- Experimenting at the Boundaries of Life: Organic Vitality in Germany around 1800 by Joan Steigerwald
Throughout her wide-ranging study of methods, concepts, and controversies in the life sciences in Germany around 1800, Joan Steigerwald handles an astonishing variety of sources with insight and verve. The story she tells, in both its sweep and its details, challenges entrenched habits and comfortable assumptions of the existing literature and deepens our understanding of the relevant topics, figures, and debates.
The book has a substantial introduction, six chapters, and a brief conclusion. The introduction addresses both general and topic-specific historiological concerns, situating this history in the context of other recent work in science studies and cultural history. The first chapter covers late eighteenth-century theoretical debates, rhetorical strategies, and experimental techniques developed to elucidate the physiological functions (alternately, “vital powers” ) of irritability, sensibility, and (de)generation. Steigerwald’s account here is particularly rich in details about experimental techniques, and she argues plausibly that an emphasis on debates over high-level theoretical abstractions (such as an alleged Lebenskraft or life-force) distorted both the contemporary discourse and subsequent historical accounts of actual scientific practice. The second chapter gives a judicious summary of Kant’s third Critique, skillfully tying the local concerns of its second half, on living organisms, to larger Kantian questions about the character of scientific knowledge. The third chapter turns to slightly later physiological studies informed by then-novel chemical and electrical phenomena (e.g. Galvanism) entangled with the phenomena of life. Steigerwald here argues effectively that we should understand contemporary instruments and representational strategies as mediating links between empirical developments and more abstract theoretical advances in comparative anatomy and physiology. The fourth chapter reviews the contributions of Fichte, Novalis, and Goethe to the developments so far described, with particular emphasis on the new linguistic and conceptual forms they championed. In the fifth chapter, Steigerwald turns to Schelling, developing her own theoretical concepts—most centrally, that of the boundary concept—out of his thought. The last chapter—taking its initial bearing, like John Zammito’s Gestation of German Biology (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017), against certain ill-advised theses of the early Foucault—argues for strong continuity between late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century life science, despite the deceptively abrupt introduction of the term ‘biology’ (into both German and French) in 1802. This chapter includes compelling studies of Gottfried Treviranus and, most strikingly, of Alexander von Humboldt’s uses of images as not only representational but also cognitive and experimental tools.
Although there are no villains in Steigerwald’s history, there are heroes: Johann Christian Reil, Johann Wilhelm Ritter, Carl Friedrich Kielmeyer, and Humboldt on the empirical side; Kant, Novalis, and Schelling on the philosophical side. Her announced aim is to produce a “counterhistory” (38); she does so by reinterpreting the former figures’ practices and results through a distinctive reading of the latter figures’ philosophical and metaphilosophical views. That reading passes through a skilled summary of Kant and an intriguing account of Novalis on its way to hanging her most theoretically ambitious arguments on her interpretation of Schelling. In that interpretation, she argues that Schelling uses an extended conceptual version of the current sociological notion of a boundary object—an object (abstract or concrete) mediating between communities by functioning differently for each while maintaining a common identity across all—to organize his system, including his understanding of scientific and philosophical practice and content, and that we best grasp the character and import of the phenomena making up the object of her study through the Schellingian notion of a boundary concept. Such an interpretation is intriguing but hard to reconcile with Schelling’s texts—even the very passages Steigerwald herself cites. For instance, she is correct (275) that Schelling uses the term Grenzbegriff (boundary concept). Yet in the passage she points to, a Grenzbegriff is not a mediating concept within cognition; it is rather exemplified by the concept of an original force marking a (Kantian) outer [End Page...