10 Jan 2017

Uexküll (4.6) Theoretical Biology, “Object and Implement”, 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.4 Object and Living Organism

[Gegenstand und Lebewesen]


4.6 Object and Implement

[Objekt und Gegenstand]




Brief summary:

Physics sees things being ordered merely by causality. But biologists also recognize an additional ordering principle, namely, conformity to plan. “Objects” are things whose organizing relations are understood simply as causally governed and whose composition is explained merely on the properties of its constituent materials. But we call “implements” those things whose organizing relations are understood as fitting within a larger plan (or functional system) and whose essential properties are understood as those contributing to its functionality. The parts of an implement relate to the whole in a meaningful way, namely, in how they contribute to the implement’s functioning. If we do not know how the object conforms to a plan, that is, how it has a certain functionality that places it within a larger system of practical human activities, then we do not see how its parts relate meaningfully to the whole. A ladder for example, to those who never have seen one or have never had need for one, would simply appear as planks arranged with holes between them. But after learning its function and how it is used, they would realize that it is designed with certain essential features. The essential properties of an implement, that is, those properties that serve the implement’s function, are called “leading” properties. Those that do not serve the function are “accompanying” properties. The same thing can be used different ways, which will cause the leading properties to become accompanying and vice versa. For example, consider two properties of a concave piece of glass: it is rounded in shape, and it is transparent. When it is used as a window-pane, its transparency is the leading property and its concavity is its accompanying property. But when it is used as a saucer to hold liquid, its concavity is its leading property, and its transparency is its accompanying property. To complicate things further, implements have main functions and subsidiary functions, and accompanying properties can serve the subsidiary functions. So when the concave glass is used for a window-pane, its concavity serves the subsidiary function of making it hard to see what is going on inside the house. And when it is used as a saucer, its transparency serves the subsidiary function of helping us discern its liquid contents. There are still yet other accompanying properties which do not even serve subsidiary functions. These simply express properties of the materials composing the implement. For example, a wooden boat has planks that express features of the trees they came from, and these properties are completely inessential to any aspect of the functionality of the boat (for example the color of the wood, which is hidden under the paint.) There are no other properties of a implement than those that serve its functioning and those that do not.








[Physics only recognizes causality as what orders things (which under this view we call “objects”), but biology recognizes a second organizing rule, namely, conformity with plan (Planmäßigkeit).]


Uexküll will distinguish physics and biology. Physics says that the things [Dinge] in nature only obey causality, and Uexküll’s term for causally ordered things is “objects [Objekte]” (83-84 / 103). Biology also acknowledges causality, but it says “there is a second, subjective rule whereby we systematise objects [Gegenstände]: this is conformity with plan [Planmäßigkeit], and it is necessary if the world-picture [Weltbildes] is to be complete” (84 / 103, bracketed insertions mine). [I am not sure, however, why this is considered a “subjective” rule.]




[A piano hammer hitting the string and playing a note is a series of causally related events, but the note has its place in a melody, which is another series and which is not causally ordered.]


Uexküll illustrates with the example of a hammer in a piano striking a string. [The idea seems to be the following. We have a series of events organized by causality. The hammer hits the string, which causes a note to be played. But there is another sort of series. The note is one in a melody, so it is a part of another series which is non-causal. Perhaps it is something like final-cause (the note happens because the melody was moving toward that part where it is played), but I am not sure. Or perhaps it is like another layer of order. There is the causal layer of ordering relations, but the note occurs in a context where it is ordered according the parts of a melody. Or maybe simply we are to think that the way the notes are arranged in the melody is not a necessary succession, as it could have been otherwise, but in this case it was decided and “planned” in a sense. Let me quote.]

When the hammer strikes the string of a piano and a note sounds, that is a purely causal series. If this note belongs to a melody, it is interpolated in a sound-series, which also exhibits arrangement, but not of a causal kind.

(84 / 103)




[When a carpenter builds a ladder, she does so through a series of causal events which result in the ladder. But this production is unlike normal causal relations between moving bodies as studied in physics. The thing produced has a certain meaningful arrangement of its parts that cannot be explained by causal relations.]


