Nationalizing knowledge

Peter Burke (Cambridge).

My subject is knowledge, more exactly the process that I should like to describe as the ‘nationalization’ of knowledge: in other words, the increasing importance of national consciousness, national rivalry and nation-building in the processes of gathering, analysing and disseminating knowledge. The period I shall consider is the 19th century, a long 19th century that invades the borders of both the 18th and the 20th centuries. I shall be speaking about Europe, with occasional references to South America, and ranging from older nation-states, such as Spain and Sweden to new nation-states, such as Italy and Germany; and to cultural nations without states of their own at this time, such as Ireland or Poland.

It was in the 19th century that scholars came to be regarded as ‘representatives of their respective countries’, recruited, as the German scientist Hermann von Helmholtz put it, into ‘an organized army labouring on behalf of the whole nation’. An army of scholars who were sometimes involved with the continuation of politics by other means. Among the various possible disciplinary examples of this general trend, one might start with the history of history itself, since research, teaching and writing was increasingly conducted in a national framework. Among the most important and the most widely-read histories produced at this time were histories of nations and peoples (the Folk, the narod, etc): Erik Geijer on the Swedes, Frantisek Palacky on the Czechs, Konstantinos Paparrigopoulos on the Greeks, Petrus Blok on the Dutch and J. R. Green on England. In Norway, which had been autonomous in the Middle Ages, the dominant school of historians supported the recovery of national independence that was achieved in 1905.