Epistemic Objects

Overview
Epistemic objects are objects used in epistemic practices of an information/knowledge society, e.g., science. Epistemic objects are objects of investigation employed in the research process. Epistemic objects are bounded, in that they typically have material instantiations, but can infinitely unfold; thus, they are always in a state of definition but not defined. In other words they are partial and have an unfolding ontology. Epistemic objects has a signifying ability.

Explication
The discussion of objects in Knorr Cetina’s chapter begins with Heidegger’s discussion of objects/things and Knorr Cetina’s move from “detachment” to “differentiation” to discuss objects in relation to practice (p. 189-90). Rheinberger’s “epistemic things” forms the basis of Knorr Cetina’s “epistemic objects”: Rheinberger’s “epistemic things” are objects used in scientific research which are “open, question-generating, and complex”, can be processes as well as things, and have a complexity that increases under academic analysis rather than reducing or decreasing:
“One reason for discussing epistemic objects is that our everyday notion of an object (take Heidegger’s ‘hammer’) would seem to contradict the features of objects that scientists and other experts encounter. To spell out these features I want to start from a suggestion by the historian of biology Rheinberger, who means by ‘epistemic things’ any scientific objects of investigation that are at the center of a research process and in the process of being materially defined. Objects of knowledge are characteristically open, question-generating and complex. They are processes and projections rather than definitive things. Observation and inquiry reveals them by increasing rather than reducing their complexity. Rheinberger also emphasizes that what an object is at present to some degree depends on how its future develops.” (p. 190)

In addition to Rheinberger’s definition of the “epistemic thing,” Knorr Cetina’s epistemic object is not complete:
“Building upon Rheinberger’s ideas, I want to characterize objects of knowledge (‘epistemic objects’) in terms of a lack in completeness of being that takes away much of the wholeness, solidity, and the thing-like character they have in our everyday conception.” (p. 190)

Epistemic objects are bounded but infinitely expanding:
“Objects of knowledge appear to have the capacity to unfold indefinitely. They are more like open drawers filled with folders extending indefinitely into the depth of a dark closet. Since epistemic objects are always in the process of being materially defined, they continually acquire new properties and change the ones they have. But this also means that objects of knowledge can never be fully attained, that they are, if you wish, never quite themselves.” (p. 190)

Epistemic objects are not complete—like the written sign of Limited Inc, they are iterable “structures of absences.” Their definition then is endlessly expansive, simultaneously multitudinous, and disconcertingly hard to pin down as there is a significant interpretive dimension to their definition which is often overlooked by the scientists who use them, see (2) for an example and see (3) for the discussion of partiality, temporality, and synecdoche:
(1) “The lack in completeness of being is crucial: objects of knowledge in many fields have material instantiations, but they must simultaneously be conceived of as unfolding structures of absences: as things that continually ‘explode’ and ‘mutate’ into something else, and that are as much defined by what they are not (but will, at some point have become) than by what they are…The unfolding ontology of objects foregrounds the temporal structure, and, to put it into the original Freudian terms, the Nachträglichkeit in definitive existence of knowledge things (their post-hocness), which is difficult to combine with our everyday notion of an object.” (p. 191)
(2) “There are other characteristics. Epistemic objects frequently exist simultaneously in a variety of forms. They have multiple instantiations, which range from figurative, mathematical, and other representations to material realizations.” (p. 191)
(3) “These instantiations are always partial in the sense of not fully comprising ‘the detector.’ ‘Partial objects’ stand in an internal relation to a whole. The instantiations I have listed should not be conceived of as a halo of renderings and preparatory materials anticipating and representing another object, ‘the real thing.’ It is ‘the real thing’ itself that has the changing ontology which the partial objects unfold. But do physicists not mean, by a detector, the physical machine after it has been built and when it is complete and running? Is the object not always an intended, an imagined whole? My point here is simply that as an intended object, a detector is an endlessly unfolding project consistent with the above circumscription of an epistemic object as marked by a lack in completeness of being.” (p. 191)

Epistemic objects produce meaning and function as signs. They are signs for further research; thus, they recreate the practice of knowledge:
“The signifying force of partial objects (of epistemic objects in general) resides in the pointers they provide to possible further explorations. In this sense these objects are meaning-producing and practice-generating; they provide for the concatenation and constructive extension of practice. One can also say the significance of these entities resides in the lack they display and in the suggestions they contain for further unfolding.” (p. 192)

