Privacy and Knowledge: Fundamental Fields of Study for Twenty-first-Century Democracies

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Citizenship plays an essential part in a functioning modern democratic polity. The consolidation of mass democracy and the nation state, mass consumption and capitalism, as well as the development of rational knowledge are the main elements that built this modern polity. Part of the nation state’s function has been to develop a welfare state with the aim to make its citizens thrive. After all, to make citizens thrive was the old Aristotelian ideal of the polis, often translated as ‘city-state’, as the sole space for human beings, political animals, to achieve their potential. In order to build this social and political system, public institutions evolved into complex bureaucracies, which gathered more and more information about its citizens. Sociologists have referred to this as ‘information society’ or ‘knowledge society’.

The early modern period gave Europe the foundations of its modern vocabulary. Theologians, and legal and political thinkers established the basis for our modern concepts such as citizen, the state, law, freedom, the nation. The construction of the nation-state was the project of the nineteenth century, while the construction of the welfare state was the project of the twentieth century. Both projects have created a bureaucracy in charge of gathering information about citizens. This knowledge has also served as identity formation, political identity, which resulted in tremendous crises (world wars based on nationalism, and the use of national registers to identify specific groups of population). The twenty-first-century model is still under formation, but seems to be basing itself on the digital revolution; a cyber-Leviathan struggling to cap a multitude of fluid political identities.

The good functioning of a modern democratic polity has become increasingly complex in our ‘knowledge society’. New actors have challenged nation-states. Multiple actors (transnational groups, the internet, foreign countries, large multinational or global companies, NGOs, etc.) impact on the functioning of democratic nation-states. These alternative actors have sometimes surpassed governments and public authorities in gathering knowledge about their citizens and in using it. The USA engaged in mass surveillance post 9/11, sometimes with the complicity of local governments.[1] Private corporations have established an economic system called ‘surveillance capitalism’.[2] China has built ‘smart cities’ where citizens cannot cross the street without the party knowing it.[3]

That ‘knowledge is power’ is a well-known aphorism, commonly traced to Francis Bacon (1561—1626), from his 1597 Meditationes Sacrae: ‘ipsa scientia potestas est’ (‘knowledge itself is power’). Thomas Hobbes (1588—1679), who knew him, also wrote in his 1668 Latin edition of Leviathan ‘Scientia potentia est’, adding: ‘sed parva’; or in the original 1651 version ‘The Sciences, are small Powers…’[4] Hobbes’s point is that, since science cannot be contained in one person, it is a small power. Knowledge of everything, for Hobbes on the other hand, is real power, but only pertains to nature. What would Hobbes say today when governments and corporations have access to an unprecedented amount of personal information about individuals and have the ability to process and analyse all the data collected? ‘Scientia potentia est sed parva’?

Castells theorized the ‘information age’ as a competition between the self and networks driven by technology.[5] For Castells, social groups construct their identity, which shape the institutions of society. Who controls the means of constructing collective identities determines the content of these identities. Now, since the technological tools available determine social change, who controls this technology has tremendous power over society.

Today, the topic of privacy is therefore of paramount importance. Technology and economy have merged into a system of collection of data from individuals as a way of making a profit. This deep knowledge of individuals is not only selling new objects of consumption, but constituting political identities, disrupting elections, impacting freedom of thought by altering one’s access to unbiased information.[6] Have algorithms and artificial intelligence used by social media companies and governments to mine big data reached the status of all-knowing God? The individual still has free will against this powerful knowledge by protecting her privacy. A recent book argues simply that ‘privacy is power’.[7] If privacy is power and knowledge is power, research on the dynamic between knowledge and privacy is fundamental for democracy. Historical research should inscribe itself within this grand narrative of modernity as a construction of identities between the self and networks by powerful technologies. Or of postmodern deconstruction into small narratives, as Lyotard has it (more on this in a future post).[8]

Privacy studies as a field of research is still in its infancy despite a handbook.[9] What is missing is a richer historical perspective. The Centre for Privacy Studies at the University of Copenhagen is aiming at developing an interdisciplinary outlook on privacy and a method for privacy studies as a field. The history of privacy has been a developing topic of research for the past three decades. But it is more recently that the idea of privacy and the private/public nexus as threshold of contested power as a relevant tool for studying the past has emerged.[10] Privacy studies contribute to at the evolution of various understandings of privacy across time and space, and how they have been justified or limited in political ideologies.

