Jakob von Uexküll’s Concept of Umwelt


White house on hill

Jakob von Uexküll (1864-1944) believed that every living creature inhabits a world of its own. The structure of this world is largely determined by the species to which a creature belongs, by its physiology, its behaviour, and its environment, but this world discloses itself only through individual subjective experience. As such, these worlds are both private and unique to each living subject. Uexküll coined the technical term Umwelt to refer to these worlds of subjective experience. Uexküll’s thought, and the concept of Umwelt at its centre, were received with excitement by his contemporaries and have exerted a small but steady influence on both science and philosophy ever since. However, his notion of Umwelt also has deeply unsettling consequences for the way we understand the world and our place in it.


Uexküll’s thought is a three-fold provocation:


1) He posits a world of experience for each living creature that is strictly beyond the reach of scientific knowledge, offending the boundless optimism in science engendered by centuries of technological successes and cultural dominance;

2) None of these Umwelten has a different metaphysical status than the others. Since we humans, including human scientists, are also living creatures, the world we each experience and study gives us no privileged access to an objective truth about a mind-independent world;

3) The claim that each human individual experiences a private phenomenal world of its own, and can never access the Umwelt of anyone else, has deeply disturbed many thinkers.


The philosophical reception of Uexküll’s thought, especially strong in France and Germany, has developed a range of very different strategies for warding off this view, and the social and moral implications that are feared to follow from such a “phenomenal individualism”. But none of these provocations has been resolved in a truly satisfying way, and perhaps the persistence of these disturbing questions goes some way towards explaining the historically continuous scholarly interest in Uexküll’s thought. The recent uptick in deeper engagements shows that his thought is still unsettling enough today to provoke a wide range of strong reactions.


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Jakob von Uexküll was a German-speaking biologist from Estonia. He conducted research on the behaviour and physiology of marine animals, and developed a view of nature that combined his scientific work with philosophical musings and implications. When he started his empirical research, he still embraced a mainstream approach in which biological phenomena were to be explained in mechanistic terms. By the turn of the century, however, Uexküll had rejected this view of life under the mounting pressure created both by the results of his own research, and by intellectual influences like Hans Driesch, whose neo-vitalism was driven by his famous discovery of pluripotent cells in sea urchin embryos. Driesch had discovered that an embryo cut in half at an early point in its development will grow into two complete animals, which he and Uexküll both took as definitive proof that animals are not machines. As he developed his own idiosyncratic views, Uexküll vehemently rejected the position endorsed by the majority of his colleagues: that organisms are merely highly complex machines and can be fully explained in mechanistic terms. Instead, Uexküll insisted that each living being is a subject and an agent, and that they each inhabit their own unique phenomenal world – or Umwelt – which comes about through their own bodily processes and their actions in their environment. Around and alongside this idea, Uexküll developed a broader account of nature that blended a variety of influences and convictions. The term Umwelt itself gets used in different, sometimes opposed, ways in different contexts, which makes it hard to determine what exactly is meant at any given point and how the different areas of Uexküll’s thought fit together. As a result, interpreting Uexküll’s writings is an ongoing challenge with disagreements and points of contention persisting today.


In the title of a collection of his essays, Uexküll called his ideas “building blocks for a biological worldview”. This description is helpful and apt, since Uexküll strays far beyond a strictly scientific account, but also falls short of a genuine philosophical system due to his lack of philosophical training and rigour. The difficulties in reading Uexküll do not stem from his writing, which is not always pleasant to read but is largely clear in its meaning. The problems arise because Uexküll makes a crucial distinction between two perspectives: a view “from the outside”, from which scientists observe and measure, hypothesize, test, and so on, and a view “from the inside”, the subjective experience of each living creature which constitutes its life from its own perspective and opens up the horizon of its world. For Uexküll, the former view, as held, for example, by physicists, allows for only the existence of one single world. On the latter view, there are as many worlds as there are living subjects. Even though this point is central to Uexküll’s thought, he does not always make clear which view he is currently taking. Crucially, the term Umwelt is used in both kinds of discourse but functions very differently depending on the context.


Through his scientific study of animals, Uexküll developed a pioneering method of understanding animal behaviour in terms of sign processes. He drew a distinction between the environment of an animal as the researcher perceives it, and the set of factors which are relevant and perceivable to the animal itself. When these factors stimulate the sensory apparatus of the animal, they get transformed into signs by the nervous system (if the animal has one). Simple signs for location, position, and other properties get synthesized into more complex object-signs and transposed outwards to form the Umwelt of the animal. In this way, the process which gives rise to subjective experience generates both the perceptual objects and the space in which they are encountered. For Uexküll, this Umwelt is made of both perception-signs and action-signs, which means that objects are directly perceived as affording certain actions to the subject. This insight first influenced Gestalt psychology, and later became central to ecological psychology under the name of environmental “affordances”. Uexküll’s approach of interpreting biological phenomena as sign processes would later inspire the birth of biosemiotics as a field of its own towards the end of the 20th century.


