Genealogies of Knowledge

Democracy, civil society, nation, natural law, human rights, equality, experiment, cause, evidence, truth, validity, expertise – these are all key cultural concepts with a long history that remain central to social and political life today.

This project explores how our understanding of these concepts has evolved since they first emerged. It also examines how translation has impacted this transformation, as these concepts have travelled across centuries, languages and cultures.

The fact that established interpretations of these notions are still being renegotiated today by civil society groups in digital participatory environments further demonstrates the need to understand the processes of mutation that shaped their historical development.

Much research has focused on the development of these concepts individually, at particular times, in specific places – for example equality in early modern Europe – the emergence of democracy in Ancient Greece, or the concept of proof from Euclid to Einstein. However, little or no attempt has been made to trace the genealogy of individual concepts or constellations of concepts through processes of (re)translation and other sites of mediation, such as commentaries.

We also lack the analytical and computational tools to map the evolution of key political and scientific concepts in those languages that have attained a near global reach at different points in history across the boundaries of country and creed. Greek thought in particular has been highly influential, but strikingly as much in Latin, Arabic and English translations as in Greek.

The project therefore focuses on translation phenomena and other sites of mediation involving three distinct lingua francas: medieval Arabic, early Latin and modern English. It engages with key historical moments that have brought about transformations in the interpretation of two constellations of concepts across the last 2500 years.

The first constellation relates to the body politic and includes concepts currently expressed by the following lexical items in English: polis, polity, democracy, civil society, citizenship, nation, state, natural law and human rights.

The second constellation consists of concepts that underpin scientific, expert discourse (including medical discourse as a case in point), such as experiment, observation, evidence, proof, episteme, truth, falsehood, aetiology, causation, justification, fact, validity and expertise.

Read more about the project here.