December 2008

With wonder, I have stumbled upon the work of Jakob von Uexküll, who died in 1944.  His work is hard to find, out of print or never even translated into English.  One article is available (I have scanned it in below.  Enjoy!).  It is a translation of a 1934 original, and it appeared in the obscure journal Semiotica in 1992, almost 60 years later!  It is called “A stroll through the worlds of animals and men: A picture book of invisible worlds”, and my copy tells me that it was originally published in English in “Instinctive Behavior”, trans by Claire H. Schiller in 1957.  It is the most charming academic article I have ever come across.  The discussion is helped along by no less than 53 figures, most of which are slightly fanciful attempts to depict the subjective experience of non-human animals, ranging from the humble paramecium up to the dog chasing a stick.  Each of these is an Umwelt, and they are amazingly close to my notion of the P-world!  In fact, von Uexküll even calls them “phenomenal worlds” that arise from the unification of a “perceptual world” and an “effector world”, or from the unification of perception and action.  How good is that!

But it gets better.  He pegs and discusses the subject/object distinction in many places.  He produces an early cybernetic model showing the reciprocal relations between subjective experience and environment, and says “the subject and the object are dovetailed into one another, to constitue a systematic whole”.  His beautiful description of the Umwelt of a tick has been reproduced in Andy Clark’s “Being There”.  He points out how each animal encounters an entirely subjective form of space and time, and how the activity of the animal is related to the experience of time.  “Without a living subject, there can be no time”. Mind you, he makes the questionable assumption that there is something like a quantum of experience that in humans is about 1/18 sec, and that is modality independent.  But that is more than compensated for by his delightful Fig 14 showing a snail held atop a large rubber ball carried by water.

This ought to sound familiar: “As the spider spins its threads, every subject spins his relations to certain characters of the things around him, and weaves them into a firm web which carries his existence.”

Where I speak of a “phenomenal bubble”, he says “We may therefore picture all the animals around us, be they beetles, butterfliesm flies, mosquitoes or dragonflies that people a meadow, enclosed within soap bubbles, which confine their visual space and contain all that is visible to them….Only when this fact is clearly grasped shall we recognize the soap bubble which encloses each of us as well.  Then we shall also see all our fellow men in their individual soap bubbles, which intersect each other smoothly, because they are built up of subjective perceptual signs.  There is no space independent of subjects.  If we still cling to the fiction of an all-encompassing universal space, we do so only because this conventional fable facilitates mutual communication”.

He has a view of nervous system activity appropriate to his time.  He considers central organization, and the relative independence of reflex arcs, when he says: “when a dog runs, the animal moves its legs; when a sea urchin runs, the legs move the animal”.  That’s a nice quote for later use in discussing agency!

Long before Gibson’s theory of affordances, we see von Uexküll saying: “How do we manage to see sitting in a chair, drinking in a cup, climbing in a ladder, none of which are given perceptually?  In all the objects that we have learned to use, we see the function which we perform with them as surely as we see their shape or color.”

There are limitations.  He reminds me of Dennett in his ability to drive a whole wagonful of arguments up to the edge of a cliff, but he then refuses to jump off.  Thus, at one point toward the end we read: “…Thus we ultimately reach the conclusion that each subject lives in a world composed of subjective realities alone, and that even the Umwelten themselves represent only subjective realities… Whoever denies the existence of subjective realities, has failed to recognize the foundations of his own Umwelt.”  And yet earlier, he commits just this error when he says: “The Umwelt of any animal that we wish to investigate is only a section carved out of the environment which we see spread around it-and this environment is nothing but our own human world.”  Aarghh, how did he not notice that error?

He comes across as a well meaning pantheist at the very end: “And yet all these diverse Umwelten are harbored and borne by the One that remains forever barred to all Umwelten.  Behind all the worlds created by Him, there lies concealed, eternally beyond the reach of knowledge, the subject – Nature.”

Thomas Nagel does not cite him.  Hang your head in shame, Thomas!

Here’s the article, in two scans: [Part 1] [

We look at a simple cell and we can see both the world it is embedded in, and the much more limited set of distinctions it is capable of making.  These latter distinctions are drawn in terms of the cell’s own constitution and collectively form the world met by the cell: its phenomenal world.  Now we look at our own P-world.  We can imagine a being with greater perceptual abilities standing above and without all that we see and encounter and seing us in similar fashion.  Where then, is our equivalent to the membrane?  Answer: the limits of perception: those surfaces and sounds and sensations that make up the P-world.  Put differently, the media constitute the membrane of the P-world.  This serves to help define media too.