What’s the project?

Why do scholars get forgotten? Why and how are those that are remembered selected? These are important questions in the history of science and learning – and barely covered so far. Yet to fade out of remembrance is the posthumous fate of the overwhelming majority of scholars. As long as we do not understand why, we only know half the story of how science, learning, and knowledge have been shaped over time. We might suppose scholarly excellence to be the key, or publicity, or well-connectedness; but none of these have been tested until now. I therefore want to uncover the hidden structures through which scholars after their death faded out of being known within the learned world.

What’s the question?

How does ‘forgetting’ work on a level beyond the individual? My two core assumptions to be tested are:

  1. ‘Structural remembrance’ is no collective or general process, but the sum of individual, consciously crafted acts of referring to a predecessor.
  2. ‘Being forgotten’ in a structural way therefore is defined as being only intermittently referred to over a longer period of time. ‘Remembrance’ is not stored in an opaque ‘collective memory’ but constituted through clearly delineable individual actions. These form patterns which may be observed and recovered.

What’s the goal?

My project pursues three consecutive goals:

  1. Charting processes of getting forgotten within the learned world without any qualifications: to understand how becoming forgotten works.
  2. Differentiating individual reference careers to determine the dominant factors for each respective scholar: to understand why forgotten scholars were and are referenced the way they are.
  3. Developing a theoretical model of how scholars got forgotten: to set a starting point for further studies in the field.

Why do that?

During the 18th century the early modern culture of learning underwent a transformation towards the modern-day disciplinary cultures of the sciences and humanities through processes of structural forgetting investigated here. As they shaped the culture of learning we still live in today, these processes are of interest to anyone of us.

How to do that?

Understanding forgetting is as important as understanding why something is appreciated. Both are necessary to understand the formation and sustainability of the canon within any academic field. My analysis of such patterns of getting forgotten is built on a social history of knowledge approach. It is not a collective memory study. I study reference patterns as interpersonal and intertextual relations over time, established by individual acts of referring to scholars and/or their work. These relations are established not only by citations and non-citational references to other scholars in publications, but also through references in personal correspondences, and personal and institutional connections. Not only the intellectual, but also the personal interconnections of scholars with their predecessors and among their peers constitute the networks which are the basis for meaningful individual acts of reference. An analysis of ‘structural forgetting’ necessarily needs to proceed within these scholars’ respective chronological, spatial, personal and intellectual contexts and disciplinary frameworks.

Who’s forgotten?

Well, many are, but only four scholars have been selected as a sample for this analysis. They all were contemporaries, active at the forefront of research in the fields of Oriental Studies and philology. All held high academic positions at the centres of their respective national research environment, maintaining broad correspondence networks including lots of peer scholars, and published substantial research; all four died early in the 18th century. Between them they cover each region prominently participating in this field in the early 18th century, representing the international dimension of scientific developments. They are, in order of date of death:

  1. Thomas Gale (GB, 1636-1702), Professor of Greek at Cambridge University
  2. Johannes Braun (GER/NL, 1628-1708), Professor of Theology and Hebrew at Groningen University
  3. Adrien Reland (NL, 1676-1718), Professor of Biblical Studies and Oriental Languages at Utrecht University
  4. Eusebè Renaudot (FR, 1646-1720), Member of both the Academie Française and the Academie des Inscriptions et Belles-lettres.