Quest for the Unity of Knowledge: 1st Edition (Paperback) book cover

Quest for the Unity of Knowledge

1st Edition

By David Lowenthal


216 pages

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Is unity of knowledge possible? Is it desirable? Two rival visions clash. One seeks a single way of explaining everything known and knowable about ourselves and the universe. The other champions diverse modes of understanding served by disparate kinds of evidence. Contrary views pit science against the arts and humanities. Scientists generally laud and seek convergence. Artists and humanists deplore amalgamation as a threat to humane values.

These opposing perspectives flamed into hostility in the 1950s "Two Cultures" clash. They culminate today in new efforts to conjoin insights into physical nature and human culture, and new fears lest such syntheses submerge what the arts and humanities most value.

This book, stemming from David Lowenthal’s inaugural Stockholm Archipelago Lectures, explores the Two Cultures quarrel’s underlying ideologies. Lowenthal shows how ingrained bias toward unity or diversity shapes major issues in education, religion, genetics, race relations, heritage governance, and environmental policy.

Aimed at a general academic audience, Quest for the Unity of Knowledge especially targets those in conservation, ecology, history of ideas, museology, and heritage studies.


"No surer guide to the genealogy of this complex landscape of ideas."David N. Livingstone, Professor of Geography and History, Queen’s University Belfast, UK

"In this absorbing and wide-ranging book, David Lowenthal explores the centuries-old dialogue between ideas of the unity and diversity of knowledge, as expressed in debates over science and the humanities, humanity and nature, place and space, identity and difference, heritage and history. For its remarkable scope, telling insights and sheer wit, this book will be warmly welcomed by scholars across the disciplines." Felix Driver, Professor of Human Geography, Royal Holloway, University of London, UK

"Makes fundamental tensions in science and the humanities relevant to problems of heritage and conservation studies. The Quest for the Unity of Knowledge combines scientific understanding with voices of disenfranchised communities." Glenn Wharton, Clinical Professor, Museum Studies, New York University, USA

"A work of stunning erudition, lucid presentation, and judicious even-handedness. It should be of interest to anyone interested in the past - and the future - of knowledge and scholarship." John Torpey, Presidential Professor of Sociology and History, Director, Institute for International Studies, Graduate Center, City University of New York, USA

"David Lowenthal’s sweeping synthesis of Western thought provides strategies for addressing our grandest challenges. "The mutual interdependence of apparently unrelated knowledges", declares Lowenthal, may be the single most important message of this book. Here is a roadmap of one of the most exciting intellectual journeys of our time."Marcus Hall, Professor of Environmental Studies, University of Zurich, Switzerland

"Brilliantly charts the history of envisioning intellectual life as a great supercontinent of ideas versus a mental tectonics of many islands. Lowenthal counsels us to welcome both modes of thought, appreciating how supercontinents and islands form from each other, in our ideas no less than in geology. A graceful, learned, and sage work by one of our deepest thinkers."Michael Bell, Professor of Sociology, University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA

"An exhilarating intellectual journey across place and time, crafting a shimmering history of ideas. This masterful scholar weaves a lifetime of learning and wisdom into a timely and urgent exploration of the changing contours of knowledge itself."Tom Griffiths, Professor of History, Australian National University

"This magisterial synthesis navigates skilfully between the totalising and universalising quests for knowledge on the one hand, and the disparate and particularistic accounts of understanding on the other, opting instead for something more fruitful: the creative tension between the two and their dialectic interweaving, beyond any disciplinary straitjackets. Along the way, Lowenthal gathers a plethora of wonderful actors, facts, ideas, and anecdotes, from the history of science, environmental studies, heritage and the politics of the past."Yannis Hamilakis, Professor of Archaeology and Modern Greek Studies, Brown University, USA

Lowenthal's book forces us to think, hard, about the respective merits of lumping and splitting knowledge. - Graeme Wynn,University of British Columbia, Canada

Table of Contents

Foreword: Environmental Humanities, the Stockholm Archipelago Lectures, and David Lowenthal. Sverker Sörlin, Libby Robin, and Marco Armiero


1. Unifying Knowledge—Miracle or Mirage?

2. Man and Nature

3. Island Polymaths

4. Purity and Mixture

5. Heritage Universal and Divisive

6. Past into Present


About the Author

David Lowenthal, Emeritus Professor of Geography and Honorary Research Fellow at University College London, was an American historian and geographer. He was a renowned authority on heritage and conservation history, who died just days after he received the proofs. In 2016 he received the British Academy Medal for The Past Is a Foreign CountryRevisited. The medal honors "a landmark academic achievement which has transformed understanding in the humanities and social sciences" in a book exploring "the manifold ways in which history engages, illuminates and deceives us."

