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Published March 2021 | public
Journal Article

Experimenting at the Boundaries of Life: Organic Vitality in Germany around 1800 by Joan Steigerwald [Book Review]


Given that the focus of this book is an area of intellectual debate fraught with uncertainty, confusion, and—as is often stated—"blurred boundaries," Experimenting at the Boundaries of Life is remarkable for its clear elucidation of such an unfocused epistemological terrain. Steigerwald shows in great detail how life, both as a positive concept and in its distinction from non-life, eludes definition for the numerous scientists and philosophers who devoted their attention to it during the decades surrounding 1800. In readings grounded in the numerous letters, journal articles, experimental records, essays and philosophical treatises that responded in various ways to the problem of life as "organic vitality," Steigerwald affirms four key points, which form the cornerstones of her project. The first is that scientific experiments were essential to the debates about how to define organic life. Steigerwald writes that it was "through engagements with organic bodies and vital processes with shifting instruments and methods, that the domain of organic vitality was first suggested and subsequently shaped," adding that this was particularly the case in the German context (6). The next point concerns the importance of tools, not only for shaping "subject apprehension" but also because "the object of inquiry was folded into the apparatus of experiments" (9). The third point, one that is of particular importance for its impact on the conceptual register of this study, is that a perception of "epistemic limits" or "boundaries of knowledge" (11). This perception, Steigerwald underscores, was influential for experimental practices and philosophical analyses, and also for German Romanticism's critiques on the distinction between appearance and representation. A fourth point emphasizes the importance of figurative language and acts of the imagination. Collectively, these four points also help substantiate a broader, historical argument that questions Michel Foucault's famous assertion that the new nineteenth century science of biology represented a radical transition away the eighteenth century, and that "life itself did not exist" prior to then (15). Steigerwald's chapter on biology, by contrast, wishes to demonstrate "that texts introducing biology as a science do not mark a new epistemic formation reflecting a rupture with the eighteenth century but, rather, enact an ongoing process of transition" (38).

Additional Information

© 2021 Johns Hopkins University Press. Book review of: Joan Steigerwald, Experimenting at the Boundaries of Life: Organic Vitality in Germany around 1800 (Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 2019). Pp. 472.

Additional details

August 20, 2023
October 23, 2023