Special Issue 2024: Mapping Uncertain Knowledge


How to present uncertain knowledge? What did mapmakers do when they were not sure about things? This special issue of the Journal for the History of Knowledge puts cartography center stage – not as mere illustrations, but as epistemic objects, carrying and ordering knowledge. Mapmakers, especially in early modern times – the so-called ‘age of exploration’ – had to deal with many uncertainties: disputed discoveries, questionable coastlines, islands beyond the imagination, where and how to insert whole new continents? What if the experiences of explorers contradicted age-old narratives? And how to present the yet unexplored parts of the world?

This special issue brings together a dozen experts on the presentation of knowledge in the form of maps. They present case studies dealing with cartography varying from global to city to plantation scales, from the North Pole to the Cape of Good Hope, from Chile to Tibet to Italy. The visualizations of these parts of the worlds are analyzed in close relationship with the technology and production of maps, and even more with practices of acquiring and disseminating knowledge, European expansion, and empire building.

The volume ends with reflections from the fields of digital humanities and cartopology, since 21st-century scholars making maps face comparable problems. Where to draw the line? How to state ‘maybe’ or ‘I don’t know’ with only ones and zeros at your disposal? Thus, this special issue shows how early modern and present-day solutions to demonstrate (or hide) uncertainty can be mutually inspirational.