Quotes


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] [

I found the following po-faced discussion on a Wikipedia community page: 

 rather than proposing that Notability (people), (pornographic actors) and (academics) be merged into Notability, it is proposed that (pornographic actors) and (academics) are merged into (people). The reasoning being that porn actors and academics are people, so one tidy set of guidelines can be drawn up to accommodate them. 

Jerry Fodor, who is not a reliable interpreter of other people’s positions (but he does write beautifully) is not impressed by the conclusions of Galen Strawson’s new book: Consciousness and Its Place in Nature: Does Physicalism Entail Panpsychism?. Strawson, by Fdor’s account, swallows all sorts of camels in clinging determinedly to Monism (there is only one kind of stuff) and the reality of Consciousness, and a third, more problematic claim: Emergence of consciousness isn’t possible, because ‘For any feature Y of anything that is correctly considered to be emergent from X, there must be something about X and X alone in virtue of which Y emerges, and which is sufficient for Y.’

Looks like Strawson is on the right path in his tenacity, but being tripped up by the usual philosopher’s drivel. However, the interesting quote is only tangentially related to the book under review. Fodor says:

I think it’s strictly true that we can’t, as things stand now, so much as imagine the solution of the hard problem. The revisions of our concepts and theories that imagining a solution will eventually require are likely to be very deep and very unsettling. (That’s assuming what’s by no means obvious: that we are smart enough to solve it at all.) Philosophers used to think (some still do) that a bit of analytical tidying up would make the hard problem go away. But they were wrong to think that. There is hardly anything that we may not have to cut loose from before the hard problem is through with us.

And later:

Anyhow, Strawson is right that the hard problem really is very hard; and I share his intuition that it isn’t going to get solved for free. Views that we cherish will be damaged in the process; the serious question is which ones and how badly. If you want an idea of just how hard the hard problem is, and just how strange things can look when you face its hardness without flinching, this is the right book to read.

Once more, I find myself standing with Fodor. But I have seen further! What a great feeling:) (and, no, I’m not stoned).

 If a triangle could speak it would say that God is eminently triangular.

Spinoza (WK quotes)

Nothing in the universe is contingent, but all things are conditioned to exist and operate in a particular manner by the necessity of the divine nature.

Here I have to disagree, and see his conception of the pantheistic god as a failure to recognitze our contingency and forced relativism.  But that would have been too much for him, no?

Wk:

In his famous 1784 essay What Is Enlightenment?, Immanuel Kant described it as follows:

Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is the incapacity to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another. Such tutelage is self-imposed if its cause is not lack of intelligence, but rather a lack of determination and courage to use one’s intelligence without being guided by another.

Kant reasoned that although a man must obey in his civil duties, he must make public his use of reason. His motto for enlightenment is Sapere aude! or “Dare to know.”

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