Preserving — and decoding — knowledge

from on Friday, November 30, 2012 11:27 am

In this age of Wikipedia, it is perhaps more important than ever for those of us in academia to ask “How is knowledge constituted and how are ways of thinking made culturally available?”

For example, scientific thinking was not always ubiquitous in Western culture.   Such ways of thinking required the growth, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, of scientific societies that offered a forum for sharing ideas and discoveries, and provided members with a network of colleagues with whom to correspond.  This scientific networking created a feedback system that allowed scientists to build on the discoveries of others, and to focus their own work where it was most useful.

But the way was prepared for this work by a complementary network.  We now know that the secret societies, such as the Freemasons, that arose during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were about more than just secret handshakes and rituals.   Many of them were actually institutions for protecting and nurturing unorthodox ideas.  They created a social space in which it was safe to discuss newer, more secular, democratic or scientific ways of thinking during a time when those ideas were considered politically or socially dangerous.  These groups practiced secrecy not so much for its own sake, but for the sake of protecting their members and preserving their ideas.

A recent article by Noah Shachtman in Wired notes:

These societies were the incubators of democracy, modern science, and ecumenical religion. They elected their own leaders and drew up constitutions to govern their operations. It wasn’t an accident that Voltaire, George Washington, and Ben Franklin were all active members. And just like today’s networked radicals, much of their power was wrapped up in their ability to stay anonymous and keep their communications secret.

Shachtman’s article describes a fascinating detective story which involves the recent decoding of the writings of one of these secret societies.  Along the way, it engages with intellectual history, material history, linguistics and cryptology; it also features excellent photographs of some of its texts and artifacts.