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Perplexity as a provocation: revisiting the role of metaphor as a ‘place holder’ for the potential of COVID-19 antibodies
  1. Marsha Rosengarten
  1. Sociology, Goldsmiths, University of London, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to Professor Marsha Rosengarten, Sociology, Goldsmiths, University of London, London SE14 6NW, UK; m.rosengarten{at}


This article revisits long-standing critiques of the role of metaphor in immunological discourse. Drawing on Alfred North Whitehead’s speculative philosophy of organism, I focus on the use of metaphor to explain the process by which COVID-19 vaccine research is able to generate protective antibodies, the challenge of autoimmune disease and dengue fever antibodies. I suggest that metaphors are provoked by the perplexity that arises from presupposing that distinct morphological substances are the first order of reality. I conclude that rather than seeing metaphors as typically skewing conceptions of the body, as has been previously argued, those of memory, recognition and misrecognition may be instructive of a body in transition. Indeed, a process of transition that shows degrees of creativity. When gesturing towards the processual nature of infection and immunity, metaphors invite new modes of shared thinking across the disciplinary divide.

  • COVID-19
  • Infectious diseases
  • metaphor
  • philosophy of science
  • Medical humanities

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Data sharing is not applicable as no data sets were generated and/or analysed for this study.

This is an open access article distributed in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 Unported (CC BY 4.0) license, which permits others to copy, redistribute, remix, transform and build upon this work for any purpose, provided the original work is properly cited, a link to the licence is given, and indication of whether changes were made. See:

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Data availability statement

Data sharing is not applicable as no data sets were generated and/or analysed for this study.

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  • Correction notice This article has been corrected since it was first published. The licence has been updated to open access CC BY.

  • Contributors MR is the sole author of this paper.

  • Funding Funded by Australian Research Council Award Number: DP210101604.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient and public involvement Patients and/or the public were not involved in the design, or conduct, or reporting, or dissemination plans of this research.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.