From the perspective of the animal, however, the Umwelt is not made of signs, but of objects, events, and so on. I perceive a flower, not the sign of a flower. On this view, Umwelt describes a stream of conscious experience, a “reality tunnel”, the raw material for a phenomenological investigation. But since we must have experience in order to investigate it – rather than investigating its behavioural correlates – our accounts of the phenomenal Umwelten of other animals always have to pass beyond rigorous study into the realm of speculation. This is exactly what Uexküll does when he puts his poetic imagination to work in the description of the Umwelten of bees, ticks, birds, and other animals. Our science gives us clues about the structure these worlds are likely to exhibit, but we can never experience them ourselves.


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Picture 1901 "Interior en la calle Strand"

The concept of Umwelt thus performs a double duty in two distinct projects – on the one hand the strictly empirical study of animal behaviour and physiology, on the other hand a speculative and creative way of envisioning worlds radically different from ours. Two of the most common disagreements that flow from this are: Is Umwelt a construction or a selection? When studying behaviour, it makes sense to talk about Umwelt as a set of features that is selected from an environment by the physiological capacities for sensation and action of a specific species. When asking about subjective experience, however, this makes no sense, as only individuals have experience (at least under Uexküll’s theory), and experience cannot simply be found lying around in the physical world and “selected”. Instead, Uexküll’s account is constructivist in a way that is explicitly modelled on Kant. Uexküll took himself to be extending Kant’s account of the conditions of possibility of experience in two directions: 1) the role played by the body, and 2) the subjectivity of non-human animals. The methodology, however, is not Kantian. Instead of a pure form of sensibility, Uexküll concludes that our experience of space is made possible by the three semicircular canals that are arranged roughly orthogonal to each other in our inner ear. These canals enable us to sense the movements of our head, which in turn allows us to experience the three-dimensional spaces of our Umwelten.


Besides the account of individual living subjects inspired by Kant, Uexküll also developed a holistic view of nature as a meaningful totality that was strongly influenced by Goethe. Since he rejected Darwin’s account of species change and adaptation, Uexküll needed an alternative account of why the parts of nature seem to fit together so perfectly. Based on a musical metaphor, he developed a vision of nature as a grand meaningful whole consisting of melodies, harmonies, and counterpoints between the morphologies and behaviours of, say, predator and prey. This view has clear overtones of Romanticism, organicism, and even pantheism. Uexküll himself extended his holistic commitments and the rejection of change implied in his anti-evolutionary stance into a deeply totalitarian organicist political theory. This creates a jarring contrast: on the one hand, the concept of Umwelt seems to unsettle our view of the world we inhabit and give us a non-anthropocentric multiplicity of worlds instead of a single, objective, scientific account of the world; on the other hand, Uexküll’s account of the state as an organism, which he saw confirmed and realized in the rise to power of the Nazi party, expresses a deeply reactionary and oppressive vision in which each individual is completely subordinate to the whole of the totalitarian state. It is important to keep in mind that states are not literally organisms, so Uexküll’s use of his biological views to develop an account of the state is not only politically but also intellectually problematic. Comparing societies and states to organisms is a common reactionary trope that goes back at least to the Roman consul Agrippa Menenius Lanatus. If we reject the comparison, Uexküll’s account of nature has no direct relevance for political thought.


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The open question for us today is how exactly we want to read Uexküll and what we can get out of his work. Some commentators praise the potential of his thought to invigorate debates about the nature of life and mind, while others warn of its dangers because they see Uexküll’s totalitarian politics as an integral and inextricable aspect of his entire oeuvre. What these divergent readings of Uexküll’s work share is that they are unfinished, ongoing projects. Curiously, even though his thought has been developed in a variety of directions, the reception of his work seems to have generated many new questions but very few answers.


Historical reception in philosophy has focused on trying to refute his claim that the Umwelten of humans are individual and closed. In science, reception of his ideas has focused on isolating certain parts of his thought that are useful for the study of animal behaviour. For example, Uexküll’s influence on Konrad Lorenz and others was important for the formation of ethology as a subdiscipline of biology. However, unresolved questions persist both in the philosophical and scientific reception of his work.


The philosophical reception of Uexküll both in France and in Germany largely proceeded by adopting different concepts and starting assumptions than Uexküll himself. This allowed them to avoid his conclusion that humans, like all animals, each live in an isolated private world of subjective experience, but it also prevented them from directly confronting Uexküll on his own terms. In the scientific reception, especially the more recent work in cognitive science, Uexküll is often merely mentioned in passing. Since a deep engagement with his thought is largely lacking, the reception of Uexküll in these contexts runs the risk of missing the most important philosophical implications of his work. Despite a century of work on Uexküll, we are today still very much engaged in the process of figuring out what exactly his concept of Umwelt entails, how it resonates and clashes with our various epistemic projects, and what it might do for us in the future.


Tim Elmo Feiten is a PhD student at the University of Cincinnati. He has published on the reception of Jakob von Uexküll in cognitive science and the relationship between ecological psychology and enactivism, as well as on the links between Max Stirner and twentieth-century French philosophy. His research deals with the history and philosophy of cognitive science and biology and their intersections with French and German philosophy.

Twitter: @tim_elmo

 

From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 1 ("The New Basics: Planet").

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