6 Jan 2017

Uexküll (3.5) Theoretical Biology, “The Indications”, 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. Note: German terms are repeatedly inserted to facilitate comparison with translations of other Uexküll texts.]





Summary of


Jakob von Uexküll


Theoretical Biology

[Theoretische Biologie]


Ch.3 The Content-Qualities

[Die Inhaltsqualitäten]


3.5 The Indications

[Die Merkmale]




Brief summary:

We experience qualitative variations as mark-signs [Merkzeichen], and insofar as the qualities are attributed to the things in the world, the mark-signs serve as “indications” [Merkmalen] that are thought to be part of the outer world. The outer world of indications conforms to our inner world of mark-signs in structure and relation between parts. We constitute our world of objects on the basis of the many particular indications (which taken together can be considered indication-material / Merkmalsmaterial). Then, after the objects are constituted, they themselves can become indications of their own.







[Our world only has those properties that we can attribute to the things in it. Mark-signs (Merkzeichen) are qualitative determinations that when are attributed to things in the world serve as “indications” (Merkmalen), which are then thought to be a part of the outer world.]


[Uexküll will explain how the things in our world gain their properties. Recall from the prior section that mark-signs correspond to changes in our attention when we are perceiving qualitative or intensive variations. Uexküll seems to be saying that these subjective marks of quality are then attributed to the things in the world. Insofar as mark-signs [Merkzeichen] are serving to tell us something about the thing in the world, they are acting as “indications [Merkmalen]”. But for Uexküll the indications (Merkmalen) apparently are thought to be elements of the external world.]

In constructing the world, mental sensations become properties of things; or, in other words, the subjective qualities build up the objective world. If we put the mark-sign [Merkzeichen] in place of the sensation or subjective quality, we may say that the mark-signs [Merkzeichen] of our attention become “indications” [Merkmalen] as to the world.

(66 / 77, bracketed insertions mine)




[The laws governing the outer world of indications (Merkmalen) conforms to our inner world of mark-signs  (Merkzeichen)]


[Uexküll then discusses the way law is involved in the relation between mark-signs (Merkzeichen) and indications (Merkmalen). I do not grasp this part entirely, but the idea might be the following. There are certain laws that govern the structures and relations at work with the mark-signs. These same laws will hold also for the structures and relations at work in the indications in the outer world (and thus of the physical things in the outer world). This could be a matter of the outer world conforming to our inner Kantian a priori representations, like that of time and space. Let me quote, because I am not sure:]

Accordingly, the laws that are binding for the internal mark-signs [inneren Merkzeichen] must also hold good for the external indications [äußeren Merkmale]. Immutable laws of this kind we call natural laws. All the dicta of physics relate to indications [Merkmale] of the world, and are based on the laws that fall to their share as mark-signs [Merkzeichen] of our attention. The fact that, like the moments in time, the places in space cannot be interchanged nor the intervals between them altered, is put beyond all question merely because such relations depend on the form of our attention which precedes all experience. By means of this theory, Kant laid bare, for all to see, the very foundations of human knowledge.

(66 / 77,  bracketed insertions mine)




[The indication-circles conform structurally to the mark-sign quality-circles.]


[In section 3.2 we discussed quality-circles (Qualitätskreise). Now we will discuss indication-circles (Merkmalskreise). My guess is that the circles of features we attribute to the world (Merkmalskreise) correspond one-to-one with the circle of threshold variations in quality (Qualitätskreise) of our inner experience. And furthermore, on the basis of this idea of the conformity of the world to our inner a priori representations, the laws and structures of the indication-circles will correspond isomorphically to those of the indication-circles, and these laws and structures precede any actual experience of the indications. I am not entirely sure I follow the reasoning. I would think that such things can be variable. For example, I was mostly tone-deaf for most of my life, but now I think I can hear some more differences in pitch. So I do not think the number of pitches preceded my experiences, because that number increased with continued interaction with sounds. However, perhaps the idea is that there is a maximum number possible for our human bodies, and while we might uncover more indications gradually in experience, they were set out as possibilities of experience somehow in advance. Let me quote so you can see for yourself:]

This theory, however, must be applied in the same way to all the indication-circles  [Merkmalskreise]. The number of indications [Merkmale], as well as their arrangement, precedes all experience. Even if this arrangement is not extensive, and so cannot be directly intuited, still the law of the regular increase in indications [Merkmale] from threshold to threshold is immediately certain for each indication-circle  [Merkmalskreis]. From the very beginning, with all the inevitability of Nature, the distance between the thresholds | and the regularity of the increase in this distance are determined for colours and for sounds, for smells and for flavours, just as for temperature and for sensations of touch.

(67 / 77-78,  bracketed insertions mine)




[The structural relations between qualitative parts of the outer and inner world both remain immutable.]


[Uexküll’s next point seems to be the following. In the physical world, there are given properties, situations, and variables that are simply facts. They are “immutable” in the sense that they are governed by certain unchangeable laws, and they are objective and thus do not vary depending on perspectives. In the same way, the inner world of quality discernment involves sequences and structures that remain the same over many similar experiences. Let me again quote so you can see:]

Just as the distance separating two places and the direction this separation takes, remain immutable, so also does the difference in colour between two impure tints and the direction of the increase in its intensity. A degree of hardness differs from another degree of hardness or of softness according to the number of thresholds, as well as by the direction of increase, exactly in the same way that a certain low note in the scale remains always as far removed from a certain high note, and can never change places with it.

(67 / 77-78)




[So when indications appear to us in the world, they are already governed by these inner experiential structures.]


[So, even though indications are attributed to the features of things in the world, their interrelations are already governed even without reference to those things.]

When indications [Merkmale] make their appearance in the world, they are already in the grip of these laws, and this without any reference to the objects with which they are associated.

(67 / 78,  bracketed insertion mine)




[The things in our world are built up from indication-material and then themselves become indications all their own.]


[Uexküll’s next point alludes to ideas in the next chapter and for that reason remains incomplete. It seems he is saying the following. We notice many indications in the world, and we then synthesize them somehow into objects and tools. But those constituted objects then themselves become indications all their own.]

As soon as indications [Merkmale] appear in the world, caught, so to speak, by the bull's-eye lantern of our attention, the process of apperception sets in, and creates from them new structures, i.e. things [Dinge], objects [Objekte] and implements [Gegenstände]. In the following chapter we shall deal fully with the nature of this process. Here we shall merely point out that each new formation appears as a unity, and then, in its turn, becomes an indication [Merkmal]. Our world is filled with these indications [Merkmalen], which we usually describe as objects [Gegenstände]; but we must not forget that, one and all, objects are built up from the indication-material [Merkmalsmaterial] of our qualities.

(67 / 78,  bracketed insertions mine)






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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