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Hardcover | $32.00 Short | £26.95 | 330 pp. | 6 x 9 in | 19 b&w illus. | October 2016 | ISBN: 9780262035316
Paperback | $22.00 Short | £17.95 | 330 pp. | 6 x 9 in | 19 b&w illus. | August 2017 | ISBN: 9780262534673
eBook | $22.00 Short | October 2016 | ISBN: 9780262336338
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The Shaping of Modern Knowledge


A system can describe what we see (the solar system), operate a computer (Windows 10), or be made on a page (the fourteen engineered lines of a sonnet). In this book, Clifford Siskin shows that system is best understood as a genre—a form that works physically in the world to mediate our efforts to understand it. Indeed, many Enlightenment authors published works they called “system” to compete with the essay and the treatise. Drawing on the history of system from Galileo’s “message from the stars” and Newton’s “system of the world” to today’s “computational universe,” Siskin illuminates the role that the genre of system has played in the shaping and reshaping of modern knowledge.

Previous engagements with systems have involved making them, using them, or imagining better ones. Siskin offers an innovative perspective by investigating system itself. He considers the past and present, moving from the “system of the world” to “a world full of systems.” He traces the turn to system in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and describes this primary form of Enlightenment as a mediator of political, cultural, and social modernity—pointing to the moment when people began to “blame the system” for working both too well (“you can’t beat the system”) and not well enough (it always seems to “break down”). Throughout, his touchstones are: what system is and how it has changed; how it has mediated knowledge; and how it has worked in the world.

About the Author

Clifford Siskin is Henry W. and Alfred A. Berg Professor of English and American Literature at New York University, and Director of the Re:Enlightenment Project.


System is . . . provocative, clearly argued, and deeply learned. . . . Siskin bridges scholarly divides too often seen as unbridgeable: between the Enlightenment and Romanticism, between poetry and prose, between close reading and distant reading, between traditional scholarship and digital scholarship, and so forth. The book is also a pleasure to read. . . . Overall, modern scholarship has much to learn from System.”—Jesse Molesworth, Modern Language Quarterly


This is a landmark book, both revisionary and provocative, that advances a new appreciation of ‘system’ as the norm for modern knowledge. Siskin challenges our understanding of how history was conceived and knowledge was and is formed. The intellectual range of this study is compelling—from an innovative recovery of literary history and the quantitative mapping of big bibliographical data to a redefinition of Enlightenment. It suggests in new ways how disciplinarity developed and the social mediation of information worked.
James Raven, Professor of Modern History, University of Essex and Fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge
“Siskin has rethought the intellectual history between the Enlightenment and today in terms of a unifying concept: how ‘systems’ became the prevailing mode of explanation in science and elsewhere. Illuminating and thought-provoking throughout.”
David Deutsch, Visiting Professor of Physics, University of Oxford; author of The Beginning of Infinity
“Clifford Siskin’s fascinating and wide-ranging investigation of the history of ‘system’ performs the vital service of helping the reader think more deeply and richly not only about ideas but about the systems of everyday thought we use to engage with the world.”
Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Arts