Exploring the As Yet Unknown

Exploring the As Yet Unknown in Historical Epistemology, Experimental Systems and Contemporary Nutrition

Robyn Smith

This manuscript project concerned the material and conceptual conditions for the emergence of vitamins as new scientific objects within experimental systems. Vitamins developed as scientific objects from "as yet unknown" food factors in experiments concerned with the food values of isolated proteins. Such explicit statements of the "as yet unknown" as the object of encounter for these scientists are striking and important because they highlight that experimental systems produce, for scientists, productive encounters with that which they do not know, yet. To render an account of how the scientists determine this "as yet unknown" food factor Robyn Smith combined the approach of historical epistemology, little used in the Anglophone world, with a phenomenology of perception. Thus, her work constituted a novel theorization of scientific discovery as she considered the character of the "as yet unknown" in the world such that it is productive of new ideas and objects.

Whereas most social science is either theoretical or empirical, this project was rare in being theoretico-empirical, a style of reasoning that is characteristic of the best in classical social science. The approach combined deep readings in philosophy with rigorous primary research on the history of vitamins. Smith gathered the primary data for this work from the little-explored archives of E.V. McCollum at Johns Hopkins University and Lafayette B. Mendel at Yale University. These records included data and images from their laboratory notebooks and personal and official correspondences. Smith analyzed the historical record for the practices by which the scientists solicited novelty and aimed at producing the future and for the emergence of the problem of the vitamins and the development of the vitamin concept.

Funding Institutions

Max Planck Institute for the History of Science
Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada