Hans-Jörg Rheinberger: A Short History of Epistemology

Hans-Jörg Rheinberger – as we learn from the blurb on his Max Planck Institute site, main focus in research lies in the history and epistemology of experimentation in the life sciences. By bridging the gap between the study of history and contemporary cutting-edge sciences, such as molecular biology, his work represents an example of transdisciplinarity as emerging in the present knowledge-based society.

In his short book On Historicizing Epistemology: An Essay  he tells us that the classical view of epistemology was a synonym for a theory of knowledge that inquires into what it is that makes knowledge scientific, while for many of the contemporary practioners of this art, following the French practice, it has become a form of reflecting on the historical conditions under which, and the means with which, things are made into objects of knowledge.1

This subtle difference between the classical and the contemporary epistemology hinges on a specific set of historical transformations in philosophy and the sciences during the twentieth century and it is to this that his book directs its inquiry. From the nineteenth century of Emil Du Bois-Reymond and Ernst Mach on through the works of Polish immunologist Ludwik Fleck and the French epistemologist Gaston Bachelard to Karl Popper, Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Ernst Cassirer, Alexandre Koyre, Thomas Kuhn, Stephen Toulmin, and Paul Feyerabend, Georges Canguilhem, Louis Althusser, and Michel Foucault, as well as Jacques Derrida, and on up to contemporary practioners such as Ian Hacking for the English-speaking world, and by Bruno Latour for France we follow the course of a slow process of historicizing and internal transformation of philosophy, the sciences, and epistemology as they interacted with each other.

As he shows in this short work even the problematique, the very problems that epistemology set out to answer changed in route from the early thinkers to the later:

Not by chance, an epistemology and history of experimentation crystallized conjointly. The question now was no longer how knowing subjects might attain an undisguised view of their objects, rather the question was what conditions had to be created for objects to be made into objects of empirical knowledge under historically variable conditions.(Kindle Locations 44-45).

For anyone needing a basic history and overview of this fascinating history of the conjunctions and disjunctions of science and philosophy this is a great little introduction and not too costly.

1. Hans-Jorg Rheinberger. On Historicizing Epistemology: An Essay (Cultural Memory in the Present) (Kindle Locations 38-39). Kindle Edition.

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