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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 scientific knowledge production and research and development; and reliable information is a key ingredient to well-functioning journalism, media, medicine, law, government, and other sectors of society.

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

Universities and other knowledge-centered institutions

One central area of focus are universities. The research and scholarship that takes place in the halls of academia contributes to the production, conservation, 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?

In addition to universities, various other institutions also produce, conserve, distribute, or use knowledge: research institutes, laboratories, libraries, archives, journals, learned societies, conferences, etc. The goals and tasks of these institutions change over time and so do their organization and spatial and material realizations. What drives these changes and how do they affect knowledge?

Knowledge in institutional settings

In many societal domains we see frictions and tensions between the way various types of knowledge are considered as legitimate and are allowed as basis for policies and organizational strategies. The knowledge and experience of a ‘client’ of healthcare or social work may be quite different from the knowledge and experience of a health care worker or social worker, and the knowledge and experience of these tow groups may be different all together from the alleged knowledge of the political or administrative official who looks ar financial spreadsheets and maintains general suspicions about fraudulent behavior of both clients and professionals. What types of knowledge is applied at what level of an institution? What is the relation between qualitative and quantitative knowledge? What types of knowledge is ‘applied’ in which setting? What does ‘apply’ mean in regarding to knowledge in institutions? What are the contours of an ‘application ethics’ (to be well distinguished from ‘applied ethics’) in the context of institutions and their management? What is the role of ‘practical knowledge’ and knowledge production in ‘practices’? What is the possibility and role of normative ideas about the good life in giving direction to institutional domains, like universities, the state, the economy, civil society?

The social and historical contexts of knowledge

Knowledge isn’t produced and used in isolation from social contexts, actors, and forces. The ways knowledge is shaped by, produced and used in social contexts forms another focus area for ‘Knowledge in Context’ researchers. 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 how can they become better in these respects?

The historical angle raises the question how historical contexts have influenced the formation and use of knowledge? How have distinctions between kinds of knowledge developed over time? How do disciplines form and fade? What is inter- and trans-disciplinarity? How have the concepts and views we employ in epistemology, the sciences, and the humanities developed over time? How does the historical context relate to cultural practices in which knowledge is used and produced?


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.

Inclusion and exclusion

Questions about reliable knowledge and expertise and their counterparts invariably raise the question of who gets to know? Who are certified purveyors of (scientific and scholarly) knowledge and trustworthy experts? What historical and contemporary factors and developments drive processes of ‘credentialing’? Are the sciences and humanities the exclusive domains of academically trained scholars or should they be more open and inclusive, by, for instance, democratizing research? What are normatively appropriate forms of inclusion and exclusion in knowledge production?

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 our future. 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? Is research value-free or inevitably value-laden? How has modern knowledge formation influenced human experience, for example in the relation between humans and nature (mechanization, naturalization)? How has our understanding of fundamental concepts and categories like ‘science’, ‘religion’, ‘culture’, ‘morality’, and ‘value’ developed over time in different historical and social contexts?

Research centers and affiliated researchers

  • Abraham Kuyper Center for Science and the Big Questions
  • Simon Stevin Center for the History of Science and Humanities
  • Centrum Èthos, Onderzoeks en debatcentrum rond maatschappelijke transformaties (Ethos, Research and Debating Center around Societal Transformations)
  • Researchers in theoretical philosophy, history of philosophy, social, cultural and political philosophy, history of science and the humanities, religious studies, and theology

Academic disciplines

  • Philosophy, particularly: epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of science & humanities, philosophy of religion, social, cultural and political philosophy
  • Systematic and historical theology, religious studies
  • History of science and humanities
  • History of Western Culture
  • Intercultural philosophy

Key topics

  • Sources, limits, and kinds of knowledge
  • Cultural and practical dimensions of different kinds of knowledge and the mutual relations between different kinds of knowledge
  • Knowledge and values
  • Epistemic and scientific progress
  • Responsibilities of universities and other knowledge-centered institutions
  • Research integrity, research ethics, responsible research and 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

Jeroen de Ridder is associate professor of philosophy at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and professor by special appointment of Christian philosophy at the University of Groningen. He specialises in social epistemology, philosophy of science, and philosophy of religion. His research has received funding from NWO and the Templeton World Charity Foundation.