The field of the history of knowledge can ironically be traced to Bacon again with his 1605 The Advancement of Learning, inspiring the taxonomy of knowledge in the French Encyclopédie.[11] It has had different names and objects of study over time.[12] The field is developing rapidly with a new Journal of the History of Knowledge created in 2020,[13] the Lund Centre for the History of Knowledge,[14] following the work of Peter Burke since the 1990s.[15] Knowledge studies should examine how political knowledge of citizens was created, limited, and disseminated throughout modernity.

Knowledge has always been considered partial and limited. It could be that it is limited to an elite or that it is deemed dangerous and concealed, or simply that it is not possible to gather enough information. Echoing Bacon, Foucault has established a fruitful conceptual tool with the nexus power/knowledge that mutually create and influence one another: ‘the exercise of power perpetually creates knowledge and conversely, knowledge constantly induces effects of power’.[16] He had previously studied Bentham’s panopticon for prisons, a device bereaving prisoners of privacy and enabling the collection of information on their private behaviours at will and at random so that they discipline themselves.[17] In this sense, there has also been privacy of political knowledge of citizens. What justifies on the one hand the limitations to citizens’ privacy to gather political knowledge, and what justifies the limitation of citizens’ knowledge to this?

[1] Elliot D. Cohen, Mass Surveillance and State Control: The Total Information Awareness Project (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010); Timothy H. Edgar, Beyond Snowden: Privacy, Mass Surveillance, and the Struggle to Reform the NSA (Washington, D.C: Brookings Institution Press, 2017).

[2] Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (New York, NY: Public Affairs, 2019).

[3] Kai Strittmatter, We Have Been Harmonised: Life in China’s Surveillance State (La Vergne: Old Street Publishing, 2019).

[4] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Richard Tuck, Revised student edition, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 63.

[5] Manuel Castells, The Information Age, Volumes 1-3: Economy, Society and Culture (Malden (Mass.); Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1999).

[6] Ivan Manokha, ‘Surveillance: The DNA of Platform Capital—The Case of Cambridge Analytica Put into Perspective’, Theory & Event 21, no. 4 (2018): 891–913.

[7] Carissa Véliz, Privacy Is Power: Why and How You Should Take Back Control of Your Data (London: Bantam Press, 2020).

[8] Jean-François Lyotard, La condition postmoderne:  rapport sur le savoir, Collection critique. (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1979).

[9] Bart van Der Sloot and Aviva de Groot, eds., The Handbook of Privacy Studies: An Interdisciplinary Introduction. (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2018).

[10] Sarah E. Igo, The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2018).

[11] Francis Bacon, The Two Bookes of the Proficience and Advancement of Learning Divine and Humane (London: Henrie Tomes, 1605).

[12] Peter Burke, What Is the History of Knowledge?, What Is History? (Oxford: Polity Press, 2015), chap. 1.

[13] https://journalhistoryknowledge.org.

[14] Johan Östling, David Larsson Heidenblad, and Anna Nilsson Hammar, ‘Developing the History of Knowledge’, in Forms of Knowledge: Developing the History of Knowledge (Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2020), 9–26.

[15] Burke, What Is the History of Knowledge?

[16] Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge:  Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977 / (New York, N.Y: Pantheon Books, 1980), 52.

[17] Michel Foucault, Surveiller et Punir. Naissance de La Prison (Paris: Gallimard, 1975).

Epidemics and the issue of private knowledge

News revealed that there was a point during the spread of Covid-19 in Italy when there were not enough respirator valves for all the patients that required treatment. When the original manufacturer could not supply extra valves, volunteers developed improvised solutions. Cristian Fracassi and Alessandro Ramaioli made use of 3D printers to create a version of the medical device. According to a report by The Verge, they initially got in touch with the manufacturer to request the blueprints but were refused, being told that the file was the company’s private property. Without the blueprints, Fracassi and Ramaioli had to reverse-engineer the device in order to print unauthorized copies of the patented valve. After successful tests, they donated 100 of these 3D-printed valves to the hospital. Speculation about a possible lawsuit for infringement of the patent caused online outrage, raising the question of how we deal with proprietary knowledge in case of emergency such as the current pandemic.

