From 'Natural Philosophy' to 'the Life Sciences"

Historical change within the epistemic culture of biological science at Vienna

How science is practised and conceived of is subject to constant change. The biology of the 20th and 21st century, emerging from "natural philosophy" and culminating in contemporary biotechnosciences, can serve as an illustrative example.

Scientific discovery and understanding is now intrinsically tied to technological construction and engineering. The convergence of modern biology and medicine under the label of 'life sciences' connects both orientations with a therapeutic context of application. The life science can hence serve as a paradigmatic case of a technoscience, resulting from a characteristic combination of ambitions that guide detrimental decisions, daily routines and scientific identity.

These multiple ambitions also affect how society conceives of and interacts with modern life sciences: As technological application, life sciences are subject to technology assessment and regulatory demands. If conceived of as a science societal interference into the life sciences, they may be viewed as an illegitimate confinement of scientific freedom.

Bio(techno)science in society


The goal of this exploratory project was to reconstruct some of the manifold conceptions - and partly incommensurable paradigms - related to biology and life sciences in the present and recent past. Accounts of scientists stemming from different generations and biological fields were gathered in four narrative interviews. All interviewees shared a close affiliation with Viennese academic institutions so that a comparative analysis of views on the same academic sites, events and actor constellations became possible.

Differences in the individual accounts were related to different ways biology was associated with nature, to different modes of identification with biology as a discipline, to different roles attributed to tradition and innovation in the discipline’s historical development, and to different perceptions of the Viennese institutional landscape. Both – generational affiliation and molecular or organismic paradigm – proved relevant for the differing accounts, feeding into different visions of bio(techno)science in our society.

Articles/book contributions

Articles/book contributions

  • Kastenhofer, K., & Novy, K. (2018). Vom Wissen zum Können, vom Lehren zum Forschen? Der Wandel biologischer Wissenschaftskultur am Universitätsstandort Wien. doi:10.1553/ITA-ms-18-01
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Conference Papers/Speeches

Conference Papers/Speeches

  • 15/09/2018 , University College London
    Karen Kastenhofer: 
    The biology that was? Generational patterns as a medium of disunity
    "Unity and Disunity" – Biennial Conference 2018
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