He gives another example. A carpenter is building a ladder. While it is being made, there is a causal chain of events. She chops the wood for the parts and assembles the ladder. [But suppose we are simply physicists looking at the interacting of objects, the carpenter and her materials. We see a causal series, but it is unlike other kinds of interactions between inert sorts of objects, like rocks colliding. Here the “causal” result is an object that has a certain meaning or sense to it. We cannot simply regard the ladder like it were any object whatever. It has a particular structure that would not arise just by causality alone. Instead, there is a meaningful relation between the parts that govern its structure.]

When the carpenter’s axe chops up the wood into planks and pegs, and when the drill bores through the planks and the hammer drives the pegs into the holes, these are all of them in causal succession. But the structure emerging from this process, the ladder, cannot be interpreted by causality; it can be understood only from a knowledge of the designed arrangement [planvollen Anordnung] of the rungs with relation to the main planks, and of all the parts to the whole.

(84 / 103, bracketed insertions mine)




[When an object cannot be explained just by causality on account of the parts standing in a meaningful relation to the whole, we call it an “implement” (Gegenstand).]


Uexküll gives the name “implements” [“Gegenstände”] to such objects that cannot be explained simply by causality, “since in them the parts stand in the same relation to the whole as the individual sounds do to the melody” (84 / 103).




[Mere objects have only the structural features provided by their constituent matter. Implements, however, have the additional planned structure governing the meaningful relations between the parts and the whole.]


He explains that the only structure an object has is what its constituent matter provides it with. Implements, however, have an additional structure that connects the parts to the whole in a meaningful way, in accordance with plan.

Both objects [Objekte] and implements [Gegenstände] consist of matter [Stoff]; but in the object [Objekt] there is no arrangement of the parts [Anordnung der Stoffteile] other than that which the structure of the substance [Stoffes] brings with it. In | the implement [Gegenstand], there is, in addition, a framework which connects up the parts into a whole that expresses plan [ein Gefüge, das die Teile zu einem planvollen Ganzen verbindet].

(84 / 103-104, bracketed insertions mine)




[Objects and implements both have the same sorts of material properties, but implements have an organization that is recognizable to those who can see its meaning or plan.]


He then notes that both objects and implements have the same sorts of material properties. But to those who recognize the plan in the implement, they see an additional structure. This is like words in a foreign language. To those who do not know the language, it is a meaningless series of squiggles. But to those who do know the language, there is a meaningful arrangement of strokes forming linguistic symbols.

In outward appearance, objects [Objekte] and implements [Gegenstände] are indistinguishable from one another. The same local signs [Lokalzeichen] and content-signs [Inhaltszeichen], enclosed by the same schema, form them both; just as the words of a language present the same optical appearance to the man who knows the language as they do to the foreigner. But the one knows the laws determining the juxtaposition of the letters in the word, while the other, not having this guide, stares uncomprehendingly at the words of the foreign tongue. The one sees before him only various assemblages of letters; the other reads words.

(84 / 104, bracketed insertions mine)




[Some inorganic objects are simply objects, because their parts can be rearranged in any which way without the whole changing, as for example a heap of sand. Physicists normally consider things in the inorganic world as not having design or plan.]


Of course even for the biologist many objects are simply objects. In these cases, the parts can be “interchanged in every direction without the whole being in any way affected”, like a heap of sand. They become implements only when used by humans. Physicists will acknowledge that human artifacts have a plan, but there they do not recognize any conformity with plan among inorganic things.

Undoubtedly to the biologist of the present day many things [Dinge] around him appear to be objects [Objekte] pure and simple — such, for instance, as a heap of sand, or the water in a vessel. In both instances, the parts can be interchanged in every direction without the whole being in any way affected. We shall admit, therefore, even from the biological standpoint, that there are objects without design [planlose Objekte], or mere heapings together of matter, in which at the present day we are unable to discover conformity with plan [keine Planmäßigkeit]. The whole of inorganic nature [Natur] is usually looked on as consisting of objects [Objekten] governed by causality alone. Inorganic objects [Objekte] are at present treated as substances [Stoffe] held together by a schema, and forming designed implements [planvolle Gegenstände] only when they are used for the products of human beings. The plan [Plan] in such implements [Gegenstände] is exclusively a human one; matter [Stoff] is merely the medium employed in their construction. Even the physicists cannot deny that there is a plan [Plan] in human products, but they refuse to admit any other kind of conformity with plan [Planmäßigkeit] in the things [Dingen] of the inorganic world [Welt].

