Jakob von Uexküll


Jakob von Uexküll

Jakob Johann von Uexküll (September 8, 1864 - July 25, 1944) was a Baltic German biologist who had important achievements in the fields of muscular physiology, animal behaviour studies, and the cybernetics of life. However, his most notable achievement is the notion of "umwelt", used by semiotician Thomas Sebeok. His works established biosemiotics.

According to Giorgio Agamben, Uexküll had been a baron before his family lost most of their fortune in World War I, although Uexküll managed to retain a villa on Capri where the critic, historian and philosopher Walter Benjamin stayed for some time. Needing to support himself, Uexküll took a job as professor at the University of Hamburg where he founded the Institut für Umweltforschung.

There, Uexküll became interested in how living beings subjectively perceive their environment(s). Picture, for example, a meadow as seen through the compound eyes of a fly, continually flying through the air, and then as seen in black and white by a dog (with its highly efficient sense of smell), and then again from the point of view of a human or a blind tick. Furthermore, think of what time means to each of these different beings with their relative lifespans. Uexküll called these subjective spatio-temporal worlds "Umwelt". These umwelten are distinctive from what Uexküll termed the "Umgebung" which "would" be objective reality were such a reality to exist. Each being perceives its own umwelt to be the objective "Umgebung", but this is merely perceptual bias.

Uexküll's writings show a specific interest in the various worlds that exist ('conceptually') from the point of view of the Umwelt of different creatures such as ticks, sea urchins, amoebae, jellyfish and sea worms. This gives some of his writings a poetic quality.

The biosemiotic turn in Jakob von Uexküll's analysis occurs in his discussion of the animal's relationship with its environment. The umwelt is for him an environment-world which is (according to Agamben), "constituted by a more or less broad series of elements [called] "carriers of significance" or "marks" which are the only things that interest the animal." Agamben goes on to paraphrase one example from Uexküll's discussion of a tick, saying,

"...this eyeless animal finds the way to her watchpoint [at the top of a tall blade of grass] with the help of only its skin’s general sensitivity to light. The approach of her prey becomes apparent to this blind and deaf bandit only through her sense of smell. The odor of butyric acid, which emanates from the sebaceous follicles of all mammals, works on the tick as a signal that causes her to abandon her post (on top of the blade of grass/bush) and fall blindly downward toward her prey. If she is fortunate enough to fall on something warm (which she perceives by means of an organ sensible to a precise temperature) then she has attained her prey, the warm-blooded animal, and thereafter needs only the help of her sense of touch to find the least hairy spot possible and embed herself up to her head in the cutaneous tissue of her prey. She can now slowly suck up a stream of warm blood."

Thus, for the tick, the umwelt is reduced to only three (biosemiotic) carriers of significance: (1) The odor of butyric acid, which emanates from the sebaceous follicles of all mammals, (2) The temperature of 37 degrees celsius (corresponding to the blood of all mammals), (3) The hairy typology of mammals.

Works by scholars such as Kalevi Kull connect Uexküll's studies with some areas of philosophy such as phenomenology and hermeneutics. Jakob von Uexküll is also considered a pioneer of semiotic biology, or biosemiotics. However despite his influence (on the work of philosophers Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (in their "A Thousand Plateaus"), for example) he is still not widely known, and his books are mostly out of print in German and in English, although a paperback French translation of "Streifzüge durch die Umwelten von Tieren und Menschen" [A stroll through the Umwelten of animals and humans] is currently in print.

His son is Thure von Uexküll. His grandson is Jakob von Uexkull.

External links

* [http://www.zbi.ee/~uexkull/ Jakob von Uexküll centre in Estonia]
* [http://www.zbi.ee/~uexkull/cv.htm Jakob von Uexküll]
* [http://www.math.uni-hamburg.de/home/rueting/Projekte.htm Jakob von Uexküll, Institute for theoretical biology, biocybernetics and biosemiotics] at the university of Hamburg
* [http://www.math.uni-hamburg.de/home/rueting/UexECMTB.doc Jakob von Uexküll, Theoretical Biology, Biocybernetics and Biosemiotics (Journal article) ]
* [http://www.math.uni-hamburg.de/home/rueting/uexinhh.ppt Jakob von Uexküll and his "Institut für Umweltforschung in Hamburg" (PPT - Presentation)]

References

* Jakob von Uexküll, "Mondes animaux et monde humain", ISBN 2-266-13322-5
* Jakob von Uexküll, "A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men: A Picture Book of Invisible Worlds," "Instinctive Behavior: The Develepment of a Modern Concept", ed. and trans. Claire H. Schiller (New York: International Universities Press, Inc., 1957), pp. 5–80.
* Kalevi Kull, "Jakob von Uexküll: An introduction". "Semiotica" vol. 134: 1-59, 2001. [Includes complete bibliography of Uexküll.]
* Giorgio Agamben, "Chapter 10, “Umwelt”" in "The Open: Man and Animal", translated by Kevin Attell (Originally published in Italian in 2002 under the title "L'aperto: l'uomo e l'animale"), (Stanford, CA., Stanford University Press, 2004). ISBN 978-0804747370


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