6 Jan 2017

Uexküll (3.6) Theoretical Biology, “The Observer and the Worlds of Others”, 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]


3.6 The Observer and the Worlds of Others

[Die Beobachter und die fremden Welten]




Brief summary:

Suppose there is an observer who wants to learn about the world of an animal. That observer does not have access to all the qualities that the animal perceives, because the animal has different sense sensitivities. However, there will be qualities that are apparent also to the human observer, and it is these that will have to be studied. The properties of objects will be indications for the animal, but they take two types and in a sense occupy two different worlds or two different sides of the same world. Indications that simply affect the animal are part of the world-as-sensed, but indications that facilitate the animal’s effective action in the world are part of the animal’s world of action.







[An observer of an animal has access just to the indications in the animal’s world that are shared by the observer.]


We consider if we have an observer who is examining an animal. Suppose the observer wants to investigate the world of the animal. Uexküll claims that the first thing the observer must do is to recognize that the indications constituting the animal’s world are indications in the observer’s world rather than being mark-signs originating in the animal subject, “which he cannot know in the least” (67 / 78). [I find the reasoning behind this first point very difficult to discern. I would think that each animal is sensitive to different mark-signs and thus has a world of vastly different indicators. I do not know how to grasp this notion that the indicators are identical between species. One easy explanation would be to go with the part that we can never know the animal subject’s mark-signs. This interpretation would then say that the animal does have other indicators, corresponding to their unique mark-signs, but we simply cannot know them and thus we have no better alternative than to ignore them and focus on the ones we are familiar with in our own experience. But this interpretation might not work with the other parts of these passages. In the English edition (thus probably in the first German edition), but not in the second German edition that we are consulting, Uexküll makes a distinction and a diagram that might help us gather better his idea. He distinguishes between the appearance-world and the surrounding-world. For the observer herself,  her appearance-world is identical with her surrounding-world. But the observer does not have access to the appearance-world of the animal. However (but I am guessing here), the animal’s surrounding world of indications is shared by the observer, because her surrounding world overlaps with that of the animal. Given what he writes in the next paragraph, I assume he is saying that the animal’s world has both more mark-signs and more indicators. But the indicators that we share are apparent to us, and they must follow the same laws (for some reason) both for us and for the animal. For example, this means that the spatial relations that hold between indicators for us also hold for the animal. (The summarization here holds for this and the following two paragraphs.)]

If an observer has before him an animal whose world he wishes to investigate, he must first and foremost realise that the indications that make up the world of this other creature are his own, and do not originate from the mark-signs of the animal’s subject, which he cannot know in the least. Consequently, these indications are, one and all, | beneath the sway of the laws of our attention; and, as soon as our attention is directed to them, we cannot free them from these laws.

(67 / 78-79)




(*Not in the German second edition text. It is part of the same paragraph above in the English edition.)

[An observer of an animal can know parts of its surrounding world, because they both share it, but she cannot know the animal’s appearance-world.]


[See the bracketed summary in the prior paragraph.]


I have tried to reproduce this in the accompanying figure, in which the indications A-K, which make up the world of the animal, are connected by lines to the observer. Since we are not in a position to investigate the appearance-world of another subject, but only that part of our appearance-world surrounding it, we had better speak of the surrounding-world of the animal. It is only for the observer himself that the surrounding-world and the appearance-world are identical.

(??? / 79)

Uexkull. Theoretical Biology. Fig2.Eng.Animal World Cone





[We come to understand the animal’s world on the basis of the qualities we sense in the world we share. But the animal may have more mark-signs and indicators in their own appearance-world, which we cannot detect. However, the ones we can detect will follow the same laws of organization as in ours.]


[See the bracketed summary in paragraph §392a above.]

The material from which the surrounding-world [fremde Umwelt] of another is built up, invariably consists of our own objectivated quality, for no other qualities are accessible to us. The only difference from our own surrounding-world [unserer Umwelt] is that the qualities are fewer in number. As soon, however, as qualities from the same indication-circle [Merkmalskreis] are present, they come under the laws of the forms of our attention. A place which for us lies more to the left than does another, lies further to the left in the surrounding-world [fremde Umwelt] of the other subject also, given that both the places are present in that world as indications [Merkmale]; and this is true even if the number of place-indications [örtlichen Merkmalen] separating the two is smaller than in our world [unserer Welt]. A moment which follows another moment in our world [unserer Welt] can never become the earlier one in the world of the other subject [fremden Welt], if both are present in it as indications [Merkmal]. In like manner, the relation of two sounds in our world [unserer Welt] can never be reversed in the surrounding-world [fremden Umwelt] | of the other subject, if both the sounds appear there as indications [Merkmale] in it; and so forth.

