The fundamental concepts of autopoiesis, which emphasize the circular organization underlying both living organisms and cognition, have been criticized on the grounds that since they are conceived as a tight logical chain of definitions and implications, it is often not clear whether they are indeed a scientific theory or rather just a potential scientific vocabulary of doubtful utility to working scientists. This article presents the deployment of the concepts of autopoiesis in the field of immunology, a discipline where working biologists themselves spontaneously have long had recourse to “cognitive” metaphors: “recognition”; a “repertoire” of recognized molecular shapes; “learning” and “memory”; and, most striking of all, a “self versus non-self” distinction. It is shown that in immunology, the concepts of autopoiesis can be employed to generate clear novel hypotheses, models demonstrating these ideas, testable predictions, and novel therapeutic procedures. Epistemologically, it is shown that the self–non-self distinction, while quite real, is misleadingly named. When a real mechanism for generating this distinction is identified, it appears that the actual operational distinction is between (a) a sufficiently numerous set of initial antigens, present from the start of ontogeny, in conditions that allow for their participation in the construction of the system's organization and operation, and (b) single antigens that are first presented to the system after two successive phases of maturation. To call this a self–non-self distinction obscures the issue by presupposing what it ought to be the job of scientific investigation to explain.

This content is only available as a PDF.