Review of Epistemology of the Concrete (Rheinberger)

Rheinberger H-J. (2010). An epistemology of the concrete: Twentieth-century histories of life. Durham: Duke University Press.

Never before have I read a monograph which has left me so conflicted. In reading Hans-Jörg Rheinberger’s Epistemology of the Concrete, I alternated regularly between extreme engagement with artfully presented moments of keen theoretical insight and something which bordered on ennui as I plowed through dense, plodding historiographic reconstructions. As I was drafting this I had hoped that in writing that bluntly honest yet bipolar evaluation, I would be able to tease out some form of recommendation for or against reading Rheinberger’s work. I find I still cannot. As such, in the detailed review which follows, you’ll find a series of conditional statements (If you have a profound interested in X, then buy this book now!) that will hopefully help you decide on your own if the book is worth your time.

An Epistemology of the Concrete: Twentieth-Century Histories of Life, as the title suggests is a broad and encompassing historiographic treatment of a wide array of moments in the biological sciences of the last century. Rheinberger traces various accounts of microbiology, genetics, and evolution—as well as, periodically, the relationships among the sub-disciplines, in the development of a series of narratives which are, if nothing else, supreme testaments to historiographic rigor. Epistemology of the Concrete is divided into four parts, each containing three to four chapters. Part I, by far my favorite and the reason I would recommend the book to many, is a thoughtful and engaging exploration of recent trends in historiography and epistemology which pay specific attention to the relationships among epistemological theory, scientific objects, and experimental practices. Part II explores four case studies which address the role of various model organisms in studies of heredity and reproduction circa 1896-1945. Part III interrogates a more recent spate of case studies focusing on a series of experimental concepts and apparatuses including genes, liquid scintillation, and biological information. Finally, Part IV serves as something of a coda and offers Rheinberger’s case study fueled suggestions on the future of historiography—viz., his argument that it should include greater focus on laboratory objects, practices, and informal texts.

Theoretical insights

The theoretical and methodological insights articulated in Rheinberger’s text are, without a doubt, the high point of the book. Those of you who have followed any of my scholarship or blog posts of late will know that I have recently become quite enamored with the ontological/multiple ontologies turn in rhetoric and STS. This interest of mine has certainly contributed to my appreciation of Rheinberger’s theoretical work in Epistemology of the Concrete. As the title obviously indicates, Rheinberger has not quite embraced the ontological turn and its attendant turn away from epistemology (cref: Mol, Body Multiple; Latour, Reassembling the Social; Pickering, The Cybernetic Brain, etc). However, his focus on the concrete and the laboratory practices that surround, expose, articulate with, configure, and are configured by those concrete objects is indicative of a significant stride in that direction.

As the brief outline above indicates, the bulk of Rheinberger’s theoretical work occurs in Part I. However, there are additional moments of theoretical insight which build on the first part found throughout the text—with prominent sections in Chapters 8 and 12. The Prologue and first chapter of Epistemology of the Concrete begins by outlining the somewhat recent trend in STS towards an investigation of the specific objects of scientific practice. Rheinberger invokes concepts such as Latour’s “Parliament of Things,” and and Bachelard’s un fait est fait in the refinement of his method—“historical epistemology.”

Ultimately, Rheinberger’s method  is very consonant with rhetorical studies—a discipline which he, of course, does not acknowledge. In any event, invoking Canguilhem, Rheinberger suggests an increased differentiation between the objects of scientific inquiry and the objects of historographic inquiry into science. Specifically, he argues that the primary objects of science are the texts of scientific discourse: “The object of historical discourse is, in effect, the historicity of scientific discourse… (Canguilhem qtd in Rheinberger p. 41). In fact, throughout chapter 3, he implores STS scholars to focus on the “cultural objects” of scientific practice. Though even more to the point is Rheinberger’s work in the last chapter which identifies informal discourses such as lab notebooks as a primary site of historiographic epistemology. Of course those of you with an extensive reading knowledge of STS and STEM rhetorics will note that this argument has been made for sometime—prominently by Latour and Woolgar’s Laboratory Life (see inscription) and Bazerman’s Languages of Edison’s Light. This is another recurring problem of Rheinberger’s book—repeated brilliance, a decade out of date, with little to no attribution. I don’t think this is a question of inattention or poor scholarship, mind you. Rather—as is evident from Epistemology of the Concrete’s references, Rheinberger runs in rather different intellectual circles.