(84-85 / 104, bracketed insertions mine)




[However, the ancient Greeks saw everything in the world as having plan.]


[So the physicist recognizes that a very limited number of things in the world have design or plan, and those are the things made by humans.] Humans did not always see the world as being fundamentally without design. The ancient Greeks saw everything as having design.

Men did not always think in this way. According to the Greek view, nothing in the world was without design [Planloses]. The entire inorganic world seemed to them as much a work of art | as the organic. Sun, moon, planets and the heaven of the fixed stars united in a vast work of art expressing plan [planmäßigen Kunstwerk], in which every substance [Stoff] occupied its appointed place. The water flowed on the earth and gave life to it, just as the blood does in the body. There was no such thing as dead matter [toten Stoff].

(85 / 104-105, bracketed insertions mine)





[Ancient Greek water jars, for example, seem like a faithful reflection of the water it holds. This is because they recognized a larger plan of nature governing the shapes water takes, and their vessels reflect that plan rather than imposing human purposes onto the water.]


We notice for example that ancient Greek water jars “represent as completely as possible a clothing of the water itself” (85 / 105). [Perhaps he is referring to the water-droplet sort of shape they often have. I am not sure how this illustrates his point. Maybe the idea is that today our water vessels are designed simply for human practical interests, but the ancient Greeks saw water itself as having a certain planned form that should be reflected in its vessel. Thus the human artifact is coherent with the larger plan of Nature of the cosmos.] He notes how this is like the way that rhizopod shells are shaped; “thus we get the impression that, in those old Grecian jars, the water created for itself the only envelope that would exactly fit it, and that this was subsequently made use of by man. In their perfection, these ancient vessels are true forms of Nature in art” (85 / 105).

This must be obvious to any naturalist who passes through the museum at Athens, and looks critically at the ancient water-jars, which differ so essentially from our own water-vessels. While our own, when they are good, reproduce in every detail of their form man’s preoccupation with his own affairs, in the ancient jars these signs recede into the background, and the vessels come to represent as completely as possible a clothing of the water itself.


They are strikingly reminiscent of certain rhizopod shells, with which the fluid protoplasm of these wonderful organisms invests itself. And thus we get the impression that, in those old Grecian jars, the water created for itself the only envelope that would exactly fit it, and that this was subsequently made use of by man. In their perfection, these ancient vessels are true forms of Nature in art.

(85 / 105, paragraphs are one in the German edition)




[In light of the ancient Greek view, perhaps biologists should also see both the organic and inorganic as conforming to plan.]


So the Greeks see both the organic and inorganic worlds as conforming to plan. Biologists just see the organic as conforming to plan, while physicists see nothing (except human tools) as conforming to plan. Uexküll, noting the Greek view, wonders if biologists ceded too much to the physicists (85 / 105).




[But given that the properties of inorganic materials are precisely conducive to life, we might wonder if in fact the inorganic is not designed according to plan as well.]


[Uexküll’s next point I think is that there is still reason to wonder if the inorganic world is governed by plan. He exemplifies this with the idea that were the physical properties of water slightly different, life may not be able to survive. I am not sure I get the reasoning, because I would think that one could argue were the properties of water different, life would have evolved differently to adapt to it. Let me quote.]

There are a number of facts that can be used in support of this view. It is certainly no proof of the lack of plan in Nature that water is heaviest at 4° C., for this prevents the inland lakes from being frozen up, and so animal life is preserved. Neither does the formation of snow-flakes suggest that there is no plan [Planlosigkeit], for if in winter the water poured down on | us in the form of icicles like so many winged arrows, the life of every creature would be imperilled.

