7 Jan 2017

Uexküll (3.9) Theoretical Biology, “Summary [of chapter 3]”, 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]

3.9 Summary [of Chapter 3]

Brief summary:
We have discovered, in addition to time and space, a third a priori form preceding and prestructuring experience, namely, the “scales” of content-qualities, like color or sonic tonal scales, which form quality-circles. Unlike time and space, which can be intuited, we need to geometrically represent content-quality scales to make them intuitable. There is a law saying that there is a predetermined and limited number of perceptible qualities, and there is another law saying that the qualities admit of progressive, intensive variation along a continuum or series. The experience of these qualities leaves “mark-signs” in our consciousness. We can only know the mark-signs we ourselves have. Our appearance-world is made of these mark-signs, so we only have access to our own phenomenal world. However, as biologists we are interested in the worlds and lives of other animals. Corresponding to each mark-sign for a quality is an “indication” in the world, which is the feature or property of the object to which we attribute that experienced quality. Since we as observers can sense what surrounds the animal, we have access to many of the properties in those surroundings, and thus we have access to some number of indications in that animal’s own world of experience. Our access to their indications is limited however to the way they appear to us as mark-signs in our own appearance-worlds. Nonetheless, we can still indirectly develop a little more knowledge of the animal’s inner life and experiential world. On the basis of the anatomy of the animal’s sensory-organs, it forms quality-scales that are basically the same as the ones our sensory-organs make, although the specific indications found in those scales will probably be different. By conducting behavioral experiments and anatomical studies of the animals, we can determine many of the indications that it is sensitive to and the scales that these indications form. If there are indications that we also are sensitive to (like shades of color visible to both us and the animal), then we can focus just on our own mark-signs for those qualities to give us a limited picture of what it is like to have certain sorts of perceptual experiences that this animal has and what it is like to live in their world, which appears in accordance with its scales of quality. However, as biologists, we should maintain a scientific (objective) stance in relation to the animal and remain as outside observers of its inner life.


[Space, time, and content-qualities are forms of knowledge that precede experience. The first two can be directly intuited, but the third must be represented extensively (using geometrical figures) to make it more intuitable.]

Time and space are forms of knowledge that precede experience, and they can be intuited directly. In this chapter we have studied another sort of form that precedes experience, namely, the content-qualities [Inhaltsqualitäten], which cannot be directly intuited. But by placing them into spatial relations [as by means of geometrical diagrams], we can bring them more under our intuition.
To space and time, the forms of our knowledge which are present before all experience, we have to add the forms of the content-qualities [Inhaltsqualitäten], which cannot be intuited directly. As we have seen, they can be brought nearer to intuition by transference into spatial relations, as has already been done in the case of time, of which our extensive experience is direct.
(71 / 84, bracketed insertion mine)

[Thus we must expand upon Kant’s doctrine where only time and space were considered.]

[For Kant there were just time and space as such a priori representations, so] we must expand Kant’s doctrine to include all these other a priori quality forms preceding experience.
On this point, therefore, we must expand Kant's doctrine, and show that for all kinds of qualities there are forms which | are present entirely a priori and precedent to all experience ; and these appoint to each quality, as soon as it appears, a fixed position in a system.
(71 / 84-85)

[We have neglected these forms because they lack a good name. The best we have so far is “scale”.]

One reason these a priori forms have been neglected is that they lack names like time and space have. The best term we have is “scale” as in musical scale, a color scale, a scale of smell. We might also use “ladder” (71 / 85).

[The forms and number of qualities is limited.]

We also saw that for each “quality-material [Qualitätsmaterial]” there are fixed forms, and also the number of individual qualities within these forms is limit and it precedes all experience. This is another way we must expand Kant’s doctrine (71 / 85).

[The number of qualities might be like a maximum, and certain individuals may be insensitive to some of them. This is a law of the pure theory of knowledge.]

[The next idea seems to be that there could be variance for the number of qualities perceivable by each individual, however, there is still a maximum number possible for all individuals. Please consult the quotation to be sure:]
Even if the absolute number of qualities changes with each subject, and the determination of the number in individual cases is left to psychology — or shall we say, to biology ? — (it is not at all necessary that the particular subject should actually experience all the qualities present in its forms), nevertheless the law that the number of qualities present is absolute is a law of the pure theory of knowledge.
(71 / 85)

[The second law of quantities is that they admit of intensive variation along a linear continuum or series.]