(68 / 79-80, bracketed insertions mine)




[The observer who wants to understand the animal’s world needs to determine the number and nature of the qualities she can detect that appear in the animal’s world, and she must learn the groupings that those qualities form when they act as indications.]


The animal observer’s “chief task consists in determining the number and the nature of his own qualities appearing in the surrounding-world of the other subject [fremden Umwelt]; and he has to investigate also in what grouping they act as indications [Merkmale] there [fremden Welt]” (68 / 80, bracketed insertions mine).




(*Not in the German second edition text.)

[The animal’s surrounding world has two halves: {1} the world-as-sensed, containing those indications of the observer that affect the animal, and {2} the world of action, which contains the indications of the observer that the animal reacts to.]


[Uexküll then continues with the ideas from the diagram, and this discussion is not found in the German second edition.] He says we can divide the surrounding-world (I presume the Umwelt) of other subjects into two halves. One half is the world-as-sensed. It contains the indications of the observer that affect the animal. The world of action contains the indications of the observer that the animal reacts to.




(*Not in the German second edition text.)

[Some of the properties of an object affect the animal as indications, while other properties the animal itself affects.]


The object will have some properties that the animal will be affected by as indications, and the object will also have properties that are affected by the animal. [See §§34-47 of Stroll through the Worlds of Animals and Men.] Thus, “the boundary between the two worlds passes through the object” (??? / 80).




(*Not in the German second edition text.)

[For example, honey has a scent and it is fluid. These are both indications. But since the scent triggers the bee to drink, it lies in the bee’s world-as-sensed; and since the fluidity is what allows it to drink and thereby make effective change in the world, it lies in the bee’s world of action.]


[Uexküll then gives an example, but I might not follow it perfectly. He has us consider the diagram above and in particular indications C and D, which are two properties of honey. C is its scent, and D is its fluidity. He says that the scent is a part of the bee’s world-as-sensed, because it acts on the bee. Perhaps specifically it encourages the bee to come over and drink it. But the fluidity of the honey does not trigger the bee to make some effective change in its world. Rather, it is a property that allows the bee to do so, but the fluidity did not affect the bee in the first place like the scent did. So the indication of fluidity lies in the world of action. Let me quote, because I am not sure I have the reasoning right:]

Let us assume that indication C in the figure on the preceding page represents the scent of honey, and the indication D its fluidity, then it is obvious that, if the animal is a bee, the indication C, which acts on the animal, lies in the world-as-sensed, whereas the indication “fluidity,” which makes it possible for the bee to drink, lies in the world of action.

(??? / 80)




(*Not in the German second edition text.)

[For humans, the two indicators of scent and fluidity fuse into one unified object, but for the bee, the fluidity is not something sensed but rather something enabling a certain behavior.]


[Uexküll then says that it is only in our own surrounding world that both indications of the honey are fused. I am not sure why. Perhaps it is because the scent does not trigger some instinctive behavior normally, although it might vaguely invite us to eat it. But Uexküll’s reasoning is different and tricky to grasp. He says that these two indications do not fuse in the bee’s surrounding-world, because the fluidity indication does not act on the bee but rather only “underlies the bee’s behavior”. So is Uexküll saying then that the fluidity acts on us too as well as the scent acts on us? Let me quote, because I cannot tell:]

It is only in our own surrounding-world that honey, as a sweet-scented fluid, is fused into one unified object; in the surrounding-world of the bee this does not happen, for the indication fluidity does not act on the bee, but merely underlies the bee’s behaviour.

(??? / 80)




(*Not in the German second edition text.)

[We use the term “indicators” for those things whose properties are unified in our world but not in the animal’s.]


[It seems Uexküll next proposes we use the term “indicators” for those objects whose properties are unified in our world but which are not unified in another animal’s world. Let me again quote:]

In order that we may not sacrifice the indissoluble connection which, as observers, we perceive to exist between the two properties of the object honey, I propose that, when we are considering the surrounding-world of another subject, we employ the term “indicators” for such of our objects as play a part in that world. This will be used to mean that here certain indications are indissolubly associated, which, how- | ever, in the surrounding-world of the other subject, belong partly to the world-as-sensed and partly to the world of action.

(??? / 80)







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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