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The Third Lens

Metaphor and the Creation of Modern Cell Biology

The Third Lens

Metaphor and the Creation of Modern Cell Biology

Does science aim at providing an account of the world that is literally true or objectively true? Understanding the difference requires paying close attention to metaphor and its role in science. In The Third Lens, Andrew S. Reynolds argues that metaphors, like microscopes and other instruments, are a vital tool in the construction of scientific knowledge and explanations of how the world works. More than just rhetorical devices for conveying difficult ideas, metaphors provide the conceptual means with which scientists interpret and intervene in the world.

Reynolds here investigates the role of metaphors in the creation of scientific concepts, theories, and explanations, using cell theory as his primary case study. He explores the history of key metaphors that have informed the field and the experimental, philosophical, and social circumstances under which they have emerged, risen in popularity, and in some cases faded from view. How we think of cells—as chambers, organisms, or even machines—makes a difference to scientific practice. Consequently, an accurate picture of how scientific knowledge is made requires us to understand how the metaphors scientists use—and the social values that often surreptitiously accompany them—influence our understanding of the world, and, ultimately, of ourselves.

The influence of metaphor isn’t limited to how we think about cells or proteins: in some cases they can even lead to real material change in the very nature of the thing in question, as scientists use technology to alter the reality to fit the metaphor. Drawing out the implications of science’s reliance upon metaphor, The Third Lens will be of interest to anyone working in the areas of history and philosophy of science, science studies, cell and molecular biology, science education and communication, and metaphor in general.

272 pages | 17 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2018

Biological Sciences: Physiology, Biomechanics, and Morphology

History: History of Ideas

History of Science

Philosophy of Science


“Brief, admirably lucid. . . . His example should be an encouragement to explore other fields in the same way.”

Times Higher Education

"[Reynolds] sets out to delineate a field that is heretofore un- or underexplored: the metaphor-rich field of cell-signaling and cell-to-cell communication. Historians and philosophers of science should take note of this untapped field. . . . Recommended."


"Reynolds manages to weave together a panoramic and expansive view of the history of cell biology with philosophical reflections on metaphors and their value to the science. He plants some topics sometimes viewed as more biochemical or molecular than cellular firmly in the context of the 'redoubtable' cell and, in this way, expands our understanding of cell biology. . . . Overall, The Third Lens is a valuable survey of the history of nineteenth and twentieth century cell biology. It is also a resource to guide further exploration of not only this history but also the power of metaphors in shaping the discipline."

Journal of the History of Biology

"Reynolds has synthesized here the grand overview of the history and philosophy of cell metaphors. . . . the strength of Reynolds’s  analysis is not merely cataloguing the range and variety of metaphors deployed. His greatest contribution is exploring at a deep level
metaphors’ ability to both enable and constrain the very conceptualizing of what a cell is and how they point our attention to what cells can do for us. . . . [an] extremely useful and readable volume."

British Journal for the History of Science

“A rich and engaging tour of the role of metaphor in the history of cell biology.”

Evelyn F. Keller, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

“Reynolds has done an outstanding job teasing out the many varieties of metaphors that have been applied in cell biology since the seventeenth century. Particularly insightful is the explication of how various metaphors fashioned the very epistemic foundations of biological theory—how various cell biologists have tried to understand (and explain) cell structure and function. The Third Lens makes us think seriously about metaphors not just as useful figures of speech for conveying ideas about particular phenomena, but as part and parcel of how we formulate understandings and indeed our very construction of the natural world.”

Garland E. Allen, Washington University

"The author's ability to explain and clarify philosophical arguments succinctly is enviable, and makes this book an important addition to scholarship situated at the intersection of the history and philosophy of science."

The Quarterly Review of Biology

"...The Third Lens is a most helpful resource, updating the discussion and reviving possible lines of future analysis."

Dominic J. Berry | NTM Journal of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine

Table of Contents


Chapter 1. The Early History of Cell Theory: The cell as empty chamber, building stone, and elementary organism
Chapter 2. Biochemical Conceptions of the Cell: From bag of enzymes to chemical factory
Chapter 3. Cell Sociology: The cell as social agent
Chapter 4. Cell Signaling: The cell as electronic computer
Chapter 5. Metaphors in Science: “Perspectives,” “tools,” and other meta-metaphors
Chapter 6. The Instrumental Success of Scientific Metaphor: Putting the scientific realism issue into perspective


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