Drawing a theoretical line between humans and other animals has been the favorite pastime of philosophers and laymen alike for at least two millennia. When Aristotle famously wrote that man is a rational animal he set a precedent for describing the human being as an animal plus something else. This “plus something else” has been (and still is) a matter of great debate, with contenders ranging from the ability to reason and use language to the capacity for cooking oneself a hot meal. On this view, generally, animals are taken as mechanisms that can potentially be boiled down to and explained away by physics and chemistry, whereas man is all that plus mind, soul or what will you. The opposing view, which rejects the “plus something else” and which has been gaining the upper hand since the Enlightenment, erases the divide between man and animal in favor of looking at all living organisms as if they were physio-chemical mechanisms. In modern terms the two opposing views would probably roughly fall under vitalism and Darwinism. Whit this in mind I now want to turn to a very interesting middle ground advocated by Jacob von Uexküll at the beginning of the 20th century.
Uexküll’s major work, Theoretical Biology, was first published in 1920 and is still quite a thriller. In the book Uexküll openly endorses Kant’s arguments in the Critique of Pure Reason and sets out to expand them to the field of what he wants to be biology. Briefly, Kant’s position is the following. Kant is sometimes said to have reconciles two opposing views: rationalism and empiricism. The former holds that our access to knowledge lies mainly through our innate mental capacities; the latter – that all that we can ever hope to know comes from our sense-experience. Kant’s self-proclaimed second Copernican revolution was to realize that there is some truth in both, that “all we cognize a priori about things is what we ourselves put into them”. He believed that all people share certain basic categories, such as the perception of space and time, that shape our experience and, consequently, shape what we can know. This idea has a vast number of important repercussions, one of them being a central issue in Uexküll’s work: that there is no object without a subject.
Whereas Kant spoke only of people, Uexküll’s fruitful innovation was to extend the idea to all living organisms. Moreover, for Uexküll man held no privileged position as compared to other animals. Rather, he wrote, the difference between organisms lies in the fact that each of them inhabits their own subjective world. And, if so, one cannot learn anything about the world as such – there is no objective world in abstraction from the subjects inhabiting it. An organism (subject) and its environment (object) form an inseparable unity, what Uexküll called an Umwelt. It will become clearer with an example.
Uexküll’s most vivid description of an Umwelt is that of a tick. (Agamben, in his book The Open, somewhat surprisingly calls it “a high point of modern antihumanism” and suggests placing it alongside Jarry’s Ubu roi and Valéry’s Monsieur teste). From Uexküll’s Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans:
This eyeless animal finds the way to her watchpost with the help of only her skin’s general sensitivity to light. The approach of her prey becomes apparent to this blind and deaf bandit only through her sense of smell. The odor of butyric acid, which emanates from the sebaceous follicles of all mammals, works on the tick as a signal that causes her to abandon her post and fall blindly downward toward her prey. If she is fortunate enough to fall on something warm (which she perceives by means of an organ sensible to a precise temperature) then she has attained her prey, the warm-blooded animal, and thereafter needs only the help of her sense of touch to find the least hairy spot possible and embed herself up to her head in the cutaneous tissue of her prey. She can now slowly suck up a stream of warm blood.
As the passage indicates, there are just three meaningful cues constituting the tick’s environment: 1) the sense of “up” suggested by the tick’s photosensitive skin, 2) the smell of butyric acid (sweat) emanated by the mammal, and 3) the warmth of the mammal’s skin. The stars, the wind, birds, noises, shadows – they have no meaning for the tick and in this sense do not exist for it.
Uexküll compares an Umwelt to a soap bubble. It surrounds an animal and what is inside constitutes the animal’s meaningful environment, whereas what lies behind it is “hidden in infinity”. But just as the tick cannot penetrate the bubble of what is meaningful to it neither can the human. Two important features of Uexküll’s theory must be mentioned at this point.
First, unlike Kant, Uexküll believed that there as many Umwelten, subjective worlds, as there are subjects. In other words, inasmuch as we are talking about meaning and inasmuch as every organism holds fast their individual network of meaning which constitutes its world, we cannot speak of an absolute reality inhabited by all different organisms together. This point can be illustrated by taking, for instance, a religious and a non-religious person: clearly same phenomena can mean very different things to the two. But the distinction can go far beyond such radical examples: depending on my upbringing I can be a much more fearful person than my neighbor and where I see danger he would not. Same works with dogs. Uexküll criticized vehemently that much of science believes in the absolute reality shared by all organisms. He thought that what it took for the absolute reality was actually our own Umwelt. By doing so we throw all other animals into our own world and disregard that they have their own, which at least is an impediment to good biology (today: biosemiotics). To say nothing of our own doomed attempts to locate the objective world which exists independently of our own subject.
Second, in the spirit of the Kantian project of defining the limits of what is knowable, Uexküll insisted that we cannot truly know the Umwelt of the other. He made a distinction between the appearance-world and the surrounding-world of an organism. The two coincide only for me. What I can learn about another organism is its surrounding-world, i.e. that part of another organism’s Umwelt which is similar to my own. Simply put: one cannot look at the world through the eyes of the other. In this sense, the description of the tick’s environment above is by no means the description of its Umwelt, but only of a part of it which is comprehensible to me. In a certain sense, then, we cannot but anthropomorphise the nature. But at least we can do it consciously and carefully.
I wrote in the beginning that Uexküll’s position is a middle ground between turning all organisms into automatons and endowing some of them with something in addition to their mere physio-chemical function. The latter, hopefully, is clear by now. Uexküll did not believe that humans are much different from other animals because both inhabit their own meaningful worlds. The former, however, should be clarified. Uexküll was not thrilled by Darwinism because he saw it as too chaotic. He thought that the idea that organisms’ properties emerge randomly disregarded the role of the environment too much. For Uexküll, the organism’s interaction with its environment is not merely instinctual. Rather, he compared it with a musical harmony where not only individual organisms oscillate in the unison with their environment, but even with environments of other organisms. He takes Goethe’s “If the eye were not sun-like, It could never behold the sun” and adds: “If the sun were not eye-like, It could not shine in any sky”. A spider, apparently, weaves his web in such a way that a fly’s visual system cannot take account of it. It flies right into it. In this sense, although the spider’s and the fly’s Umwelten seem to be completely foreign to each other they perfectly fit. The spider in this scenario is not merely a spider but he is fly-like, he anticipates the fly with his whole being.