7 Jan 2017

Uexküll (3.8) Theoretical Biology, “The Temporal Boundary of the Surrounding-World”, 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]


3.8 The Temporal Boundary of the Surrounding-World

[Die zeitliche Umgrenzung der Umwelten]




Brief summary:

The full extent of space a creature perceives at any moment can be understood as a bubble surrounding it and keeping its dimensions as it goes through life. If we consider every moment of the creature’s bubble as it moves through its life, it would form a tunnel containing all the indications available to it as the sort of creature that it is. All creatures’ lives are intertwined not randomly but according to a plan of nature.







[The space of the animals Umwelt at any moment is like a sphere or circle surrounding it. Since each moment gives a new circle on account of its movement, we can consider its entire life as the combination of all these spheres into a tunnel. Within the tunnel are the indications set out as potentials of experience from the beginning.]


[In section 3.2 we discussed the spheres or circles around a living creature, setting the limit to the furthest in space they perceive. This bubble moves around with them, as the spatial world passes through the bubble.] We will consider the spatial world around an animal as enclosed in a circle, but since it moves, we have a new circle for each moment. Taking all these circles together would give us a tube shape. The possible indications that may enter this tube are fixed from the beginning [given the fixed laws and structures of the creature’s modes of perception.]

If we represent the surrounding-world [Umwelt] of an animal at any given moment as a circle, we can add on to it the succeeding moments, each as a new circle of the same kind. In this way we get a tube, which would correspond to the length of the animal’s life. On all sides the tube is formed of indications [Merkmalen], which we can imagine to be built along and around the life-path [Lebensweg] of the animal. The life-path [Lebensweg] thus resembles a tunnel passing through the surrounding-world [Umsweltstunnel] and closed at both ends. In this tunnel  [Umsweltstunnel] the nature of the indications [Mermale]  that may appear is fixed from the beginning; so we may say that its extent and the variety it displays are predestined. Moreover, the time-length of the tunnel [Tunnels] has a prescribed measurement, which cannot be exceeded.

(70 / 84, bracketed insertions mine)




[Life is governed by fixed laws that organize all creatures’ individual lives in a planned way.]


There are immutable factors governing the indications of each creature, and thus there are fixed laws governing all of nature, and these laws conform to a “plan”. [I am not sure of the next point. It might be that the plan is not simply a very complicated but ungoverned interweaving of destinies. But I am not sure why.]

Proceeding from these immutable factors that determine all life in the world [Welt], we come to see that life itself is based on fixed laws, which are in conformity with plan [das Leben auf einer festen planmäßigen Gesetzmäßigkeit beruht]: these laws do not become apparent, simply because the individual destinies are so numerous that we are unable to appreciate the influences they exert on one another. As a matter of fact, however, they are merely variations on a set theme, and a limit can be set to the possibilities they present.

(70 / 84, 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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