What are cells? How are they related to each other and to the organism as a whole? These questions have exercised biology since Schleiden and Schwann (1838–1839) first proposed cells as the key units of structure and function of all living things. But how do we try to understand them? Through new technologies like the achromatic microscope and the electron microscope. But just as importantly, through the metaphors our culture has made available to biologists in different periods and places. These two new volumes provide interesting history and philosophy of the development of cell biology. Reynolds surveys the field's changing conceptual structure by examining the varied panoply of changing metaphors used to conceptualize and explain cells – from cells as empty boxes, as building blocks, to individual organisms, to chemical factories, and through many succeeding metaphors up to one with great currency today: cells as social creatures in communication with others in their community. There is some of this approach in the Visions edited collection as well. But this collection also includes rich material on the technologies used to visualize cells and their dialectical relationship with the epistemology of the emerging distinct discipline of cell biology. This volume centres on, but is not limited to, ‘reflections inspired by [E.V.] Cowdry's [1924 volume] General Cytology’; it benefits from a conference on the Cowdry volume as well as a 2011 Marine Biological Lab/Arizona State University workshop on the history of cell biology.