Typically, one’s biography shapes one’s scholarship. In my case, the central challenge I faced was how to bridge two careers, biomedical research and philosophy. That transition occurred after I had established myself as a scientist and academic physician, and thus my journey into the humanities was framed by an over-arching question: How might such a bridge be constructed and what drove me to build it?
As a biochemist studying basic innate immune processes, I began by examining the historical roots of my laboratory research, a project that soon moved to a broadly conceived critical examination of immunology’s governing theories. This philosophical inquiry, the first of its kind, led to a re-interpretation of immunology’s dominant paradigm by re-formulating central ideas of immunity concerning identity – individuality, agency, and selfhood. That project has dominated my scholarship: a quartet of monographs, a collection of translated and annotated early papers by Elie Metchnikoff, and almost 50 papers on various subjects related to the theoretical development and current status of immune theory. My efforts were directed at making immunology a suitable subject for philosophy of biology, which has been dominated by evolutionary biology and the cognitive sciences.
The second span of my intellectual bridge extends to medicine’s moral philosophy, where my direct experience informed a philosophical examination of the doctor-patient relationship. Two books and assorted papers framed this opus and introduced the larger question of how the epistemology informing my science studies connected to the moral domain. This may, at first glance, appear a rather long stretch, but examining how values orient knowledge acquisition and its interpretation proved a fertile ground in which to connect these two territories of scholarship.
Since my immunology critique focused on the metaphoric ploys of scientific language and how the implicit assumptions about agency framed construction of immunity models, I sought examples to illustrate the ambiguous standing of the fact/value distinction and how subjective elements embed themselves in epistemology. The studies of Thoreau and Freud provided a rich harvest to show the guiding direction of an ethical view of the world, what I called a “moral epistemology.”
In the case of Thoreau, I explored the problem of translating scientific knowledge into personal meaning. Thoreau’s reaction to the 19th century’s professionalization of science and the ascendancy of new forms of objectivity offered me a case example of how science might be contextualized into its larger humanistic meanings and thereby present a picture of reality within human subjectivity. The effort does not pit scientific ways of knowing against other epistemologies, but recognizes how moral, aesthetic, and spiritual dimensions of experience might cohere within the reality offered by science. That effort built upon Thoreau’s credo of imaginative individuality, one that I embraced as a powerful antidote to the nihilism born in his era and to the postmodern suspicions of individual autonomy so current in our own.
And with Freud, another refraction of the same basic issue was offered. Dispensing with arguments about the scientific standing of psychoanalysis, I focused on the abiding truth Freudianism offers: We are strangers to ourselves, because we largely live unconsciously, and as we recall our past and recognize a reconfigured personal history, we gain the opportunity to assume responsibility for who we are and what we might become. That psychoanalysis has been called a “religion” seems perfectly apt to me: It holds that insight leads to redemption, a promise that despite the determinism governing our inner psychic life, a freedom beckons. The paradox – we are determined yet free – echoes Thoreau’s own anthem.
Extensions of the studies of Thoreau – the history and current status of positivism (Science and the Quest for Meaning 2009) and Freud – critiques of representationalism in philosophy of mind (Requiem for the Ego 2013) – more clearly echo classic philosophical themes. However, I make no apologies for the idiosyncrasies of my opus. A bioethicist might not appreciate how discussions of patient autonomy relate to Thoreau’s natural history writings, or how a study of psychoanalysis complements a philosophical analysis of immunological theory, but for me, everything is of one piece.
The problems that intrigue me – personal identity, the value structure of science, the effort to find coherence in a world fragmented by competing notions of truth – have carried me to topics that each demand an interpretation guided by a self-conscious appraisal of our ethics, broadly construed, by which I mean the inextricable weaving of our personal values into our knowledge and into our ways of knowing. Values not only evolve over time and across and within cultures, they are at play as each of us constructs the world in which we live. Understanding this process offers us the potential freedom of exercising moral responsibility.
The inter-disciplinary nature of this work makes unusual demands on the reader. I acknowledge an eccentric intellectual style, but given my eclectic interests and the freedom to wander the academic terrain as I choose, I justify my approach as most inter-disciplinarians must: While we know no home and the fruit of our labors must percolate into the interstices of the dominant discourse as best they can, sometimes an interesting insight appears and an unexpected contribution emerges. That is enough. (A more detailed overview is available here.)