(85 / 105-106, bracketed insertion mine)




[For now, however, it will prove more fruitful to develop the argument that the organic world conforms to plan.]


[I think his next point is that we will not try to argue for the plannedness of the inorganic world, because it will prove more fruitful to continue developing the argument that the organic world conforms to plan.]

For the moment, however, it is not advisable to lead the attack in this direction, for the defence offers us more important strategic positions.

(85 / 106)




[Even physicists acknowledge that human artifacts conform to plan, because they are designed, created, and used with a sense of how they fit within a system of practical uses, and thus they have particular features that give them their place in that system.]


Even physicists acknowledge that human products and tools have a design and thus conform to plan. The reasoning for this is that had we no knowledge of plan for them, we would be unable to create them or to use them. [So here plan is understood as fitting within a system of practical operations. Things are designed so that they fit within that system, and they are used in such a way that they appropriately serve those practical purposes.]

The design expressed in our human products and tools [Planmäßigkeit unserer menschlichen Erzeugnisse und Gebrauchsdinge] is incontestable, and it is not denied even by the physicists that these are invariably to be reckoned as implements [Gegenständen], for without knowledge of plan [Planmäßigkeit] in them we could neither create nor use them.

(86 / 106, bracketed insertions mine)




[An African native, upon first seeing a ladder, initially only saw a mere object with its own particular structure. Only after learning how to use it did he realize that it had a meaningful structure that related to its functionality.]


Uexküll illustrates with an experience he had with a young African native who lived in the interior of Africa but traveled with Uexküll to the coast. The native was unable to climb small ladders, because he did not know what the object was [presumably never having need of one nor having coincidental experience of one before.] But the native of course saw the object and its given structure, namely, an arrangement of planks such that there are large holes set throughout it. But after he learned how to use it, he did so expertly. [The object then made a transition from a mere object without a plan to one with a plan.]

An instance that I experienced myself brought the truth of this assertion home to me with peculiar force. A clever young negro, whom I took with me as my “boy” from the interior of Africa to the coast, was unable to climb up a short ladder placed before him, because he did not know what sort of a thing it was. “I see nothing but planks and holes,” he said. After someone else had demonstrated ladder-climbing to him, he could at once imitate him, for he was a superb climber. The ladder was not shrouded in mist; it stood right there in front of him; he could see it and touch it; and yet for him it was not an implement [Gegenstand], but an object without plan [planloses Objekt], of which he could make no use.

(86 / 106, bracketed insertions mine)




[Since the functionality is what determines the meaningful relation between parts and whole in an implement, we can speak of its functionality instead of its plan.]


The example shows us that the rule of action governing the ladder’s use is what converts it in our minds from a “confused medley of sticks and holes” into a ladder. Thus it is the thing’s function which tells us the meaningful arrangement of the parts into its whole. Without knowing the function, we cannot recognize the thing’s design. This means that instead of referring to the implement’s plan, we can also speak of its “functionality”.

From this example, we recognise what it is that binds the parts into a whole. The fixed rule of the action of climbing at once brought order into the confused medley of sticks and holes, and formed the ladder. It is only the knowledge of the rule of action pertaining to its “function” [“Funktion”] that arranges the parts into the whole. If we do not know the function, which establishes fixed relations, we cannot know the design [Planmäßigkeit], and we do not recognise the significance of the implement [Bedeutung des Gegenstandes]. Accordingly, instead of the plan [Planmäßigkeit] expressed by an implement [Gegenstandes], we may speak of its “functionality” [“Funktionsmäßigkeit”].

(86 / 106, bracketed insertions mine)




[The fact that we recognize implements on the basis of their use is reflected in the fact that the name for many tools indicates their use (saw, hammer, etc.).]


[Uexküll’s next point seems to be that we often name tools in accordance with their use (rather than their other properties). We might think of our own examples, like ‘hammer’, ‘drill’, ‘saw’, ‘rake’, and so on. This reinforces his point that we recognize an implement on the basis of its use.]