About the Series

Routledge Environmental Humanities

From microplastics in the sea to hyper-trends such as global climate change, mega-extinction, and widening social disparities and displacement, we live on a planet undergoing tremendous flux and uncertainty. At the center of this transformation is human culture, both contributing to the state of the world and responding to planetary change. The Routledge Environmental Humanities Series seeks to engage with contemporary environmental challenges through the various lenses of the humanities and to explore foundational issues in environmental justice, multicultural environmentalism, ecofeminism, environmental psychology, environmental materialities and textualities, Traditional Ecological Knowledge, environmental communication and information management, multispecies relationships, and related topics. The series is premised on the notion that the arts, humanities, and social sciences, integrated with the natural sciences, are essential to comprehensive environmental studies.

The environmental humanities are a multidimensional discipline encompassing such fields as anthropology, history, literary and media studies, philosophy, psychology, religion, sociology, and women’s and gender studies; however, the Routledge Environmental Humanities is particularly eager to receive book proposals that explicitly cross traditional disciplinary boundaries, bringing the full force of multiple perspectives to illuminate vexing and profound environmental topics. We favor manuscripts aimed at an international readership and written in a lively and accessible style. Our readers include scholars and students from across the span of environmental studies disciplines and thoughtful citizens and policy makers interested in the human dimensions of environmental change.

Please contact the Editor, Rebecca Brennan ([email protected]), to submit proposals.

Praise for A Cultural History of Climate Change (2016):

A Cultural History of Climate Change shows that the humanities are not simply a late-arriving appendage to Earth System science, to help in the work of translation. These essays offer distinctive insights into how and why humans reason and imagine their ‘weather-worlds’ (Ingold, 2010). We learn about the interpenetration of climate and culture and are prompted to think creatively about different ways in which the idea of climate change can be conceptualised and acted upon beyond merely ‘saving the planet’.

Professor Mike Hulme, King's College London, in Green Letters

Series Editors:

Professor Scott Slovic, University of Idaho, USA

Professor Joni Adamson, Arizona State University, USA

Professor YUKI Masami, Kanazawa University, Japan

Previous editors:

Professor Iain McCalman, University of Sydney Research Fellow in History; Director, Sydney University Environment Institute.

Professor Libby Robin, Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University, Canberra; Guest Professor of Environmental History, Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment, Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm Sweden.

Dr Paul Warde, Reader in Environmental History, University of Cambridge, UK

Editorial Board

Christina Alt, St Andrews University, UK, Alison Bashford, University of New South Wales, Australia, Peter Coates, University of Bristol, UK, Thom van Dooren, University of New South Wales, Australia, Georgina Endfield, Liverpool UK, Jodi Frawley, University of Western Australia, Andrea Gaynor, The University of Western Australia, Australia, Christina Gerhardt, University of Hawai'i at Mānoa, USA,□Tom Lynch, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, USA, Jennifer Newell, Australian Museum, Sydney, Australia , Simon Pooley, Imperial College London, UK, Sandra Swart, Stellenbosch University, South Africa, Ann Waltner, University of Minnesota, US, Jessica Weir, University of Western Sydney, Australia

International Advisory Board

William Beinart,University of Oxford, UK, Jane Carruthers, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa, Dipesh Chakrabarty, University of Chicago, USA, Paul Holm, Trinity College, Dublin, Republic of Ireland, Shen Hou, Renmin University of China, Beijing, Rob Nixon, Princeton University, USA, Pauline Phemister, Institute of Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Edinburgh, UK, Sverker Sörlin, KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory, Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden, Helmuth Trischler, Deutsches Museum, Munich and Co-Director, Rachel Carson Centre, LMU Munich University, Germany, Mary Evelyn Tucker, Yale University, USA, Kirsten Wehner, University of London, UK

Learn more…

Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
DESIGN / General
NATURE / Ecology