Keeping potentially life-saving knowledge in “private” seems to be a very contemporary issue. Having patents on crucial medication or equipment is now the “norm” of the medical and pharmaceutical industry. In academic circles, efforts to make science more open must face the ever-present question of profit, as well as the assurance of status and influence within knowledge communities. It is such a present concern, but while reading about the 3D-printed valves and the issue of bypassing patents, I could not help but remember one of the healing practitioners I came across in my work on privacy and health in early modern Dresden.

This practitioner was the Leipzig physician Caspar Kegler (c. 1461-1537). I had encountered Kegler’s name in many of the manuscript pharmacopoeias I have been collecting to understand early modern medical networks. His name always appeared in plague remedies, showing that he had a surprising level of specialization for an early-16th-century doctor. However, it was only through the work of Erik A. Heinrichs that I was able to really understand the impact of Kegler’s recipes in the circulation of medical knowledge in the 16th and 17th century.

After becoming a doctor in 1511, Kegler established himself as a remedy maker, producing and selling his medicines at his shop at the Leipzig City Hall. This activity was usually exclusive to apothecaries, so a physician taking over this market was not common at the time. He advertised his remedies in cheap prints like pamphlets and booklets, a new endeavor in the Leipzig print market. He took the chance to seek printers to spread his “plague regimens” after Duke Georg I of Saxony enforced a ban on Luther’s works in 1521. Printers were in need of new “popular” texts to disseminate after the reader-grabbing Lutheran texts were banned. By using the more accessible forms of print, Kegler was able to spread healing knowledge to the literate laypeople, gaining popularity thanks to the accessible tone of his medical treatises and pamphlets.

Kegler, Caspar: Eyn Nutzlichs vnd trostlichs Regiment wider dy Pestilentz; Leipzig [1529]. A digitized version can be found on the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek online catalog

Kegler also counted on the endorsement of local authorities. He stressed in his prints how the Leipzig city council requested his regimens to be published as a way to help the population in the face of a series of epidemics in the early 16th century. In the 1529 version, he proclaims that Duke Georg I himself urged him to divulge his medicines. Kegler was trusted to give medical advice to the masses, providing health regimens as well as spiritual guidance. On top of that, he offered new medicines for the plague.

Opening of the 1529 Leipzig edition

Epidemics tend to push the boundaries of medical knowledge, making people desperate for new solutions. Kegler’s new medicines incorporated learned alchemy and artisanal techniques. In the hands-on space of the laboratory, Kegler was able to refine his recipe for aqua vitae, a potent distillate which was particularly popular in times of plague. His medicines relied on experimentation to prove their efficacy, instead of the traditional reliance on the authority of ancient-Greek methods. This rhetoric worked well with its intended audience since Kegler continued to highlight the experimental aspect of his concoctions in all subsequent prints. Alchemical/experimental medicine was about to take over the medical discourse of 16th-century Germany.

Manuscript with Kegler’s advice on the use of Aqua Vitae (Ludwig VI. von der Pfalz Rezeptsammlung – Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 192; 1570–1572 [Nachträge bis nach 1579], 198r)

Kegler’s resourcefulness and innovative use of new technologies could be seen as similar to the efforts of the 3D-print specialists using their machinery to develop the missing pieces to save lives today. However, we cannot neglect the fact that Kegler’s whole enterprise relied heavily on secrecy.

His pamphlets contained several recipes for plague remedies. These recipes became so popular that they were copied into manuscript pharmacopoeias, surviving in several German archives. However, his most potent and famous medicines were kept as a family secret. When asked to reveal how to prepare his famous “plague electuary”, Kegler instead explained that the complex process required specialized equipment and unique ingredients (including unicorn horn), being too hard to replicate without first-hand supervision. However, there is no definitive evidence that the recipe was ever revealed even to skilled specialists outside of the Kegler family. Secrecy was Kegler’s way of maintaining ownership of his recipe, making “Doctor Caspar Kegler’s Electuary” a branded and recognizable remedy in the following decades. After Kegler’s death, his family continued to advertise his remedies, issuing reprints of his pamphlets as well. His sons continued the secrecy trope, saying that only Kegler’s children had the correct original formula.