On closer consideration, it will be clear to everyone that by the word with which, for our mutual understanding, we | describe the implement [Gegenstand], we make allusion to its “functionality” [“Funktionsmäßigkeit”]. A bench [Stuhl], for instance, may be called a “settle” [Sitzgelegenheit]; and in the word “steps” [Steige] for “stairs” [Treppe] the function [Funktion] is clearly expressed.

(86 / 106-107, bracketed insertions mine)





[Children often refer to objects simply by the uses they have, and thus they live in a world of implements.]


Children often refer to objects simply by the uses they have or the activities the objects partake in. Only adults strip the function from objects and think of them as a sum of properties and capacities. Thus “the child’s world [Welt] is still entirely built up of implements [Gegenständen], and that the object [Objekt] is a creation only of later reflection” (86 / 107, bracketed insertions mine)





[The importance of relating properties to functions in all things is seen especially in cases where an implement is invented or when a mere object is converted into an implement.]


[Perhaps an important idea here is that the child refers to many natural things (and not just human artifacts), like the clouds and stones, in terms of their function or activity. He then concludes that it is fundamentally important to consider the relation between a thing’s properties to its functions. I am not sure why, however, because it was not yet explained why the child’s approach is better. In other words, while it is obvious why an implement should be explained in terms of how its properties serve its functions, why is it best to do this with all things? His next point is that the best examples for this sort of description are with new implements or with the conversion of an object into an implement. Here, in order to understand how the object becomes an implement, we of course should understand which properties are responsible for its use and how those properties contribute to that use.]

Accordingly, for the understanding of all things [Dinge], it is of fundamental importance to take exact account of the relations of properties to functions [Funktion]. The most instructive examples in this direction are those in which a new implement [Gegenstand] arises, or an object [Objekt] is transformed into an implement [Gegenstand].

(87 / 107, bracketed insertions mine)




[A boy selecting stones for skipping does so on the basis only of those properties that have bearing on their skippability, and taking no heed of their other “inessential” properties.]


Uexküll then uses an example to show that the only properties of a thing that are considered for its classification are the ones that lend to the use we have for it. In this case, a boy selects stones for skipping over water not on the basis of their smell, color, taste, etc., which have no bearing on how they skip over water (and thus they are considered “inessential”). Rather, he selects them on the basis of their being hard, flat, circular, and having a certain weight, all of which do determine their suitability for skipping. This also means that when we refer to the “nature” of an implement, we really mean its function.

When a boy collects “skipping-stones,” which he wants to send dancing across the surface of a lake, there arises out of the general implement [Gegenstand] “stone” (whose function [Funktion] in general is to be thrown) a particular implement [Gegenstand], the properties of which group themselves round the special function [Funktion] of “skipping.” The skipping-stone is hard, flat, circular and of a certain weight. These are the properties required for this special function [Funktion]; the other properties it possesses, over and above these, — such as colour, smell, taste and resonance, — are “inessential” [“unwesentlich”], and are not determined by the function [Funktion]. It follows from this that, by the much misused word “nature” [“Wesen”] of an implement [Gegenstandes], we always mean its function [Funktion].

(87 / 107, bracketed insertions mine)





[“Leading” properties (leitenden Eigenschaften) are those essential ones that lend to the functioning, while those that simply express the (inessential) properties of the implement’s constituent materials are “accompanying” properties (begleitenden Eigenschaften).]


Uexküll will now introduce some terminology based on this distinction he has made between properties based on functions. Those properties that lend to the function of the thing are called “leading” properties. Those that do not contribute to the functioning but rather simply express the material of the implement are called “accompanying” properties.

I shall call leading [leitenden] properties those which are necessary and “essential” [“wesentlichen”]; those others which depend only on the character of the substance [Natur des Stoffes], I shall call accompanying [begleitenden] properties.

(87 / 107, bracketed insertions mine)




[Some implements have more than one function and in themselves are mere objects.]


Uexküll notes that in all languages, there are words that have more than one meaning, depending on the context in which they are used. Likewise, certain things have more than one function. Thus, they have no fixed function, and understood simply by themselves, are not implements but mere objects (87 / 108).




[For example, a concave piece of glass is a mere object. But when placed in a window frame it becomes an implement, namely, a window pane; and when it is placed on a table, it becomes a different implement, a saucer.]


