4 Jan 2017

Uexküll (3.1) Theoretical Biology, “The Point of View of Physics and Biology”, summary


by Corry Shores


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[The following is summary. All boldface and bracketed commentary is my own. Proofreading is incomplete, so please forgive my typos. Page citations refer to the 1928 German edition first and to the 1926 English edition second.]





Summary of


Jakob von Uexküll


Theoretical Biology

[Theoretische Biologie]


Ch.3 The Content-Qualities

[Die Inhaltsqualitäten]


3.1 The Point of View of Physics and Biology

[Physikalische und biologische Weltbetrachtung]




Brief summary:

The physicist’s world is impoverished. There is just one real world made of atoms. The biologist’s world consists of as many real worlds as there are animal subjects, because each animal lives in its own appearance world [Erscheinungswelt or Umwelt]. These appearance worlds are rich and various, so by studying them, we can enrich and enlarge our own world.







[For the physicist there is just one real world, which has its own absolute laws and which is not the world of appearances. It consists of three things, namely, places, movement, and moments, all of which being unlimited, with all other properties of things involving changes of place of their atoms.]


[Uexküll will compare the physicist’s and the biologist’s perspectives on life. See also Stroll through the World of Animals and Men Introduction §§24ff.] For the physicist there is just one real world, and it is not the world of appearance [Erscheinungswelt] (61 / 70, bracketed insertion mine).  Rather, this world has its own absolute laws that are “independent of all subjective influence” (61 / 70). This world consists of the following three things: {1} infinite places, {2} unlimited movements, and {3} a beginningless and endless series of moments. And “All other properties of things are referable to changes of place by the atoms” (61 / 70).




[For the biologist, there are as many worlds as subjects, and these worlds are all worlds of appearance.]


The biologist, however, things that “there are as many worlds as there are subjects, and that all these worlds are worlds of appearance [Erscheinungswelten], which are intelligible only in connection with the subjects” (61 / 70). These subjective worlds consist of the following four things: {1} finitely many places, {2} limited movements, {3} a finite series of moments, and {4} finitely many content-qualities [Inhaltsqualitäten]” (61 / 70, bracketed insertion mine).  These content-qualities have laws that are laws of nature (61 / 70). 




[For the biologist, the physicist’s world is a conceptual tool that might prove useful for a certain very limited study, but it does not in fact correspond to anything in reality.]


For the biologist, the physicist’s world is simply a world of thought, and it does not correspond to any reality. Rather, it is more like a mathematical tool whose application is limited to a narrow range of domains (61-62 / 70-71).




[Physics tells us that the real world is impoverished, being made simply of causally related atoms. Biology, however, tells us that the real world is incredibly rich, with as many appearance worlds as there are creatures.]


Someone without the training of either the physicist or the biologist experiences just her own world of appearances [Erscheinungswelt], which is filled with sense qualities. But when we obtain scientific training, we modify this worldview. Physics tells us that the world is full of subjective illusions. The real world in physics is impoverished, because it is no more than atoms controlled by causality. Biology, however, teaches us that the world is much richer and filled with many phenomenal worlds. Their features are similar enough to ours that we may study them, but they are different and numerous enough that we would spend our whole lives doing so. [[We might compare this view with Thomas Nagel’s idea that we can never know what it is like to be a very different creature, like a bat.]]

the biologist tries to make the plain man realise that he sees far too little, and that the real world is much richer than he suspects, because around each living being an appearance-world [Erscheinungswelt] of its own lies spread, which, in its main features, resembles his world, but nevertheless displays so much variation therefrom that he may dedicate his whole life to the study of these other worlds without ever seeing the end of his task.

(62 / 71, bracketed insertion mine)




[The subject and its phenomenal world or “Umwelt” is connected by means of a “plan.”]


The subject is connected with her appearance-world [in the original German now as “Umwelt”], and the laws governing this connection are not simply causal. Rather, this connection should be explained “as conformity with plan [Planmäßigkeit]” (62 / 71, bracketed insertion mine). [His next point seems to be that this connection is such that to study one is thereby to study the other, given the intimacy and codependence of the two. Let me quote to be sure:]

The laws connecting each subject with his appearance-world [Umwelt] cannot be compassed by causality alone, but must be explained as conformity with plan [Planmäßigkeit]. The distinguishing sign [Kennzeichen] of this plan [Planmäßigkeit] resident in every created thing, isolated within itself though it appears, finds expression in the saying, “All for each and each for all.” Consequently, in considering a whole that is based on plan [Planmäßigkeit], it is immaterial where we begin. All things within it must react on one another. So we may begin either by studying subjects, or by investigating their appearance-worlds [Umwelten]. The one could not exist without the other.

(62 / 71, bracketed insertions mine)




[We can enrich and enlargen our own world by studying these rich and various animal worlds of appearance.]


The world of appearance [Umwelt] of another animal is rich and “iridescent”. When we study them, we can obtain an “unlimited enlargement” of our own world, where were we instead to study physics, it would reduce us to “beggary” (72 / 62).




Works cited (in this order):


Uexküll, Jakob von. 1928. Theoretische Biologie, 2. gänzlich neu bearbeitete Auflage. Berlin: Springer.


Uexküll, Jakob von. 1926. Theoretical Biology. Translated by Doris Livingston MacKinnon. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. / New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company. PDF available at:






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