The Dialectical Self: Immunology’s Contribution

  • Leon Chernyak
  • Alfred I. Tauber
Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science book series (BSPS, volume 129)


What is the Self? Clearly the concept is a construction dependent on the organisms studied and the scientific discipline invoked for its criterion. From an anthropocentric vantage, the immunological manifestation of organismic Self is highly evocative. We are impressed with the extraordinary ability of the host to differentiate self elements from those invaders deemed dangerous; Lactobacillis in yogurt is fine, Staphalococcus is not; we “eat” one and attempt to destroy the other. Immunology, at least, for human biology, has become a crucial element of erecting the Self. But we are dissatisfied with the current interpretation of its nature.


Cellular Interaction Organismic Integrity Genetic Homogeneity Immune Network Paris School 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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    In both classical science and philosophy, the theme of self-determination was closely associated with topics of metaphysics. Thus, we may argue that to reexamine the intellectual basis of an immunological theory built upon the concept of a self-determined system, we are dealing with the metaphysical nucleus of the theory. In the European philosophical tradition, the term “metaphysics” was reserved for that aspect of philosophy which earlier was called by Aristotle “the first wisdom,” which was to deal with “the first principles” (Aristotle) of Being. The meaning and the context of these “first principles” were provided by Plato’s teaching about eidoses. Accordingly there are two possible approaches to the identification of an entity: The first is based on definition of that entity as characterized through its relations to others. In this perspective, we dip the entity into the Heraclidian flux: we do not define what is the entity but how it is affected by others; what was supposed to be identification of the entity was in fact countless reflexes of external effects, which were responsible for defining the entity. The second approach, which, from Plato’s point of view, pursues the goal of catching the true authenticity of an entity, attempts to define the entity as it determines itself “by itself and “for itself”. The problem of an authentical definition of identity, i.e., definition of the “whatness” or the eidos becomes the problem of self-definition (definition of self-determination, or self-determination as de-finition of self). Thus, within this classical intellectual tradition, the relationship between a particular form of theoretical reflection and metaphysics is an intimate one.Google Scholar
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    The metaphysical nucleus of a particular theory appeared whenever identification of its object became a concern within the theory itself. And each time metaphysical problematics explicitly appears within a theory, it demands attention to the concept of self-determination. Vice versa, whenever self-determination is discussed, theory refers thematically (in full awareness or not) to traditional metaphysical topics. This observation is self-evident in classical science, where theoretical thinking was developed in explicit dialogue with traditional metaphysics; perhaps this is best illustrated in biology which was considered as an applied form of metaphysics. Discussion of self-determination in the modern (allegedly non-metaphysical) scientific context must deal with several serious questions. What is the meaning of the concept independent of its historical origin and the intellectual environment in which the concept was developed? Was the shift in the meaning of the concept provided by its insertion in a new metaphysical context or by its complete purification from metaphysical atavisms? (If the latter is true, then such a purification must be itself presented as a particular theoretical activity.) Which are the criteria that apply our concept of self-determination that we do not simply obey the inertia of this ancient intellectual tradition and are aware of reproducing its metaphysical syllogisms? The immunological system provides certain aspects of establishing organismic identity. If this commonly shared intuition is correct, then immunological activity implies self-determination. And as soon as the concept of self-determination explicitly becomes a special topic in discussions of immunity, clarification of the questions outlined above can no longer be considered as marginal to the central themes of scientific reflection. In this context, clarification of the metaphysical connotations of self-determination is nothing else but clarification of the ways in which the problem of immunological Self can be formulated and, consequently, those inner intellectual structures which determine the corresponding research programs may be more carefully examined.Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1991

Authors and Affiliations

  • Leon Chernyak
    • 1
  • Alfred I. Tauber
    • 1
  1. 1.Boston University School of MedicineUSA

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