Ian McNeely:

"Reinventing Knowledge" (2008)

(Copyright © 2011 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
This is an odd book and i am not sure what its subject is. That the institutions of knowledge have evolved over the centuries is a fact that nobody needed to discover today. It would be interesting to find out what that "evolution" was like. But this book is not about the "difference" in knowledge. It is about six particular institutions of knowledge that McNeely picked out of the many that one could have picked. He analyzes them briefly and superficially, and... i'm not sure what conclusion he draws from each one. Worse: i'm not sure how he relates one to the next one.

The choice is odd to start with: the library, the monastery, the university, the "republic of letters" (private correspondence), the "disciplines", and the laboratory. Neither is discussed in its entirety but only through its "founding" event. The library is discussed via a brief history of the library of Alexandria. McNeely mentions in passing that the Greek rulers of Egypt might have had motives beyond mere goodwill but doesn't seem interested in digging deeper. (Personally i think that the Greek library of Alexandria was a way to establish Greek civilization over Egypt). He's just telling a tale. We are not even told what is different between the library of Alexandria and today's libraries (or, say, the libraries of the 17th century). This sets the standard for the rest of the book: each chapter indulges in telling a trivia-based story of the institution's founding.

He then moves on to the monastery of medieval Christianity. His point is that the monastery had a completely different organization of knowledge (around the life of Jesus). He provides some details about monastic life (in particular, the fact that monks preferred silence and therefore the written word over the spoken word). Obviously this was a different kind of knowledge than the one assembled at the library of Alexandria, but the only difference that McNeely analyzes is the superficial one (the Christian bias).

Philosophical schools are not considered "institutions of knowledge" and therefore we hardly read the name Aristoteles (normally associated with the first major organization of knowledge) nor are we told of the various schools of the Hellenistic and post-Hellenistic world (Epicureans, Sceptics, Stoics) nor of the first medieval encyclopedias. He simply jumps from the ancient library to the monastery, as if there were nothing in between.

The chapter on universities is possibly the best one, although i think he downplays one reason that universities took off: the religious reform movements downplayed education in monasteries. I'm also not sure about his use of "universitas" (association/guild) as opposed to "studium generale" (that's how the universities were originally called back then). Nor does he mention the investiture controversy to explain why the first university was born. Nor am i sure of his statement that teachers lived on students' fees everywhere (it was true in Bologna, that was controlled by students, but probably not in Paris, that was controlled by teachers). Just like in the other cases, he does not analyze how this institution evolved and how it is different today (i can hardly relate Stanford University to the universities of the 13th century, other than by the fact that we use the word "university" for both).

The chapter on correspondence (that he calls "republic of letters" after Cicero) argues that scientific knowledge eventually spread and accumulated without the need for scientists to physically study in the same place: they started exchanging letters. Somehow he feels that the letters were more important than the printed book. For such a strong claim, McNeely provides precious little information about how these letters were exchanged: how did scholars know of each other? how did they find out each other's address? how did they physically dispatch the letter? (For example, in Britain the General Post Office was only established in 1660).

The museum, which would be an obvious candidate as an institution of knowledge, is given a brief analysis within the "republic of letters", but it is not clear how it relates to private correspondence. The Chinese universities too are treated in this chapter, probably because of chronology; but there were schools in China also at the same time that the European universities were born, and it's a mystery why McNeely decides to mention the ones of the 17th century but not the earlier ones.

The chapter on the disciplines begins with... universities. We are introduced to German research, that eventually gave us the PhD and all. We are also given a brief introduction to the Indian sastras, that somehow moves to "India's first printing press" (McNeely credits Serampore's as the first printing press, ignoring the printing presses opened in the previous three centuries in Goa, Chennai, Mumbai, etc). It then bounces back to German universities. The flow and the logic of these tales are just too difficult to grasp. And, ultimately, this chapter on "the disciplines" is really about the evolution of the university after the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.

The final chapter on the laboratory is the easiest to follow, and it projects into the computer age. McNeely claims that the laboratory is now the dominant institution of knowledge. Universities might object, but certainly a lot of inventions came from the laboratory (especially if military research is also considered "laboratory"). In one of the very last pages of the book McNeely mentions that the laboratory is the only Western institution of knowledge (of the ones he discussed in this book) that has no equivalent in other civilizations.

He mentions only in passing Silicon Valley, which is actually a good example of an institution of knowledge of a different kind (to quote him, "cities of knowledge anchored by universities").

I like his statement that Western Civilization is better defined by its institutions of knowledge than by anything else. In Western Civilization, since the times of Aristoteles, organizing knowledge is as important as discovering knowledge. I like his thought that the most powerful ideas are the ones that induce people to radically change their concept of knowledge. I like his definition of the modern university professor as a "grant-seeking entrepreneur".

The "Conclusions" pack a lot of interesting comments, but no conclusions, and the comments seem a bit random. I guess i just didn't get the rationale of the discussion.