Uexküll then gives an example of an implement with two uses, which understood on its own, is simply an object. He has us consider the mere object, which is a “circular, concave piece of glass”. Were he to set it into a window frame, it would become the implement, a window pane. Were he instead to place it on a table and fill it with water, it becomes the implement, a saucer.

So long as I hold in my hand a circular, concave piece of glass, it is merely an object [Objekt]. If I set it in a window-frame, it becomes a window-pane; if I put it on the table, it becomes a saucer, which I can fill with water. In both cases, the object [Objekt] has become an implement [Gegenstand].

(87 / 108, bracketed insertions mine)




[When function changes, so too do the leading and accompanying properties change. The transparency and concavity of the glass have inverted statuses for the two uses.]


We can see then that with changes of function, there are changes in leading and accompanying properties [as often a different function would call for different properties lending to that function.] So when the concave piece of glass is used as a window-pane, it is its transparency that serves as the leading function, and its concavity is the accompanying property. However, as a saucer, the concavity is the leading property while the transparency is accompanying.

It must be borne in mind that the leading and accompanying properties change with the change of function. In the case of the window-pane, the transparency is the leading property, and the concavity the accompanying. In the case of the saucer, the reverse is true — the concavity is the chief property and transparency is the accompanying. Function acts like a magnet, which attracts towards it now some qualities and now others.

(87 / 108)




[Accompanying properties can also serve a subsidiary function, like how the transparency of a drinking glass does not serve its main function of holding liquids but rather does serve the subsidiary function of revealing the contents.]


[Uexküll then introduces a notion of subsidiary function. The idea seems to be that leading properties always serve the main function of the implement, but accompanying properties may serve other functions related to the main function. In his example, the transparency of a drinking glass does not serve its function of holding the drink inside, but it can serve the function of indicating the contents, which the transparency makes visible.]

Now it appears that the accompanying properties are frequently used by subsidiary functions [Nebenfunktionen], and so enter with them into a framework of the implement [Gefüge des Gegenstandes]. Thus transparency becomes a subsidiary function [Nebenfunktion] of drinking-vessels, the contents of which we wish to test by the eye. In the same way, concavity becomes the subsidiary function [Nebenfunktionen] of certain window-panes, which by reflections on the convex side ward off the gaze of the inquisitive.

(87-88 / 108, bracketed insertions mine)




[An implement’s subsidiary functions can easily convert into main functions when it is used in a different way.]


[I do not quite grasp the next point so well. He gives us an example of where subsidiary functions transform into main functions. We think of a “portable engine” transforming into a locomotive. I am not sure what the subsidiary function of the portable engine is. I can only think of its main function, to provide mechanical motion, and I would think that remains its main function when operating in a locomotive. Perhaps its portability begins as its main function and its ability to produce motion is subsidiary, but when used in a locomotive, its portability becomes subsidiary and its ability to produce motion becomes its main function. I will quote so you can see for yourself.]

The transformation of such subsidiary functions [Nebenfunktion] into main functions [Hauptfunktion] may easily take place under our very eyes; | as an example, we have only to consider how a portable engine [Lokomobile] becomes transformed into a locomotive [Lokomotive].

(88 / 108-109, bracketed insertions mine)





[The properties that do not serve either the main or subsidiary functions can be changed without damaging the implement, and they are often simply properties of the materials making up the implement.]


[Uexküll’s next point seems to be the following. An implement has both a main function and subsidiary functions. The properties of the thing can be said to serve either function. But there are still some properties which serve neither function. We can alter them without damaging the implement (because the implement is defined by its function, and switching them will not change its function. We might think for example of the skipping stones. If we changed their taste, it would not make them any less of a skipping stone.) These fully inessential properties belong only to the material making it up. So were we to destroy the implement (such that its constituent material remains but it no longer serves its function), then we will still have these fully inessential properties. (If we break the skipping stone into powder, it is no longer a skipping stone. But it will still have the same odor presumably.)]

