An Epistemology of the Concrete: Twentieth-Century Histories of Life By Hans-Jörg Rheinberger

    An Epistemology of the Concrete brings together case studies and theoretical reflections on the history and epistemology of the life sciences by Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, one of the world’s foremost philosophers of science. In these essays, he examines the history of experiments, concepts, model organisms, instruments, and the gamut of epistemological, institutional, political, and social factors that determine the actual course of the development of knowledge. Building on ideas from his influential book Toward a History of Epistemic Things, Rheinberger first considers ways of historicizing scientific knowledge, and then explores different configurations of genetic experimentation in the first half of the twentieth century and the interaction between apparatuses, experiments, and concept formation in molecular biology in the second half of the twentieth century. He delves into fundamental epistemological issues bearing on the relationship between instruments and objects of knowledge, laboratory preparations as a special class of epistemic objects, and the note-taking and write-up techniques used in research labs. He takes up topics ranging from the French “historical epistemologists” Gaston Bachelard and Georges Canguilhem to the liquid scintillation counter, a radioactivity measuring device that became a crucial tool for molecular biology and biomedicine in the 1960s and 1970s. Throughout An Epistemology of the Concrete, Rheinberger shows how assemblages—historical conjunctures—set the conditions for the emergence of epistemic novelty, and he conveys the fascination of scientific things: those organisms, spaces, apparatuses, and techniques that are transformed by research and that transform research in turn. An Epistemology of the Concrete: Twentieth-Century Histories of Life

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    I think the ideas presented in this book are incredibly interesting. Rheinberger starts by developing a little outline of the historical influences at play in writing the text and, for me, as someone who is interested in philosophy and intellectual history, that was the most rewarding part of the book. The exploration of ideas is very good throughout the text, and Rheinberger's focus on the concrete and his knowledge of technologies are a welcome change of pace from all of the discussion about text that occurs in science studies.

    Rheinberger gets a lot of things importantly right, especially in attempting to bring back the social studies of science to a point of interest in the concrete. It makes for an epistemological view that is much more widely accessible, especially to analytic thinkers who find people like Bruno Latour and the post-structuralists to be vapid or inane.

    One thing that is frustrating about Rheinberger's book is that in focussing on the concrete, he often loses track o the importance of his own metaphysical points in this discussion. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but given how short the book is [about 250 pages] and how densely it focuses on particular instances, it would give it a little more balance to periodically take a step back into the historical influences that he discusses in the opening of the book. Because those influences are philosophical, it can be difficult for the reader to easily tie together the abstractions that he is comfortable with while relieving the tension of a study that focuses heavily on the concrete.

    The discussions of the concrete itself is very useful. Rheinberger's choice of biology and biochemistry makes for an interesting take on a field that is often completely obsessed with physics, and gives some good roots to some of the category blurring that he wants to do, frustrating the boundaries between natural and artificial while expressing how the tension for scientists is often relieved. The conceptual explanation feels really incomplete, at times, but this book will make for a great opportunity for philosophers of science and students in the social studies of science to push much of the fact out into something more theoretically robust. 352