"The keen longing for unified, all-embracing knowledge": Big History, cosmic evolution, and new research agendas

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This article offers an interpretation of recent attempts at the unification of knowledge. It argues that today’s scholarly world is aberrant. It is splintered into distinct scholarly disciplines to such an extent that universities and research institutes have lost what Erwin Schrödinger called “the keen longing for unified, all-embracing knowledge.” In contrast, most earlier human societies have valued the search for an underlying unity to human knowledge, a unity that was both conceptual and narrative, and often took the form of “origin stories”. Unifying knowledge on the basis of modern science was also one of the central projects for the Enlightenment and for many nineteenth century thinkers. But at the beginning of the twentieth century, in every country in the world, knowledge was broken up into disciplines, to such an extent that most educators and researchers lost sight of the ancient hope of seeking an underlying unity to all knowledge. The essay describes the fragmentation of knowledge in the twentieth century and discusses reasons for that sea-change in the modern knowledge system. But it also argues that the period of extreme disciplinarity, in which the disciplines blocked the free flow of ideas between disciplines, may prove short-lived. The emerging transdisciplinary fields of “Big History” or “Cosmic Evolution” may herald a general scholarly return to a more balanced relationship between detailed research and the quest for large, unifying frameworks. This paper ends by speculating about how a return to the project of unifying knowledge may transform education, research agendas, and the institutions within which they take place. This chapter was originally published in the Journal of Big History, Vol. III(3), pp. 3–18 (2019).
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationExpanding worldviews
Subtitle of host publicationastrobiology, Big History and cosmic perspectives
EditorsIan Crawford
Place of PublicationCham, Switzerland
PublisherSpringer, Springer Nature
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)9783030704827
ISBN (Print)9783030704810
Publication statusPublished - 2021

Publication series

NameAstrophysics and Space Science Proceedings
ISSN (Print)1570-6591
ISSN (Electronic)1570-6605

Bibliographical note

First published 2019 in Journal of Big History 3(3). DOI: 10.22339/jbh.v3i3.3320


  • Big History
  • inter-disciplinary studies
  • Historiography


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