The word ‘contagion’ contains a buried metaphor pertaining to ‘touch’. But the notion has been generalized to express all manner of pathogenic transmission through proximity, and then generalized again to express moral contamination, imitative emotions or the psychology of crowds. Through such analogical applications, the history of contagion becomes even more extensive, one that relates not only to the best scientific and philosophical explanations from the ancients to the early moderns concerning the spread of diseases, but, by extension, to an analysis of the psychodynamics of groups. Given that microbiology belongs only to the last two centuries, earlier thinkers were challenged to account for contagion according to their ‘received’ philosophies of nature, or in terms of what they presumed to see and verify prior to an understanding of microorganisms. Consequently, they had no choice but to turn to the language of correspondences, occult and spiritual forces, environments and temperaments, poisons, vapours, stares and the polluting touch. But when these operations were applied to the transfer of passions and ideas it was no longer for a lack of understanding of the microbiological world, but of the emotional and cognitive mechanisms whereby minds copy passions and belief structures in seemingly spontaneous, subconscious and often destructive ways. These are socio-psychological phenomena merely resembling pathogenic operations; the relationship would appear to be one of pure metaphor.

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Beecher, D. (2005). An afterword on contagion. In Imagining Contagion in Early Modern Europe (pp. 243–260). doi:10.1057/9780230522619

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