Organizing Knowledge Essay

2775 words - 12 pages

Anthony Grafton and Bruno Latour may be considered as people of knowledge and education. They both were engaged in the process of knowledge acquiring and transforming it into their own ideas and new horizons of thought. For most aficionados, Princeton historian Anthony Grafton put the bon mot in play a few years ago in his elegant The Footnote: A Curious History (Harvard University Press). Now, however, in The Devil’s Details: A History of Footnotes (Invisible Cities Press), former Amherst College dean Chuck Zerby, in his odd doppelgänger to Grafton’s volume, merely credits Grafton with reusing the line while stating (see backhanded compliment at Zerby footnote No. 31), ...view middle of the document...

Despite Ranke’s impressive combination of narrative and analytical history and Gibbon’s blending of massive knowledge and high style, neither, according to Grafton, was the first to practice the art and craft of documented, critical history. Behind both were ancient, medieval, and Renaissance prototypes, numerous historians who not only told stories but cited evidence as well. Among them were the Italians Bernardino Corio, Leonardo Bruni, and Giannantonio Campano; the Englishmen Richard White and Ben Jonson; and, most impressively, the great French historian Jacques-Auguste de Thou. The latter wrote a “genuinely new kind of history” in what would prove to be the longest historical narrative before the twentieth century. (2)
Other prototypes of modern scholarship included seventeenth-century church historians and antiquaries, particularly the German Jesuit Athanasius Kircher, whose massive, illustrated study of ancient China marked the maturation of a tradition of historical documentation reaching all the way back to the fourth-century Christian historian Eusebius and the venerable eighth-century English monk known as Bede. Here, too, one can find a combination of technical argument and deep documentation that anticipates modern historical scholarship. Also helping to make the primary source supreme within this tradition of scholarship were the bitter tracts of warring Protestants and Catholics.
The seventeenth century was nonetheless a step up in historical scholarship because that century’s church historians and antiquaries, as well as exceptional scholars like de Thou, subjected documents to a higher degree of scrutiny, allowing “the [prior] age of primitive accumulation of ecclesiastical-learning . . . to give way to one of analysis and investment.” (4) However, Mr. Grafton again insists that the work of these scholars also provides an “insufficient” explanation for the rise of the footnote.
So who, or what, in the end was the key player in the birth of the new professional scholarship the footnote came to represent? For Grafton, that honor belongs to a scholar and a work he first discovered as a college undergraduate: the great Dictionnaire of Pierre Bayle. “Swarming” with footnotes and irreverencies, and aspiring to expose and correct all the mistakes then existing in other reference books, Bayle’s dictionary is truly a young man’s book. It was written against the background of the “deconstruction” of the scientific authority of the ancients at the hands of the new seventeenth-century scientists Rene Descartes, Francis Bacon, Blaise Pascal, and Robert Boyle. Here the modern “rules of scholarly procedure” and historical scholarship as we know them today finds their definitive statement. (3)
Although Grafton proclaims Bayle’s uniqueness, he diminishes it somewhat by his extensive honor roll of earlier prototypes and by the...

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