In any event, this rhetorico-epistemic historiography involves the diligent recreation of specific cultural locales of knowledge production in order to understand the nature of those specific—again local—practices, the constituent objects, and the knowledge generation that occurs. As part of this process, he traces the interactions among the philosophies and methodologies of Ludwik Fleck, Edmund Husserl, Gaston Bachelard, and Georges Canguilhem. Ultimately, Rheinberger offers an artful and entailed exegesis of these theoretical conflicts and syntheses, and if (our first conditional) is interested in the nuances of these debates, then one ought to go and get Epistemology of the Concrete immediately…after finishing this post. For my money, the most useful moments in Rheinberger’s theoretical work come from his development of an object-oriented (a term I borrow from Harman’s Prince of Networks) epistemological taxonomy. Specifically, Epistemology of the Concrete introduces or refines four key terms that could be used to great effect in the description of laboratory activities:

  • Epistemic objects: An epistemic object is the material focus of a research agenda. It is that thing about which scientists of hope to create knowledge. (Though as one can see shortly, that thing is not an a priori, but rather a creation of specific laboratory practices situational within specific disciplinary paradigms.) Rheinberger interrogates a number of epistemic objects including genes, wing patters on moths, protein synthesis, noting all the while that the shifting metaphysics of each object was configured by the microculture and experimental practices of the day.
  • Epistemologica: Epistemic objects rendered permanent through material processes. The plastinated corpses at BodyWorld or BodyWorks are the idea avatars of epistemologica. Though so are articulated skeletons, specimen jars, butterfly collections, preserved slides (microscopy).
  • Phenomenotechnique: The idea that laboratory practices do not reveal, but rather produce scientific objects. Different phenomenotechniques would produce different objects even if they are identified as the same item. For example, in Chapter 8 Rheinberger traces the evolving concept of gene in early genetics. In each stage of inquiry, different phenomenotechniques produced different gene concepts. (This is Bachelard’s term which Rheinberger clarifies.) Of course, I found this concept particularly attractive given its affinity to Mol and multiple ontologies theory.
  • “Experimental Systems are material, functional units of modern knowledge production” (p. 244). I.e. experimental systems are the constellation, articulation, network, imbroglio, bricolage of epistemic objects, experimental apparatuses, bank accounts, phenomenotechniques etc that make up a specific modern/contemporary laboratory (or sub-section thereof). If as my definition suggests, there are potentially 30 synonyms for the same concept, why does he come up with a new one you ask? Actually, he has a good reason to; I just don’t agree with it—viz., he wishes to keep the focus on the micropractices of specific labs and not extend the frame of analysis to broad ideological formations and X-industrial-complexes. Not exactly my bag, but I can’t fault Rheinberger for it.

“Fine-Grained Textual Microanalysis”

Did I mention that Rheinberger not only had degrees in philosophy, but also in molecular biology? This biographical fact, perhaps, explains Epistemology of the Concrete’s unending engagement with every minute detail of each case study. As I wrote above, this book is nothing if not a true testament to historiographic rigor—also quite consonant with the Geertzian notion of thick description. Indeed, Rheinberger, recognizing the thinkness of his prose and process, describes them using the subheading for this section—“fine-grained textual microanalysis” (p. 151). Now this normally wouldn’t be a problem for me but there was almost no integration between the brilliant theoretical work and the rigorous case study scholarship. As such, there was significant discord between the first thee chapters of theoretical work and the plodding (sorry, but it’s true) narratives of the subsequent. So here’s where the conditionals really kick in. If you happen to be working on a scholarly project that addresses the same areas of inquiry, then you really do need to get this book. So for example, James Wynn needs this book. (Actually James may have already read this book; he’s just a convenient example.) James does some engaging work on the rhetoric of Gregor Mendel and his reception over time. Rheinberger offers a very detailed account of Mendels rediscovery and continuing impact from 1890s-1950s. I quite enjoyed the chapter which detailed the history of various radiologic devices which were precursors to PET. Similarly, Chapters 8 and 10 could be read as thoughtful precursors to Fox Keller’s Refiguring Life. Whereas she thoughtfully explores the impact of the gene-qua-code/information metaphor in 1980s/1990s bioscientific discourse, Rheinberger traces the earliest origins of the metaphor in a series of papers in the 1950s and 1960s (Chapter 10). Actually, this is one moment where Epistemology of the Concrete is its most rhetorical. Rheinberger tracks the emergence of key terms—information, messenger, code, etc—in three articles authored by the same research group.

Despite my criticism of the absence of theoretical discussion in the midst of Rheinberger’s narratives, I should note that there is one shining exception: Chapter 8. I have no idea why Chapter 8 takes a different tack than all the others, but it is by far my favorite. As far as I am concerned, the highest caliber of scholarship in STEM rhetorics and STS artfully and seamlessly integrates case study narrativizations with theoretical analysis. With this as a benchmark, Chapter 8 is one of the best exemplars of contemporary STS scholarship I have ever read. It cleverly reconstructs the constantly moving target that is the history of the gene concept all the while exploring the epistemological ramifications—both within Rheniberger’s taxonomy and beyond, incorporating insights from complexity theory and fuzzy logic.


I have none. Sorry. There’s just no way to sum up a book that tackles such a wide array of topics in such a wide array of formats. I guess my ultimate advice is go to the library. Read a bit. If you like it, buy it. It is less than $25 on Amazon.