Jacob von Uexkull


Recall here Mead's (1938) point in the previous lecture that, as biological beings, organisms have a given perspective on the world, one that contributes a value perspective for them from which implications necessarily follow. This 'value perspective' is based in the foundational constitution of the biological realm: that an energy source is required so as to sustain organisation in the face of entropy. Consequently, the implication is that there will be some things that an organism will have more of an interest in than other things in its environment: the sources of energy it requires being prime amongst these. Hence we get to understand Mead's point that: 'The objects that are there in independence of the organism imply the organism. That is, the organism is not independent of them.... The process by which the organism has arisen is, however, one in which the organism has determined its field [that is, the world as it perceives it, as it is presented to it in its experience, AL] by its susceptibilities and responses. There is a mutual interdependence of the two. This is expressed in the term "perspective"' (Mead, 1938:163-4).

There is a very important point here, the one about 'mutual interdepence'. Experiences are 'there' for animals to provide them with the information they need to detect so as to serve their natural interests. Experiences are the product of the evolutionary process, or rephrased, experiences have evolved. Experiences, then, are the media in which perspectives are made real, or instantiated. What does this mean? Look back to Lecture 4, where we first encountered these ideas about implications and evolution. I noted there something from Plotkin, viz

'Biological forms are structures which give an explicit rendition of the implications of an organism's situation into meat and vegetable organizations. Plotkin (1994: xiv) has put this point thus:
adaptations are themselves knowledge, themselves forms of 'incorporation' of the world into the structure and organization of living things: ... the relationship of fit between parts of the organization of an organism, its limb structure, for instance, and some feature or features of the world in which it lives, such as terrain or medium through which it must move, is one in which that organization is in-formed by the environment. '
What we have now moved on to saying is that experiences are another medium, in addition to limb structures - or more generally, bodies - that are structured forms of 'knowledge'. Just as a leg is a physical structure that has been selected so as to make explicit in a physical medium the demands [implications] of its environment, so likewise an an animal's perceptions and experiences are structured, but this time not in a physical medium, but in a sensory one. Let's pursue this further.

Mead, as I noted, also raised the question [previous lecture] as to how perspectives appear in experience: The first question that suggests itself with reference to the perspective is how does it appear as such in experience? (ibid: 115). Given that experiences have evolved as ways of instantiating perspectives, what are they like? This is perhaps, at first sight, a question you might laugh at. How could we ever know what another animal's experiences might be like? This is a seemingly impossible empirical exercise. OK: figuring out how another species might actually experience the world is not something that can be done with any certainty (and then some). But we can, I suggest, at least establish some of the parameters within which different experienced perspectives are constructed. This is just basic psychophysics: if an organism can be shown to be unable to detect certain potential environmental information, then we can confident that (a) its behaviour will not take such potential information into account, nor (b), assuming it converts environmental information into a world it experiences and responds to, then that information will not be translated into its experiential world.

This is the basic approach taken by Jacob von Uexkull's classic paper (1934/1957) 'A Stroll through the Worlds of Animals and Men: A Picture Book of Invisible Worlds', which presents some conceptual resources - his notion of an organism's Umwelt or effective environment - that are useful in setting out a conceptual framwork for pushing on with such a seemingly impossible empirical exercise. In his paper, von Uexkull explored the view that simple animals live in simple worlds, and complex animals live in complex ones. In his 'stroll', he walks us through 'a flower-strewn meadow, humming with insects, fluttering with butterflies' and invites the reader to

'first blow, in fancy, a soap bubble around each creature to represent its own world, filled with the perceptions which it alone knows. When we ourselves then step into one of these bubbles, the familiar meadow is transformed. Many of its colorful features disappear, others no longer belong together but appear in new relationships. A new world comes into being. Through the bubble we see the world of the burrowing worm, of the butterfly, or of the field mouse; the world as it appears to the animals themselves, not as it appears to us. This we may call the phenomenal world or the self-world of the animal' (von Uexkill 1957, 5).
Von Uexkull uses the term 'Umwelt' to refer to these relative lived-in worlds. He presents them as in the following pictures of a meadow as we might see it and then, below, as it might appear to a bee. The top figure here (from von Uexkull, 1957: 351) represents the environment of a bee.

The lower figure represents the Umwelt of the same bee, that is, the world as it appears to the bee via the structure of the bee's perceptual system. The notion is that organisms are built to perceive objects that are meaningful for them. It is conjectural, yes, but based on a thorough delineation of the perceptual cues bees respond to. Bees land on figures that exhibit broken forms, such as stars and crosses, and avoid compact forms, such as circles and squares. The figure,

which was designed on this basis, contrasts a bee's environment with its Umwelt. The bee is seen in its environment, a blooming field, in which blossoming flowers alternate with buds. If we put ourselves in the bee's place and look at the field from the point of view of its Umwelt, the blossoms are changed to stars or crosses according to their form, and the buds assume the unbroken shape of circles. The biological significance of this newly discovered quality in bees is evident. Only blossoming flowers have a meaning for them; buds do not (1957: 350-1, emphasis added).