The great majority of our tools [Gebrauchsgegenstände], machines [Maschinen] and apparatus [Apparate], show the following structure:— there is a “main function” [“Hauptfunktion”], to which a greater or less number of “subsidiary functions” [“Nebenfunktionen”] are attached. However fully the framework [Gefüges] be analysed, there is always some residue of accompanying properties [begleitende Eigenschaften] that do not enter into it [Gefüge], but can be interchanged without damage to the implement [Gegenstand]. For the most part, they belong to an implement [Gegenstand] that has been destroyed in order to form a new one, or to the substance [Stoff] from which the implement [Gegenstand] was made.

(88 / 109, bracketed insertions mine)




[Inessential properties belong to the implement’s constituent material but not to the defining structural elements of the implement itself. For example, boats made of wood exhibit properties of the trees they are made from, but some of these tree properties are not essential to the boat (as defined by its function), like the trees’ color and smell.]


For example, boats made of wood exhibit properties of the trees from which the boards were derived, but these tree properties are inessential to the boat. [I am not sure which properties of the tree these could be, other than for example the smell and color of the wood perhaps. I am also not sure what he means by “do not belong unconditionally to the framework” in the passages: “all those of our implements [Gegenstände] which are prepared from metals or other substances [Stoffen] are laden with properties which do not belong unconditionally to the framework of the implement [Gefüge des Gegenstandes], but are conditioned by the structure of the substance [Struktur des Stoffes] alone.” Maybe the idea is simply that such properties are to be explained on the basis of the structure of their constituent matter but not additionally as being part of the functional composition of the implement itself. That is a guess, so please consult the quotation:]

A boat, for instance, always shows certain properties of the tree from which the boards were procured, properties which are inessential [unwesentlich] to the boat as such. In like manner, all those of our implements [Gegenstände] which are prepared from metals or other substances [Stoffen] are laden with properties which do not belong unconditionally to the framework of the implement [Gefüge des Gegenstandes], but are conditioned by the structure of the substance [Struktur des Stoffes] alone.

(88 / 109, bracketed insertions mine)




[Thus all implements posses properties that are extraneous to its functionality.]


Thus “To all our implements [Gegenständen] something extraneous is attached, pertaining to the material [Material] only, and not entering into the framework [Gefüge] of the functions [Funktionen] and subsidiary functions [Nebenfunktionen]” (88 / 109, bracketed insertions mine).




[An implement has both a main function, often produced through many smaller component mechanisms, and subsidiary functions.]


[Uexküll then describes the way functionality is expressed in the implement’s framework. An implement has a main function, which is often derived through the participation of many component functions, like in complex machines, and it also has subsidiary functions. He uses the example of an automobile to illustrate. The main function is constituted by all the internal mechanisms that give the car its primary functionality. It also has subsidiary functions which are expressed in the “body” of the car. But I am not sure what is meant by that. Is he referring to extra things like the comfort from the upholstery, or does he mean other mechanisms like windshield wipers which actually aid the main function of driving? Or does he mean something like the car could operate without the outer body, but it is included to improve the overall functioning and usefulness of the car? Let me quote so you can see:]

The framework [Gefüge] itself displays everywhere the same principle, i.e. a main function [Hauptfunktion], achieved often through the agency of a multitude of part-functions [Teilfunktionen] (one has only to think of how many functions [Funktionen] must be exercised before an automobile gets going), and a large number of subsidiary functions [Nebenfunktionen] (which are expressed in the “body” of the car).

(88 / 109, bracketed insertions mine)




[Implements only have these two sorts of properties (material and functional), but living creatures have properties that cannot be explained in these terms.]


Uexküll’s final point is that there two sorts of properties, those of the material and those serving the functionality, are the only two sorts of properties an implement has. [He then seems to suggest that living creatures, however, do have properties that cannot be explained either as belonging to their material or to their functionality. (This is something he will discuss more in the next section).]

In all cases, the properties of an implement [Gegenstandes] can be analysed into the properties of the material [Materials] and those of the functional framework [funktionellen Gefüges], without anything being left over. There is never anything unexplainable attaching to our implements [Gegenständen], such as makes the study of the living organism at once so difficult and so fascinating.

(88 / 109, 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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