Manuscript copy of Kegler’s Plague Regimen (Rezeptsammlung – Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 204; 4. Viertel 16. Jh., 190v)

This healing knowledge was seen as private property of the Kegler family, and they made use of their political influence in order to keep it this way. In Dresden, Caspar Kegler the grandson gained the favor of Elector Christian II. Christian II praised Kegler’s electuary, proclaiming that only Dr Caspar Kegler’s descendants had the correct recipe, while also giving Caspar Kegler the grandson sole privilege to print his grandfather’s work. To this day, although there are recipes that claim to be Kegler’s unicorn electuary, it is impossible to verify if they are accurate since the original has never been revealed. The strict secrecy of the Kegler family and the supporting privileges received from their political patrons turned “Dr Caspar Kegler’s Electuary” into forgotten knowledge.

Pharmacopoeia claiming to have the recipe of Kegler’s Electuary (Arzneibuch – SLUB Mscr.Dresd.App.2975, 1550-1586, 5v)

On the other hand, Kegler’s open recipes being copied and adapted in subsequent manuscripts show us that knowledge grows as it is shared. I think the past has a lot to reveal about the question of proprietary knowledge. By looking at how societies dealt with knowledge being “private property”, we can inform the decisions we make today. Who benefited from private knowledge in the past? What were the consequences of private knowledge to those societies? How tragedies and emergencies affected how knowledge was treated? Posing these questions to the past can illuminate the paths we are taking for the future marked by the pandemic. Kegler and other examples from history show us that humans are resourceful, and even the hardest of times can be the grounds for important discoveries. It is up to us to not let our knowledge be forgotten.

Privacy and Moral Philosophy

What does privacy have to do with moral philosophy? A lot, depending on how we conceptualize privacy. Privacy was a word people used in the eighteenth century, albeit not in the exact same way as we do today. The notion of a ‘right to privacy’ did not exist, neither legally nor in the minds.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, privacy is defined as ‘1. the state or condition of not being alone, undisturbed, or free from public attention, as a matter of choice or right; seclusion; freedom from interference or intrusion’. One may note a particular legal and political undertone is this definition with the word right and choice, the words freedom and the liberal definition of liberty as freedom from interference or intrusion. Privacy is also the avoidance of publicity, protection from public knowledge. Again a legal and political understanding.

If we look at Nathan Bailey’s 1730 Dictionarium Britannicum, ‘privacy’ is identified as stemming from the French privauté, meaning ‘familiarity’, but also retirement or secrecy. French dictionaries at the time also defined ‘privauté’ as ‘familiarité’. Privacy as privauté is not of our concern here.

A Dictionary of the English Language 1755 If we look at the 1768 edition of Samuel Johnson’s A dictionary of the English language, privacy is defined as stemming from ‘private’ and designating 1) the state of being secret, secrecy, or 2) retirement, retreat, or 3) privity, grand familiarity, joint knowledge, or 4) taciturnity. ‘Private’ stems from the Latin privatus, meaning 1) not open, secret, 2) alone, not accompanied, 3) being upon the same terms upon the community, particular, opposed to public, 4) particular, not relating to public, 5) in private, secretly, not in public.

One may notice the absence of any legal or political connotation, except perhaps that it denotes something ‘secret’ and ‘retired’ from others. It is first in Brandeis and Warren’s 1890 article on ‘the right to privacy’ that we have a clear legal notion of a ‘right to be left alone’. This right to privacy, also adds to other rights defined in the American and French declarations in the late eighteenth century.

Now, there is clearly a cultural, philosophical, and political change in minds that explains the notion of rights. But, what about the notion of privacy? And why study the history of moral philosophy in particular for an intellectual history of this notion of privacy?

