Until March 2017, Robert was research associate at the Chair for Theoretical Philosophy, Department of Philosophy, University of Kassel. In 2012 he graduated from the PhD program ‘Foundations of the Life Sciences and their Ethical Consequences’, jointly hosted by the University of Milan and the European School of Molecular Medicine. Since then he was a postdoctoral research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science and the Institute for Cultural Inquiry in Berlin, as well as a research associate at the Chair for the History of Science, Department of History, LMU Munich. Robert works on the history and epistemology of the life sciences in the long 20th century, focussing on the ways in which different forms of practice yield different forms of knowledge and thus engender the dynamic relations among research fields.

Among his recent publications are: With Valentine Reynaud: ‘The Innate Plasticity of Bodies and Minds. Towards integrating Models of Genetic Determination and Environmental Formation’ in De/Constituting Wholes. Towards Partiality Without Parts, ed. by Manuele Gragnolati and Christoph F.E. Holzhey (Vienna: Turia+Kant, 2017), and ‘Epistemic Competition between Developmental Biology and Genetics around 1900: Traditions, Concepts and Causation’, NTM Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Wissenschaften, Technik und Medizin 24:2 (2016). He is co-editing a special issue with Kärin Nickelsen (LMU Munich) on ‘New Perspectives in the History of 20th-Century Life Sciences’, forthcoming in History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences.

Errant Advances: On the Interaction
of Method and Bios in Biological Research

ICI Affiliate Project 2016-18

The view that experimentation always follows reasoning and serves to test hypotheses, and that philosophy has nothing to say about the origin of hypotheses, has been abandoned by most philosophers of science, who have become much more interested, instead, in the sources of the contents of reasoning and found that they emerge from situated interactions of scientists with their material and social environments.

While the objects of investigation have a life of their own – in biology, this is quite literally true –, thus generating an element of surprise, unprecedented results, and thus scientific novelty, the unexpected properties of epistemic things can only become visible within the constrained regime of a planned and controlled inquiry, pursued to a well-defined end. Accordingly, biology advances (in a manner which not necessarily implies progress) exactly as a result of the encounter of methodological activity and the living materials under investigation.

This project takes a closer look at the other side of this encounter: bios. What exactly happens if the living things under investigation do not conform to the expectations implied in the inquiry? What changes when the research material is alive as opposed to non-living matter, which, after all, also exhibits unanticipated properties when methodically scrutinized? Can the difference be grasped in terms of irreducible individuality, a certain spontaneity, agency, or other features that distinguish living organisms from non-living matter (while agency, however, has been ascribed to the latter as well)? Do these ascriptions imply that we need a (philosophical) understanding of living things that is independent of scientific accounts, in order to describe how a scientific understanding emerges? Or is it the very fact that the living material does not conform to classificatory or causal categories of science that reveals its nature? And, finally, what to make of the fact that researchers themselves are living beings, acting and reasoning in an embodied manner?

The Historical Dynamics of Plurality in the Life Sciences -
Perspectives of Practice and the Parts
and Properties of Organisms

ICI Project 2012-14

The proposed project is part of an ongoing investigation in the genealogy and structure of the plurality of disciplinary perspectives in the life sciences. The method employed is to compare from a historical point of view the role parts and properties of organisms play in different disciplines and the ways they are individuated through representational practices. The comparative character of the larger project allows showing how the relevant categories in a discipline result from specific practices, how different perspectives within the life-sciences interact and change, and how they are embedded into cultural practices in a broader sense.

Following previous work that focused on anatomy, embryology, genetics and medicine, the partial project pursued at the ICI focuses on the reconfiguration of taxonomic and functional interpretations of parts and properties of organisms through evolutionary theory. By tracking this process from the eighteenth century through its interaction with the emergence of the concepts and practices of genetics, the study will contribute to a reconstruction of today’s configuration of perspectives.