Philosophy of immunology

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2020 (2020)
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Abstract

Philosophy of immunology is a subfield of philosophy of biology dealing with ontological and epistemological issues related to the studies of the immune system. While speculative investigations and abstract analyses have always been part of immune theorizing, until recently philosophers have largely ignored immunology. Yet the implications for understanding the philosophical basis of organismal functions framed by immunity offer new perspectives on fundamental questions of biology and medicine. Developed in the context of history of medicine, theoretical biology, and medical anthropology, philosophy of immunology differs from these related branches of study in its focus on traditional philosophical questions concerning identity, individuality, ecology, cognition, scientific methodology and theory construction. This broad agenda derives from immunology’s multifaceted research program that has developed from its initial clinical challenges of host defense, transplantation, autoimmunity, tumor immunology, and allergy. In addition to these well-established research areas, immunity is now understood to play a central role in other physiological functions, development, ecology, and evolutionary mechanics. Holding together these diverse domains of inquiry lie philosophical commitments oriented by organismal identity. In this regard, pertinent issues are raised concerning cognition (organization of immune perception and information processing), the character of individuality (framed by the ecological context of immune-mediated assimilation and rejection), and the dynamics of complex systems (understood as holistic systems biology). Indeed, immunology, in the context of cognitive science, evolutionary biology, environmental sciences, and development provides multi-focal perspectives for philosophy of science.

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