Research Seminar: Joan Steigerwald
March 4 @ 12:00 pm - 2:00 pm
Historical Epistemology and the Science of Life
Humanities, STS and SPT
Histories of science are inevitably informed by our present preoccupations—by extant histories of a place and time, by present scientific discourses and epistemic commitments, and by ongoing critical analyses of the project of science. As present scientific theories and practices shift, so to does the understanding of their past. Historical, philosophical, and social studies of science also critically reexamine what science is, has been, or might be. Historical epistemology is concerned, in part, with how new methodological and critical commitments of scholars studying the development of scientific discourses and practices recurrently reconstitute their subject matter.
The emergence of a science of life at the turn of the nineteenth century is a subject to which historians repeatedly return. Co-constituted with critical philosophy, taking shaping amid revolutions in politics, the arts and human beings’ sense of their place in history, and contributing to the development of the disciplines and institutions of modernity, from its beginning the science of life inhabited a complex space. The articulation of a distinct science of life was also an attempt to delineate what life is not, or to demarcate a boundary between the living and the nonliving. But in explorations of the border zones of life, the space of demarcation expanded and consumed any clear boundary. Experimental explorations of organic vitality and its boundary with the inorganic opened up questions and yet complicated their possible answers by eliciting a variety of responses from organic bodies. These experiments led to reflections on what kinds of knowledge was being produced through the implementation of a suite of new tools and techniques for the study of living beings. These issues were given a distinctive articulation through broader critical examinations of the boundaries of and prospects for knowledge in German philosophy and Romanticism. New critical theories offered not only influential concepts for understanding organisms but also experimented with new modes of thinking for making sense of organic vitality. The confrontation with studies of organic processes in turn posed challenges to philosophy, so that philosophy was fundamentally changed by its encounter with the material processes of vitality.
The introduction to Experimenting at the Boundaries of Life: Organic Vitality in Germany around 1800 sets out the varied senses of organic life, conceptions of boundaries, and experimental reasoning that the book examines. It presents its contribution as a part of larger concerns raised by projects of historical epistemology.