The essential point is that organisms are constructed such that objects have meanings, or significance, for them, constructed by their perspective (in Mead's sense (op. cit)), and it is those meanings which are revealed to them directly in their perceptual worlds, because their perceptual worlds are in-formed by their perspctives. The meaning of these objects is constituted in the interaction of the organism and the environment, and over evolutionary time the structure and function of the organism's perceptual systems have been fine-tuned to make these meanings salient: animal's perceive what they need to perceive, and experience the world in ways that are useful to them. Generally, we think of meaning as being something that is stored in an organism, either as the result of evolution or learning. But once we begin to think of cognitive processes, such as perception, as distributed between organism and environment, and once we categorise environments as environments and Umwelts, then there is available a more useful way of dealing with meaning in this sense. That is, that the meanings of objects are directly perceived because of the organism's perspective on them. And if that perspective changes, so does the meaning, and therefore the perception of the object.

It is in this context that von Uexkull makes the important point that the perspectives and possibilities which are available to an organism are not things seen 'from outside of' the evolving system, but are constituted within it in the organism's perception of the environment, in its Umwelt:

[The Umwelt] is the world around the animal as the animal sees it, the subjective world as contrasted with the environment. The effects of stimulation appear in this Umwelt as elementary sensations, [Merkzeichen], which, organised and projected into the object, become meaningful perceptions, conceived by the [animal] as the properties of that object, [Merkmal] (von Uexkull, 1957: xiii).
His point is that animals provide 'value-perspectives' that determine the way in which 'the world' is presented to them. Sensory systems are not passive transducers of information, but constitutive transducers. Some of these value-perspectives are given to animals as a result of their evolutionary histories; and some may be 'imported' into the constitutive perceptual system by learning. Either way, the world is presented to an animal as possessing objects that are meaningful to it through the values that arise as a result of its being in a particular relation to its environment. It is in this sense that von Uexkull's Umwelt contains meaningful items:
Every action ... that consists of perception and operation imprints its meaning on the meaningless object and thereby makes it into a subject-related meaning-carrier in the respective Umwelt (subjective universe) (von Uexkull, 1982 [1940]: 31).
His point is that making sense of its world is not something any organism has to put a lot of work into. Organisms do not neutrally experience the world, and then have to build up massive interpretive skills so as to assign significance and meaning to events: significance in the sense of 'what-to-do-next' is built directly into the way perception is pre-structured; the world is 'presented' to the organism as already containing its 'interests'. [A more recent but similar formulation is given by Thompson [e.g., Thompson et al., 1992; Thompson, 1995a; 1995b], who argues that colour perception does not represent something that is already present in the world apart from perceivers; rather it presents the world in a manner that satisfies the perceiver's adaptive ecological needs [Thompson, 1995b: 25; see also Maturana and Varela, 1980; Hendriks-Jansen, 1996; and Clark, 1997, for related discussions]].

If you now go back and look at the two 2-dimensional pictures in the previous lecture, you will now likely 'see' that you still see the objects in them that previously you didn't. This indicates that von Uexkull's point that 'Every action ... that consists of perception and operation imprints its meaning on the meaningless object' can occur not just in the evolutionary structuring of experience, but in the life of an individual too. You might recall a quote taken earlier from Dretske (1983, Lecture 13], that where he sees a daisy, his 2 year old sees a flower, and who knows what his dog sees. Certainly, a dog doesn't deal with what it sees as anything interesting. Similarly, a four-year old who can't read will just see black marks here, not words, just as you probably don't see these marks as meaning much: Si exporta en embalajes de madera, debe tener claro que el 1 de marzo comenzó a regir una nueva norma internacional de medidas fitosanitarias NIMF15. I didn't come to New Zealand seeing a table as something I couldn't sit on. Again, it can be interesting to wander around the tool and hardware sections of a megastore, such as Bunnings or Mitre 10, where you will find all kinds of objects that 'make no sense', that you wouldn't know 'what to do with'. And an important point here, again, is that we see objects for what they mean not because we look them up in some kind of abstract mental/cognitive database, but react to them with our bodies as much as our minds in terms of what 'organised responses' that they call out of us, a knowing what to do with them that is part of what they are.

The point is that the external, objective environment of objects that you see by default has had to be constructed over evolutionary time. Colours are not objective properties of the external world itself that colour receptors have evolved to reveal to us. 'Colours' are, objectively speaking, just electromagnetic wavelenths of radiation. Similarly, sounds are just mechanical vibrations. Smells? Are they 'out there' to be detected, or have they been constructed? How does a sense of smell work? Recent research suggests that the olfactory system doesn't detect complex odors, such as perfumes, as 'whole smells', but synthesises the experience from its components. Taste is presumably the same.

Thus, for von Uexkull, the issue is how the 'objective outside world in which we observe ourselves and other living things arises out of our subjective (private) universe (our Umwelt), that is to say how the former [the objective] is derived from the latter [the subjective] as an abstraction (T. von Uexkull, 1982:10). In fact, for von Uexkull, it is the construction of an 'objective' world that becomes a problem. Von Uexkull conceives of a gegenstand: an object in the Umwelt of a neutral observer, but never contained in the Umwelt of an animal: because no animal ever plays the role of an observer, one may assert that they never enter into relationships with neutral objects (1982: 27). It has taken particular human cultural histories to achieve a 'neutral' perception of objects [particularly the post-Cartesian enlightenment tradition in western science].

