Reinventing Knowledge: From Alexandria to the Internet

October 30, 2008

Concern over the reliability of information offered on the internet pervades higher education. Although the benefits of the internet are universally applauded, we are struggling to establish standards of quality. Ultimately, reliability depends on the standards of the institutions supporting the information available. If Reinventing Knowledge shows us anything, it is that new institutions played a key role every time tectonic shifts occurred in the intellectual landscape of Western civilisation.

Ian McNeely and Lisa Wolverton have identified six key moments in history when knowledge was "reinvented": from the construction of the Library of Alexandria to the rise (and lasting success) of the laboratory, by way of the monastery, the university, the Republic of Letters and the disciplines. The book's focus is at times sharpened by short comparisons with developments in the East. McNeely and Wolverton succeed in compressing 2,300 years of history into 5 pages, and not by singling out the all-too-familiar great names, but rather by taking the institutions as landmarks and by doing justice to lesser-known heroes.

The importance of Aristotle and Plato, for instance, can hardly be overstated, but it was thanks to the efforts of Demetrius of Phaleron (in essence the chief executive of the Library of Alexandria) and the Ptolemaic kings who hired him that their writings survive at all. Although most of the institutions McNeely and Wolverton discuss still exist today, albeit not without having faced competition from rapidly expanding newcomers, some have perished altogether.

The library has remained, but only because, after the disintegration of the Roman Empire, it was transported to a place where nobody could previously have envisaged it: not the dilapidating urban centres of the world, but monasteries in inhospitable rural areas, where monks safeguarded great chunks of the classical heritage.

Superseded by the universities in the late Middle Ages, the monasteries lost significance for the continuing development of knowledge. In turn, many of the universities' practices were subsequently transformed: disputations yielded to seminars, teaching gave way to research, but not after religious crises forced scholars to bridge the gap between the confessions by retreating to that most intangible of institutions: the supranational and trans-confessional Republic of Letters, vitally connected through correspondence and later through the first scholarly journals.

Reinventing Knowledge is an ambitious book, and at times, it forces history into its rigid scheme. One might well argue that the Republic of Letters constituted an institution (although it existed only as a network of individuals), but to style "The Disciplines" as an institution seems awkward.

It is, moreover, slightly disappointing that some questions raised in the introduction remain unanswered: how must the traditional university change to organise and transmit the totality of our knowledge? No suggestions are made ("future developments are naturally unpredictable"). As to the origins of today's situation, it is argued that "the institutional building blocks of big science were already in place by the early decades of the 20th century". But while the authors point out that the laboratory, both inside and outside the university, has continued its triumphal march ever since, one wonders whether they consider the internet itself to be an institution (and one signalling yet another key change), as their subtitle would suggest. Indeed, the "internet" aspect of this book seems somewhat forced on it to attract a wider readership. But that should not detract too much from the joy of reading a magnificent overview of the history of knowledge production in the West.

Reinventing Knowledge: From Alexandria to the Internet

By Ian F. McNeely, with Lisa Wolverton. Norton, 224pp, £15.99. ISBN 9780393065060. Published 26 September 2008

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