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Hans-Jrg Rheinberger On Historicizing Epistemology An Essay

Nadler, Steven

The Philosopher, the Priest, and the Painter: A Portrait of Descartes

In the Louvre museum hangs a portrait of a middle-aged man with long dark hair, a mustache, and heavy-lidded eyes, and he is dressed in the starched white collar and black coat of the typical Dutch burgher. The painting is now the iconic image of Rene Descartes, the great seventeenth-century French philosopher. And the painter of the work? The Dutch master Frans Hals - or so it was long believed, until the work was downgraded to a copy of an original. But where, then, is the authentic version located, and who painted it? Is the man in the painting - and in its original - really Descartes? A unique combination of philosophy, biography, and art history, "The Philosopher, the Priest, and the Painter" investigates the remarkable individuals and circumstances behind a small portrait. Through this image - and the intersecting lives of a brilliant philosopher, a Catholic priest, and a gifted painter - Steven Nadler opens up a fascinating portal into Descartes' life and times, skillfully presenting an accessible introduction to Descartes' philosophical and scientific ideas, and an illuminating tour of the volatile political and religious environment of the Dutch Golden Age. As Nadler shows, Descartes' innovative ideas about the world, about human nature and knowledge, and about philosophy itself, stirred great controversy. Philosophical and theological critics vigorously opposed his views, and civil and ecclesiastic authorities condemned his writings. Nevertheless, Descartes' thought came to dominate the philosophical world of the period, and can rightly be called the philosophy of the seventeenth century. Shedding light on a well-known image, "The Philosopher, the Priest, and the Painter" offers an engaging exploration of a celebrated philosopher's world and work.

Princeton University Press, 2013, pap, 230 pp, € 19.95, 9780691165752

Epistemology, as generally understood by philosophers of science, is rather remote from the history of science and from historical concerns in general. Rheinberger shows that, from the late nineteenth through the late twentieth century, a parallel, alternative discourse sought to come to terms with the rather fundamental experience of the thoroughgoing scientific changes brought on by the revolution in physics. Philosophers of science and historians of science alike contributed their share to what this essay describes as an ongoing quest to historicize epistemology. Historical epistemology, in this sense, is not so concerned with the knowing subject and its mental capacities. Rather, it envisages science as an ongoing cultural endeavor and tries to assess the conditions under which the sciences in all their diversity take shape and change over time.

About the author

Hans-Jörg Rheinberger is Director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. He is the author of Toward a History of Epistemic Things: Synthesizing Proteins in the Test Tube (Stanford, 1997).

"Throughout the book, Rheinberger traces the themes of historical contingency, the role of technology, and the plurality of the sciences. These themes are well familiar from Rheinberger's own version of historical epistemology as presented in Towards a History of Epistemic Things. On Historicizing Epistemology thus gives us a helpful overview over those thinkers and positions that are central for Rheinberger's own systematic thinking."

—Katherina Kinzel, Metascience

"Rheinberger's ability to move between the historical and the contemporary, drawing upon a vast literature from philosophy, history and anthropology to deal with problems of knowledge—past and present—is deeply impressive . . . One of the book's strengths is the way Rheinberger is able to cultivate an argument that is clear, tightly focused, approachable and analytically unwavering."

—Todd Meyers, British Journal of the History of Science

"On Historicizing Epistemology is an elegantly written, lucid introduction to the problems that are at stake in the history of science. Rheinberger has an admirable talent in presenting the most complex epistemological questions without undue simplifications to any educated reader. This book will have an immense impact on the all-too-solidified ideologies of many scientists."

—Rainer Nägele, Yale University

"In this small book, Rheinberger proposes the highly interesting thesis that the history of the discipline of the history of science has been animated, above all, by an inquiry into the historical dimension of knowledge and of scientific inquiry. On Historicizing Epistemology is a wonderful introduction to the history of the sciences, but also to the conception of a 'historical epistemology,' which is Rheinberger's most valuable contribution to the development and rethinking of the discipline."

—Rodolphe Gasche,State University of New York at Buffalo

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