[Apparently another law is that qualities have intensive variations in the sense that they can increase in a linear fashion. Again, please consult the quotation to be sure.]
The second law of “increase in one direction” relates to the arrangement of the qualities within their particular form. This is likewise a law of the theory of knowledge.
(71 / 85)

[To each quality corresponds a “mark-sign” in our consciousness, which allows us to compare qualities and our forms.]

Each quality places in our mind a sign, called a “mark-sign”. This allows us to compare the qualities and their forms with one another.
The possibility of comparing with one another the different qualities and their forms, depends on the fact that each quality leaves behind it in our consciousness a sign [Zeichen] — the “mark-sign [“Merkzeichen”].”
(71 / 85, bracketed insertions mine)

[We can know our own mark-signs and thus our own appearance-world. However, we cannot know the inner experiences of other creatures. This means that at best we can determine some of its indications in its Umwelt and the forms they take in the structures of their awareness. To take another step toward understanding their inner life, we can focus on those indications we share, trying to obtain the mark-signs that the animal must also have.]

We can know the qualities of our own experience, and on the basis of the sensations we have, we can construct a “world-picture” of our appearance-world. But we do not have access to the qualities of experience in other creatures. This means we do not have access to their appearance-world. We instead only have access their Umwelt, their surrounding-world, which is “built up from our own qualities”. We also do not know the mark-signs (the specific perceived qualities) of other beings, because we again are not able to get inside their minds and have their experiences. Instead, the best we can do is determine (experimentally) what properties of our own appearance-world, that is, which of our own mark-signs, have some value as indications in the Umwelten of the other animals. [It then seems like Uexküll in the final line suggests that in order to understand the animal’s inner life better, we need to treat those indications we know it has as our own qualities. If that is so, I wonder how we might do that.]
In every instance where the qualities are known to us — i.e. strictly speaking, only in our own case — we may construct the world-picture [Weltbild] directly from the objectivated sensations of the subject. Here the subject faces his appearance-world [Erscheinungswelt] directly. Where we are denied a glimpse into the qualities | of the subject, we should not speak of an appearance-world [Erscheinungswelt], but only of a surrounding-world [Umwelt] built up from our own qualities. Since knowledge of the other subject's “mark-signs” [Merkzeichen] is denied us also, we are confined to determining what properties of our appearance-world [Erscheinungswelt] have value as “indications” [Merkmale]”  in the surrounding-world [Umwelt] of an animal. These indications [Merkmale] (which must become mark-signs [Merkzeichen] for us, if we are to experience anything of them at all), we shall treat like our own qualities, so far as possible, and arrange them in the forms given us a priori.
(72 / 85-86, bracketed insertions mine)

[We are justified in assuming we can have indirect access to the inner life of the animal using this technique, because we know that their sensory organs unify quality-circles that we more or less share.]

[I am not sure I understand the next point. He seems to be saying that the anatomical structures of the sense organs of animals are what unify the indications the animals are sensitive too. Perhaps the idea is that the eyes for example bring into quality-circles scales of color, the ears scales of sound, and so on. Our own awareness unifies such scales as well (although perhaps with different mark-signs, like how dogs see fewer colors than we do). The fact that we (somehow) know that animal sense organs unifies the quality-circles into scales that we more or less have in common justifies us thinking that when we consider the animal’s mark-signs, we can better know their inner life. For, we know basically the quality ranges and quality relations that they have for certain stimuli that we both share. Let me quote, as I am unsure I got that:]
We see a justification for this proceeding in the fact that the anatomical structure of the sense-organs of animals brings together as a unity those indications [Merkmale] that our attention [Aufmerksamkeit] also treats as a unified quality-circle [Qualitätenkreis].
(72 / 86, bracketed insertions mine)

[But so long as our interests are biological in a scientific sense, we should never cease observing the animal from the outside (of its own experience).]

But even though we can have this glimpse into the inner lives of the animals [by taking on some of their mark-signs], we should always maintain a scientific stance where we observe them from the outside.
Nevertheless, we should never forget that, so long as we are concerned with biology, we must not for an instant desert our posts as observers from the outside.
(72 / 86)
[Were we concerned with phenomenology, however, we would try to push these penetrating techniques as far as possible!]

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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