If you were to write a history of knowledge how would you go about your task? It is a dauntingly broad topic. Ian McNeely (with Lisa Wolverton) provides an interesting answer to this question with his book Reinventing Knowledge: from Alexandria to the Internet. He studies six essential places and/or institutions that generated and disseminated new knowledge in the Western world. The list includes the obvious ones like libraries and universities, and some unexpected institutions such as the republic of letters and academic disciplines. The republic of letters, for example, involved many of the brightest minds across Europe (and to a lesser extent America) during the age of enlightenment. The men and women of this letter writing republic shared their ideas and the world is a better place as a result of this activity. McNeely’s book is interesting in that it compares all of these knowledge institutions in a tour of the historical development of the apparatus around creating and conveying ideas.
The impression I had reading the book was of climbing up the mountain of truth and out from the valley of ignorance, and that the various stops along the way (let’s call them the library stop, the monastery stop, the republic of letters stop, etc.) faded and disappeared as we, the West, moved up to the next plateau. The great Alexandrian library, for example, lost the prominence it knew in days past with the rise of the Christian religion, its famous collection of books ebbed away (i.e were stolen) or disintegrated from neglect; and so the world moved past the library stop. Yet this impression is erroneous, as McNeely notes, libraries would continue to have a bright future for many years to come. The point that McNeely wants to make with his book is that the spirit, the living force of our seemingly endless desire and pursuit of truth is constantly shifting, continually finding new places to flourish. New, sometimes unexpected, institutions would sprout from the ashes of an old set of knowledge generating practices and these green buds would grow to generate novel rationales and methods for pursuing knowledge—and so the climb up the mountain continues. What is the current paradigm of progress? No surprises here, it is science and specifically laboratories. Part of the shift in the modern era to a new approach in gathering and generating knowledge is an emphasis on real world experimentation and statistics gathering. This approach replaces the old paradigm of interpretive and text based philological work which dominated the social sciences in years past.
McNeely makes some interesting and insightful comments about knowledge as always being about connecting people. He insists that the task of coming generations is to ensure that the laboratory’s values of ceaseless experimentation, democratic equality and social betterment are institutionalized in their broadest, most empowering, and most humane senses. This is a lofty and worthwhile goal.
One final thought on a topic only hinted at but not addressed in depth within the scope of the book. McNeely suggests that knowledge creation and dissemination in today’s global society is driven in part by powerful technologies. No controversy there. But in a world of rising costs and declining resources what will the future hold for humankind’s irrepressible desire to know if the means of pursuing and generating knowledge requires ever more sophisticated and expensive hi-tech equipment? Is endless progress self-evident? Will the mountain peak remain forever out of reach?