You might also realise at this point that an organism might need to have evolved some way of establishing whether the experiences it generates are 'real' or 'hallucinatory'. This appears to be the case for humans, and Simons and Burgess (2006) have suggested that a particular area of the human brain is involved in this. But for other animals? Plotkin's point ( 1994: xiv), noted above, that 'adaptations are themselves knowledge, themselves forms of 'incorporation' of the world into the structure and organization of living things' might well be sufficient as an explanation. Plotkin's point holds with respect to 'information processessing systems'. These become structured in ways that are in-formed by the environment, and thus they are able to present an in-formed experience of its world to an organism. The perceived world thus acquires a salience that it would not otherwise have. Let me try and clarify this.

'Adaptations' are adaptations to the world. Things need to fit the world. Now, apart from glass and its plastic analogues such as perspex, etc., can you think of any other solid substance that is transparent? Ice, maybe, but otherwise I can't. From these basic points we can get an idea why the majority of dead bees that one finds in a room in summer are on the window sill. Bee vision is built to work in a world in which the bee orients its flying with respect to the position of the sun, and effectively incorporated into the link between its eyes and its wings is an 'information processing system' that has evolved to deal with a world in which there are no transparent objects such as window panes. And because windows are recent, and bees being small and thus have minimal 'brains', having a perceptual system predicated on an environment in which it has not had to take account in evolving its behavioural machinery that there could be transparent objects, it cannot take account of them. Now, I'm not wanting to argue that there is a rule written or coded or programmed into the bee's genetic system that codes this piece of information. Rather, its perceptual system has been built to deal with a world without window panes, and the principle of transparent/penetrable informs the structure of its perceptual system.

The same may be said of stimuli that release innate reactions. Gull chicks peck at the red spot on the bills of adult herring gulls. It does this without having rules built into its brain that say 'if red, peck at it'. It has a perceptual system that links its visual experience to its muscles: it 'sees' red dots as 'peckable'.

Consider a frog. Frogs aren't interested in much. Being myopic, they can't 'see detail' beyond about 150 mms. In fact, whether they 'see' in the general sense of the word is questionable:

A frog hunts on land by vision. He escapes enemies mainly by seeing them. His eyes do not move, as do ours, to follow prey, attend suspicious event, or search for things of interest. If his body changes its position with respect to gravity or the whole visual world is rotated about him, then he shows compensatory eye movements. These movements enter his hunting and evading habits only, e.g. as he sits on a rocking lily pad. Thus, his eyes are actively stabilized. He has no fovea, or region of greatest acuity in vision, upon which he must center a part of the image.... [Lettvin et al, 1959: ]
Their eyes are not 'organs of vision' in our sense of the word. They do not provide the frog with a detailed three-dimensional view of what is out there: they detect those implications of the light that interest them - mainly bugs (within 125 mms).
The frog does not seem to see or, at any rate, is not concerned with the detail of stationary parts of the world around him. He will starve to death surrounded by food if it is not moving. His choice of food is determined only by size and movement. He will leap to capture any object the size of an insect or worm, providing it moves like one. He can be fooled easily not only by a piece of dangled meat but by any moving small object. His sex life is conducted by sound and touch. His choice of paths in escaping enemies does not seem to be governed by anything more devious than leaping to where it is darker. Since he is equally at home in water and on land, why should it matter where he lights after jumping or what particular direction he takes? He does remember a moving thing provided it stays within his field of vision and he is not distracted. (ibid: )
It is adaptive, within such a system, to have a lens that makes one myopic. If the lens were better at accommodating over distance, then the retina would have much more work to do, which a frog doesn't need done. It is well served by its anatomy embodying explicitly in its structural anatomy what it needs to know about. Where Lettvin et al (1959) titled their paper 'What the frog's eye tell the frog's brain' - and the answer being 'Most thing a frog's brain needs so as to direct its tongue', a related question would be 'What does the frog's brain tell the frog?' - the answer being, very little beyond where to shoot its tongue.

It must be quite weird being a frog.


Meanings come in two forms. The second, more recently evolved form, is that which is built on symbols, and is the form of meaning you are engaged in while reading this. But before that there exists a set of relations between organisms and their Umwelts that provide, to all organisms, non-symbolic meanings - the value of things as apprehended perceptually by all animals. This naturally-occuring, evolved-valuation provides a landscape for organic action that, I will be arguing, provides a grounding for the initial meanings that symbols traffic in.

Think back here to Lecture 12 on human evolution. There I noted one of the key issues in the modern human record that there appears to be a disjunction between the appearance of the species and the appearance of modern behaviours. We can now hypothesise that what might have been happening was a shift from a human world that was restricted to the first sort of meanings we have just isolated into one that allowed the second sort of meanings to be constructed, and then used to amplify our abilities.