Epistemic objects participate in their own recreation as signifiers by pointing out their own lacks and needs. Knorr Cetina connects this to the Saussurean linguistics. Additionally, partial epistemic objects are not basic units from which a whole epistemic object can be composed. For example, when an astronomer stops researching the universe (to put this example in over simplistic terms), the limitation of research is not the fault of the universe—it is the fault of the telescope. However, it is not just the fault of the telescope, it is the fault of one part of the telescope which part has its own needs for improvement and by relation to the other parts of the telescope makes the entire telescope need improvement. Finally, the telescope, as epistemic object, points the way to both the recreation of the epistemic practice (of astronomy) and telescope as epistemic object itself:
“Thus in creative and constructive practice, (partial) epistemic objects have to be seen as transient, internally complex, signifying entities that allow for and structure the continuation of the sequence through the signs they give off of their lacks and needs. Their internal articulation is important for the continuation of epistemic practice; not just their differe(a)nce to other objects, as in a Saussurean linguistic universe. I do not see partial epistemic objects as elementary units into which a complex whole is decomposed, but rather as complex links which extend a practical sequence at least partly through being unfoldable into equally complex sublinks. An example from everyday life might be a computer equipped with the relevant software. The computer can be ‘unfolded’ into signifying screens and subscreens, which stimulates in users an epistemic and affective relationship with the instrument (see also Turkle 1995).
I have been emphasizing the unfolding, dispersed, and signifying(meaningproducing) character of epistemic objects, and particularly their nonidentity with themselves, to bring out the divergence of this idea of an object from everyday notions of material things. I must now add a word about the role naming plays in relation to these objects. The point I want to remind us of is a simple one: a stable name is not an expression and indicator of stable thinghood. Rather, naming, in the present conception, is a way to punctuate the flux, to bracket and ignore differences, to declare them as pointing to an identity-for-aparticular-purpose.” (p. 192-193)

“Epistemic environments cannot be understood, I want to maintain in concluding, without understanding expert-object relationships. Knowledgecentered work shifts back and forth between the performance of ‘packaged’ routine procedures and differentiated practice as described in this paper.” (p. 196)

Discussion
Peirce (1955) provides an alternative linguistic practice to relate the epistemic object and its signifying power to. Peircean linguistics already gives objects the quality of signs, one of the examples used by Peirce is the weathercock. Furthermore, what Knorr Cetina attributes to Saussurean linguistics shares a less stretched linguistic definition with Peirce’s “thirdness.” For Peirce, thirdness refers to the signs internal ability to point to further semiotic relationships so that, for each sign-object relationship, there must be a thirdness that requires another sign-object relationship. The thirdness is then the part of the sign-object that demands expansion and always displays a lack of knowledge:
“Thus in creative and constructive practice, (partial) epistemic objects have to be seen as transient, internally complex, signifying entities that allow for and structure the continuation of the sequence through the signs they give off of their lacks and needs. Their internal articulation is important for the continuation of epistemic practice; not just their differe(a)nce to other objects, as in a Saussurean linguistic universe. I do not see partial epistemic objects as elementary units into which a complex whole is decomposed, but rather as complex links which extend a practical sequence at least partly through being unfoldable into equally complex sublinks. An example from everyday life might be a computer equipped with the relevant software. The computer can be ‘unfolded’ into signifying screens and subscreens, which stimulates in users an epistemic and affective relationship with the instrument (see also Turkle 1995). I have been emphasizing the unfolding, dispersed, and signifying (meaningproducing) character of epistemic objects, and particularly their nonidentity with themselves, to bring out the divergence of this idea of an object from everyday notions of material things. I must now add a word about the role naming plays in relation to these objects. The point I want to remind us of is a simple one: a stable name is not an expression and indicator of stable thinghood. Rather, naming, in the present conception, is a way to punctuate the flux, to bracket and ignore differences, to declare them as pointing to an identity-for-aparticular-purpose.” (p. 192-3)

See the discussion of iterability and the myth of the aleph. Epistemic objects, like the mythic hypertext narrative, are bounded but infinitely expanding and subject to the same questions/challenges raised by the myth of the aleph.

References
Knorr Cetina, K. (2001). Objectual practice. In The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory, eds. T. R. Schatzki, K. Knorr Cetina, & E. von Savigny. New York, NY: Routledge.

Further Reading
Peirce, C. S. (1955). Philosophical Writings of Charles Sanders Peirce. J. Butler, ed. Mineola, NY: Dover.
[Linguistics with a thirdness and interpretant]
Saussure, F. (1986). Course in General Linguistics. Peru, IL: Open Court.
[Linguistics with just language]

See Also:
Iterability
Thick Objects (Brucato)
Thick Description (Schaffer)
Things (Wilcox)