Genealogies of Knowledge: The Evolution and Contestation of Concepts across Time and Space


Democracy, civil society, nation, natural law. human rights, equality, experiment, cause, evidence, truth, validity, expertise – these are all key cultural concepts with a long history that remain central to social and political life today. This project explores how our understanding of these concepts has evolved since they first emerged. It also examines how translation has impacted this transformation, as these concepts have travelled across centuries, languages and cultures. The fact that established interpretations of these notions are still being renegotiated today by civil society groups in digital participatory environments further demonstrates the need to understand the processes of mutation that shaped their historical development.

Much research has focused on the development of these concepts individually, at particular times, in specific places – e.g. equality in early modern Europe, the emergence of democracy in Ancient Greece, or the concept of proof from Euclid to Einstein. However, little or no attempt has been made to trace the genealogy of individual concepts or constellations of concepts through processes of (re)translation and other sites of mediation, such as commentaries. We also lack the analytical and computational tools to map the evolution of key political and scientific concepts in those languages that have attained a near global reach at different points in history across the boundaries of country and creed. Greek thought in particular has been highly influential, but strikingly as much in Latin, Arabic and English translations as in Greek.

The project therefore focuses on translation phenomena and other sites of mediation involving three distinct lingua francas: medieval Arabic, early Latin and modern English. It engages with key historical moments that have brought about transformations in the interpretation of two constellations of concepts across the last 2500 years. The first constellation relates to the body politic and includes concepts currently expressed by the following lexical items in English: polis, polity, democracy, civil society, citizenship, nation, state, natural law, human rights. The second constellation consists of concepts that underpin scientific, expert discourse (including medical discourse as a case in point), such as experiment, observation, evidence, proof, episteme, truth, falsehood, aetiology, causation, justification, fact, validity, expertise.

Focusing on these two constellations of concepts, the project pursues two related strands of analysis:

  • the historical evolution and transformation through translation of the two constellations of concepts, focusing on seminal moments of change in the reception and reproduction of translated texts and their meanings by subsequent readerships. This will involve examining commentaries and (re)translations from/into Greek, early Latin, medieval Arabic and modern English;
  • the ways and means by which civil society actors involved in radical democratic groups and counter-hegemonic globalisation movements contest and redefine the meaning of such cultural concepts today, as part of an evolving radical-democratic project. In response to state-centred forms of democratic praxis, civil society actors are shifting towards a non-state model of democracy based on principles of diversity and horizontality. In this fluid context, the concepts that have traditionally underpinned scientific discourse (e.g. evidence, expertise and truth) are becoming less central to the construction and dissemination of knowledge, which is now regarded as partial and provisional. In analysing and these ongoing processes of knowledge renegotiation and contestation, we focus on English as lingua franca.

For both strands of analysis, the study involves building large, diverse electronic corpora of Greek, Latin, Arabic and English. Building on our long experience in corpus-based studies of translation, we are also developing a range of open-source software applications to interrogate the corpora and assist with the presentation of findings to other researchers and the public through powerful visualisation tools. As with earlier projects, specifically the Translational English Corpus, we aim to provide free, restricted access to the corpora and the software through an interface designed specifically for this project.

This AHRC-funded project brings together senior scholars from Translation Studies, Graeco-Arabic Studies, Digital Media and Communication, and Computer Science. Further members of the research team include two postdoctoral research associates, one Ph.D. student, and one project support officer. It is hoped that the project will lead to significant advances in individual fields and yield novel insights into how translations and related forms of mediation generate and transform knowledge; how cultural icons and frameworks of understanding emerge and evolve over time; and how the past directly informs our experience and expression of the present.

This project is based at the University of Manchester and is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The corpus analysis and visualisation software is developed by the University of Edinburgh, under the supervision of Dr Saturnino Luz.


University of ManchesterGenealogies of KnowledgeCMYK LScape