Rubens, Adam and Eve, 1628-29

In the Book of Genesis, the reader learns that God created Adam and Eve, the first human beings. They were free to do what they wanted and prosper in the Garden of Eden to create humankind. God made them in his image. However, God forbid Adam and Eve to eat fruits from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, as well as the tree of life. Tricked by a snake, Eve ate a fruit from the tree of knowledge and offered it to Adam. As a result, they gained knowledge of good and evil. With this knowledge came shame, the shame to discover they were naked. They hid their genitals from each other. They equally tried to hide from God as they knew they did something wrong and disobey his command. God found out, and, fearing they could also eat from the tree of life and become immortal like Him, He banned them from Eden to suffer on earth.

If we think about privacy in this well-known story, we can see that knowledge of good and evil is tightly related to secrecy and publicity. The reason for retiring and concealing something shameful is the fear of judgement and knowledge by others. It is a moral judgement we are here interested in, not legal judgement. One would also hide and conceal something illegal in the fear of being sentenced as a result, but that is not of our concern here.

My hypothesis, then, is that looking at how people conceived morality determined how people acted in public and in private. I am here conceptualizing privacy with a restriction to being a state of privation from others, a retreat from others, therefore a voluntary act. It is others’ knowledge of one’s actions. We acquire knowledge through our senses: sight, hearing, smell, and to a certain extent touch and taste.

If someone choses to retreat from other people’s senses, the retreat is voluntary. If the retreat is voluntary then there is a reason for it: a will to keep something away from others. This will is thus influenced by something, which may be a certain public image as opposed to a private one. It may also be that there is a will to keep something away from others. Society may frown upon the condition of solitude because it is suspect: someone may be hiding something contrary to moral standards.

Moreover, if there is a will, it also supposes that the person is alive, but what about after death and the will of the person? This touches upon questions as wide ranging as opening a private diary, and opening a cadaver to gain knowledge of the soul or the body. This will to retreat also imply that we study how the person in question understands this retreat and privacy. Closing one’s eyes and joining hands in prayer in the middle of a crowded room may not seem like privacy to us, but might be for the person. By the same token, this person may believe to be alone and thus away from the knowledge of others, but not of God. A private conduct may also be influenced and not considered as privacy by this person.

The teaching of moral philosophy at the university in the early modern period may seem remote from social realities. It is difficult to assess the real impact and it is certainly limited to a society’s elite. However, since society was hierarchically organized, it is relevant to study the elite’s mind-set in order to understand the rules according to which it ruled lesser ‘classes’ or estates. Studying at the university was reserved to a certain elite in the eighteenth century, and this was also true of Glasgow.

The professorial chair was subject to political scrutiny, even if to a lesser

Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746)

extent at Glasgow compared to Edinburgh and other Scottish universities. The eighteenth century saw an increasing patronage by the crown and politicians over the church and universities.[1] The politics of the church and the university is important because it shaped the ideas and values of the Scots. The most influential persons who managed to monopolise patronage were Archibald Campbell, first earl of Ilay, and, after 1743, third duke of Argyll (1682-1761), and afterwards Henry Dundas, first Viscount of Melville (1742-1811).[2] Francis Hutcheson’s appointment at the Chair of Moral Philosophy in 1729 was the result of Ilay’s decisive influence over factional disputes.[3]

This is the first step for building my research programme on privacy as it relates to moral philosophy. I start from the hypothesis that moral philosophy is significant for understanding privacy because it defines the standards by which people judged one another. It formed their ‘moral sense’ in a way. The next step is to look at the actual teaching of moral philosophy. I work on the Glasgow case together with my colleagues at the Centre for Privacy Studies, and I focus on Francis Hutcheson’s teaching of moral philosophy. A third step would be to collect sources and information about how his teaching spread through society by looking at his students and if and how his ideas were discussed in society.

[1] Roger L. Emerson, ‘Politics and the Glasgow Professors, 1690-1800’, in The Glasgow Enlightenment, ed. Andrew Hook and Richard B. Sher (East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 1995).

[2] Emerson, 22.

[3] Roger L. Emerson, Academic Patronage in the Scottish Enlightenment: Glasgow, Edinburgh and St Andrews Universities (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008), 96–97.


This post is based on the paper I presented at the 49th Annual Conference of the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, 8-10 January 2020 at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, United Kingdom : “Natural, Unnatural and Supernatural”.