Review: “Classer et nommer les savoirs d’État (1750-1850)”

Workshop organized by the French-German research group “Euroscientia” in Strasbourg, 27-28 November 2013

Over the last years, European history has fruitfully been challenged by historians who analyzed historical formations of science and knowledge in their broader social contexts. A workshop organized in Strasbourg at the end of November 2013 took up these strands and called for an investigation of the classification and categorization of savoir d’État or knowledge relevant for the state. The organizers Isabelle Laboulais and Petra Overath applied the concept to frame the various practical and disciplinary knowledge traditions that developed in the 18th and 19th century to support issues of states and administrations. The participating historians were invited to take a transnational perspective and investigate the entanglements as well as the differences of European areas concerning categorizations and classifications of savoir d’État.

Most of the presentations of the workshop focused on the formation of scientific disciplines of state relevant knowledge. Virginie Martin for instance analyzed the development of a diplomatic science in France during the French Revolution. Pierre-Yves Lacour and Peter Jones held presentations on differentiations in the field of agricultural knowledge around 1800. Similarly, other talks by Hjalmar Fors on the role of mining expertise in 17th century Sweden or by Frédéric Audren on the self-perception of French law as a social science focused on the creation of disciplines. Furthermore, participants described the public classification of savoir d’État in books or journals. Anna Karla’s account on the influence of historical knowledge on the French state during the restoration or Marie-Cécile Thoral’s analysis of the discourses on the applicability of books for the French military were interesting examples. Three contributions took a perspective from within state administrations. Eric Szulman analyzed the knowledge of canal construction in the French administration of inland navigation. André Holenstein focused on the usage of inquiries in the Helvetian Republic in the late 1790s as a tool for the process of state-building. Peter Becker, finally, investigated the 1912 inquiry of the Habsburg state that was supposed to shed light on communication problems between the administration and the Habsburg citizens.

The workshop highlighted classification and ordering processes of savoir d’État in various European states and territories in an interesting way. Yet, the transnational flows and circulations of such knowledge remained underrepresented. Nonetheless, the workshop proved the utility of a concept of savoir d’État that was not limited to scientific disciplines, but embraced also the rather practical spheres of knowledge that were relevant for states. For those who are interested in more detailed comments on the workshop I would like to refer to a larger version of the conference report written by Manuel Manhard and me. French and German versions.

Alexander van Wickeren

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