical knowledges of artisans, merchants, diplomats and others. It may surprise Dr Davies, but I took a certain pleasure in pointing out that academic economics, for instance, ‘developed out of reflection on business practices’ (p. 130) while academic chemistry was not a creation of knowledge ex nihilo but in part a systematization of knowledge already possessed by apothecaries.

More puzzling is the reviewer’s claim that ‘the social history of knowledge reveals itself as a technology for information management’. There is more than one kind of social history of knowledge, but my social history, at any rate, has been written by a social historian for other social historians and any general readers who might find it interesting. As for my views on knowledge management, Dr Davies seems to have missed my citation of Thorsten Veblen (pp. 134–5, 267) – unless he reads the reference to the current ‘McDonaldization of knowledge’ as a form of endorsement.

The guidelines for reviewers in this journal recommend ‘serious engagement’ with the work reviewed. I would have welcomed an engagement with my actual arguments, whether in the form of counter-examples or that of alternative interpretations of the trends I discussed. Instead, Dr Davies discusses a different book, the philosophical or critical history that he would have liked me to have written or would like to write himself. Such a book might well be interesting, but it would not be a social history of knowledge and it was not the book supposedly under review.