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Knowledge and reliable information are central to almost all sectors of contemporary society. The Netherlands is sometimes characterized as a knowledge economy; democracy needs a knowledgeable citizenry; technological innovation requires R&D and scientific knowledge production; and reliable information is a key ingredient to well-functioning journalism, medicine, law, government, and other sectors of society.

Researchers involved with the ‘Knowledge in Context’ theme work on fundamental and applied questions about knowledge and its production, maintenance, distribution, and use, as well as questions about the processes that undermine knowledge in society. They employ both systematic and historical perspectives in doing so.

Universities and their responsibilities

One central area of focus are universities. The research and scholarship that takes place in the halls of academia contributes to the production, maintenance, and distribution of knowledge. What are the roles in society and responsibilities of universities and academic inquiry in contemporary and historical societies? Do the sciences and the humanities differ in these regards and, if so, how? How can we foster responsible research practices and discourage questionable ones and, in doing so, improve the quality, reliability, and integrity of research?

The social and historical contexts of knowledge

Knowledge isn’t produced and used in isolation from social contexts, actors, and forces, however. The way knowledge is shaped by and used in social contexts is another key theme for ‘Knowledge in Context’. This includes epistemic analyses of social institutions like democracy, politics, the internet, social media: how good are they at producing, retaining, and employing reliable information and knowledge and, even more importantly, how can they become better in these respects? A historical angle is included here as well: how have historical contexts influenced the formation and use of knowledge and how have the concepts and views we employ in epistemology, the sciences, and the humanities developed over time?


The contemporary contexts of knowledge raise urgent questions and challenges. A lot of information gathering and exchange happens online now. The internet not only puts a world of knowledge at everyone’s fingertips, but also a universe of misinformation. Fake news, spurious claims of expertise, conspiracy theories, and other extreme beliefs leave people epistemically worse off – both as individuals and as societies – and foster social fragmentation and polarization. Scientific facts, evidence, and expertise are increasingly getting caught up in this. Understanding these developments better and charting solutions is thus of the utmost social importance.

Big questions

Knowledge, scientific and otherwise, is also part of life more broadly. It has helped to shape humanity’s past and will continue to shape the future of humanity and life on our planet. It informs human curiosity, and speaks to perennial questions of meaning, purpose, morality, religion, and worldview. How can the sciences and humanities contribute to answering the big questions – both perennial ones and the ones raised by contemporary global challenges such as climate change, biodiversity, and geopolitics – and how have they done so in the past? Does scientific inquiry have limits and, if so, what are they?

Research Centers & Affiliated Researchers

  • Abraham Kuyper Center for Science and the Big Questions
  • Simon Stevin Center for the History of Science and Humanities
  • Interested individual researchers in theoretical philosophy, history of philosophy, history of science and the humanities, religious studies, and theology

Main academic disciplines covered

  • Philosophy, particularly: epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of science & humanities, philosophy of religion
  • Systematic and historical theology, religious studies
  • History of science & humanities

Key Topics

  • Sources and limits of knowledge
  • Epistemic and scientific progress
  • Responsibilities of universities
  • Research integrity, research ethics, responsible research & innovation
  • Epistemic analysis of democracy and other social institutions
  • Online and digital contexts of information production, maintenance, and exchange
  • Misinformation, conspiracy theories, extreme beliefs, fundamentalism, polarization
  • Knowledge resistance, science skepticism
  • History of science, humanities; history of the VU

Research Coordinators: Jeroen de Ridder and Ab Flipse