Volume 4.1 (Spring 2020)
Since recently, the history of knowledge is flourishing: it has its own centers—in Berlin and Chicago, for instance, as well as in Zurich, Lund, Washington, DC, and Cambridge—its own journals, and its own conferences. Together, these offer a new forum for debate about topics, concepts, methods, and the relation of history to other disciplines that place knowledge at the heart of research. This debate is now well underway, and so far it has been organized around three main questions: What is the history of knowledge? How can it be studied? And where should we go from here?
In what sense can we say that “people make their own history”?
If we begin to take this sentence apart, two different meanings will emerge. Of these, the simpler is to take “history” as referring to human history. As agents of this history, humans take initiatives and create historical trajectories through their actions. In this sense, “writing” is merely a convenient metaphor. It refers to the traces that subjects have left in time up to the present, inadvertent by-products of those subjects’ vitality.
Daniele Macuglia, Benoît Roux, and Giovanni Ciccotti. Sense Experiences and “Necessary Simulations”: Four Centuries of Scientific Change from Galileo to Fundamental Computer Simulations.
The story of computer simulations begins in the early 1950s, when powerful electronic computers invented during the Second World War became available for general use by scientists. With the advent of two central numerical methods, Metropolis Monte Carlo and molecular dynamics, a new discipline rapidly emerged, which we may broadly refer to as “Molecular Simulations.” Its aim is to “simulate” the behavior of very realistic atomic models of complex molecular systems according to the fundamental laws of physics.
Medieval alchemists have spent centuries skulking around on the edges of our histories of proper science. With their mistaken theories of physical matter and bogus claims to turn baser metals into gold, alchemists could be easily dismissed as practitioners of a crude form of chemistry by trial and error at best; at worst, alchemy was pseudoscience dressed up in mystical language or practiced in bad faith. After years on the outside, however, medieval alchemists have since been invited in from the cold as deserving subjects of attention by the respectable historian of respectable science.
A 2014 article in Christianity Today asked a simple but provocative question that—after centuries of Christian worship—had yet to be answered: “Who Owns the Pastor’s Sermons?” This article suggested that the sermon, as a complex genre of religious communication, might pose an unusual challenge for American intellectual property law. Could ownership be attributed to the pastor who crafted and performed the sermon? Or was it the church that provided the pastor’s employment as well as the doctrine shaping the sermon’s content?
In the decade since the Supreme Court held in Citizens United v. FEC (2010) that corporations had a First Amendment right to engage in political speech, the legal personhood of the corporation has drawn fire from a wide range of politicians and social reformers. A constitutional amendment that would restrict constitutional protections to so-called natural persons—the legal term for individual humans—has been introduced in every House session since 2015 and has sixty-three cosponsors as of this writing. Although this wave of outrage has proximate causes rooted in the structural inequalities of the twenty-first century, criticism of the legal doctrine of corporate personhood predates Citizens United by well over a century.