The Immune Self

Immunology has been described as the science of self and nonself discrimination (Klein, 1982). Wikipedia, the highly popular Internet encyclopedia, explains: "The immune system defends the body by recognizing agents that represent self and those that represent nonself, and launching attacks against harmful members of the latter group." Understanding that certain agents "represent" self means understanding the rules of correspondence between the "self" as an abstract concept and its corresponding agents at the molecular level.

Wikipedia also explains: "Distinguishing between self and nonself and between harmful nonself and harmless nonself is a difficult problem" (Available at: http:// en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immune_system). Indeed, the meaning of the "immune self' is disputed. What is the immune self and why was the concept of the self introduced to immunology in the first place?

The concept of self is traditionally associated with disciplines such as philosophy and psychology. Indeed, there is a whole branch of psychology known as "self psychology" and in philosophy the concept of the self has been discussed at length with regard to the issue of personal identity. My aim, however, is not to discuss the self as a property of human beings, or to answer the questions "Who am I?" and "What is the stable essence of my identity?" My aim is to discuss the "self" of the immune system. Are those two different selves? Is the self a concept that is applicable both to philosophy/psychology and immunology? Is the self a metaphor that was imposed on the immune system or is it a crucial organizing concept for theoretical immunology?

As suggested by Howes (1998, p. 1), there are numbers of "fascinating parallels that might be drawn between theoretical developments concerning self in philosophy and in immunology." These parallels cannot be denied. The concept of "self' was introduced in immunology by Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet after it had been intensively elaborated in philosophy and psychology (Tauber, 1996, 2002). As a metaphor imported from other fields of inquiry, the concept of the self was inevitably loaded with associations and connotations, and these have clearly influenced the idea of the immune self. Although interesting parallels exist between the concept of the self in the humanities and in immunology, these parallels should not obscure the significant differences between the concept as it is used in these distinct fields of inquiry.

In this chapter, I do not present a complete survey of the literature dealing with the immune self or review its various senses or historical and philosophical origins, a task carried out by Tauber (1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2002). Instead, I present the argument that the problem of understanding the meaning of the immune self is analogous to the problem of finding the meaning of signs in semiotics, and that in both cases we should move from naive "rules" of correspondence to complex patterns of coding. In this context, I present the idea that the immune system is a meaning-making system (Neuman, 2004) and provide a novel conceptualization of the immune self that integrates several ideas from immunology and semiotics.

Before I delve into the issue of the immune self, let me make a comment - a trivial one, but one nevertheless worth making. The immune self is our way of conceptualizing processes of the immune system or using a heuristic for approaching problems, research questions, or findings concerning the immune system. The immune self is not a "real" entity in the same sense that lymphocytes, cytokines, and the thymus are real entities. It is an abstraction of both our minds and the immune system. Identifying the immune self with certain components of the immune system, a step taken by some scholars (Tauber, 1998), is an error of logical typing: Pars pro toto! The immune self is embodied by these components; however, it is still a concept used by us as outside observers, and as such deserves a critical analysis.

In this context, it is worth asking what the meaning of the immune self is and whether it is a meaningful concept that is really crucial for immunology. In other words, do we really need the concept in order to understand the immune system? Surprisingly, this fundamental question is still being debated in immunology.

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