What do we want from Jakob von Uexküll? Two Reading Recommendations on Open and Closed Umwelten

15 November 2022

An opinionated, partial review of:

Köchy, Kristian and Francesca Michelini (eds.) (2019), Jakob von Uexküll and Philosophy: Life, Environments, Anthropology, New York: Routledge.

Schnödl, Gottfried, and Florian Sprenger (2021), Uexküll’s Surroundings: Umwelt Theory and Right-Wing Thought, Lüneburg: meson press eG.

Reading Uexküll in the 2020s

The work of Jakob von Uexküll’s has seen a remarkable uptick in interest in the last decades, with his concept of Umwelt at the center of attention. Special journal issues and monographs are the most obvious signs of this trend, and even though a lot of research remains to be done on what is still a marginal figure in the history of ideas, students of Uexküll’s thought can now make use of broad and detailed studies in the secondary literature. Ongoing discussions between scholars concern both the exegesis of Uexküll’s own thought and his reception by philosophers and scientists, but from the wealth of individual studies no clear direction has yet emerged for Uexküll studies. What do we want for Uexküll’s status as a thinker, and what do we hope to gain from grappling with his thought?

The two most recent volumes on Uexküll can be compared to highlight the difficult status of both author and work: While his ideas have been inspiring to many, some of their core implications—centrally the conviction that the Umwelt of each individual living being is closed, i.e. private and inaccessible to others—have been almost unanimously rejected even by proponents of his work. And even though he appreciated as a forerunner of cybernetics, a formative influence on ethology, and an inspiration for animal studies, he also penned a totalitarian organicist account of the state and supported the Nazi regime. In Uexküll’s Surroundings: Umwelt Theory and Right-Wing Thought (2021), Gottfried Schnödl and Florian Sprenger read the totality of Uexküll’s work through the lens of his bio-fascist extension of his concept of organism and Umwelt to the body politic and produce a set of sobering, if not bleak, guidelines for Uexküll studies. Although one-sided, their perspective provides a useful counterbalance to the collection of essays edited by Kristian Köchy and Francesca Michelini. Jakob von Uexküll and Philosophy: Life, Environments, Anthropology (2019) collects 14 chapters on Uexküll’s thought and its influence, plus a Foreword, an Introduction, and an Afterword.

The book is divided into two parts, the first dealing with the historical context of Uexküll’s thought and its influence on biological science, while the second focuses on his reception in philosophy. In part 1, we learn that Uexküll saw animals as subjects rather than objects and that he studied their worlds through “speculative ethology and field philosophy” in a research program that is inspired by Kant’s philosophy but deviates from it through a “physiologization of the transcendental” (Buchanan xiii, Michelini, 3). Individual chapters track the development of this deviant Kantianism, Uexküll’s career as an experimentalist, and his influence on the emergence of ethology, particularly on Konrad Lorenz. Despite his appreciation for Uexküll as an “accurate physiologist”, Lorenz took the view that each individual inhabits its own closed Umwelt as antithetical to the intersubjective foundation of scientific knowledge and hence considered Uexküll an “enemy of science” (Köchy, 58).

Part 2 contains chapters tracking the influence of Uexküll’s thought on Max Scheler, Helmuth Plessner, Ernst Cassirer, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Georges Canguilhem and Kurt Goldstein, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Hans Blumenberg, and Giorgio Agamben. One chapter each relating Uexküll to biosemiotics and the “third culture”, plus an Afterword by Ezequiel Di Paolo, round off the volume (Chien 239). These rich studies bring out Uexküll’s presence in the history of ideas in fascinating ways and make it possible to identify some general trends. Even though they all consider Uexküll to be an important thinker and make productive use of his ideas in some way, the philosophers discussed here are united in also rejecting core aspects of Uexküll’s thought. The most obvious unifying factor is the rejection of Uexküll’s claim that each animal—including each human being—lives in a private Umwelt, inaccessible to others. Whether through an appeal to some categorical difference between humans and animals—a popular route in Germany, often focusing on symbolic culture—or through a shift in thinking about subjective experience for all animals, the main task that philosophical readers of Uexküll have taken on seems to be that of proving him wrong on the point of individual Umwelten. This concern persists today in the field of cognitive science, with Ezequiel Di Paolo calling for a reception of Uexküll that is not afraid to adapt and change his ideas to suit our own conceptual needs. Like so many philosophers before him, but unlike Uexküll, he maintains that “Umwelten have open horizons” (254).

Although the essays collected here provide an immense wealth of detail and critical commentary, it’s not always clear how exactly Uexküll’s ideas interact with those of his interlocutors. For the sciences of mind and life yet to come, this much is to be expected. But even for the history of Uexküll’s 20th century commentators, it’s often not entirely clear whether their critiques really engage with the structure of Uexküll’s thought or rather evade his conclusions through subtle shifts in the conceptual landscape that allow them to ultimately avoid a direct encounter with his concept of Umwelt. In light of all this, I am fully in agreement with Di Paolo’s assessment that “[t]he future of Uexküll is open and exciting, although probably also riddled with conflicts and contradictions” (255).

Nowhere are the “conflicts and contradictions” of Uexküll studies more starkly visible than in the comparison between this edited volume and the recent monograph by Gottfried Schnödl and Florian Sprenger. Where the publisher’s description for Köchy and Michelini’s volume speaks of Uexküll’s fame being “tainted by an alleged link to National Socialist ideology”, Schnödl and Sprenger set out to show that this link is far deeper than so far assumed, and indeed that Uexküll’s thought is totalitarian through and through, and that no part of his work can be adopted without importing his reactionary politics, too. This rather bleak picture contrasts strongly with Di Paolo’s optimism for the “future of Uexküll” and it is of prime importance for the field to grapple seriously with the claims made by Schnödl and Sprenger. Uexküll’s Surroundings: Umwelt Theory and Right-Wing Thought (2021) brings to light important new details about Uexküll’s involvement with the Nazi state, centrally his appointment in 1934 to the Nazis’ “Committee for Legal Philosophy” alongside thinkers like Heidegger and Carl Schmitt (70). This new discovery matches what was already known—Uexküll’s Staatsbiologie (1920) describes a totalitarian vision of the nation state conceived as an organism and the second edition in 1933 praises Hitler, comparing him to a doctor with Germany as his sick patient. Additionally, Schnödl and Sprenger discuss Uexküll’s reception by right-wing thinkers past and present, including Oswald Spengler, and identify the tension in his thought between individual autonomy and conformity to a larger plan as a central trope in the Conservative Revolution in Germany. This work is careful, novel, and clearly important.

However, the overarching claims they make about Uexküll’s thought as a whole and what can and should be done with it are both very strong and, in my view, not sufficiently supported by the arguments and evidence they present. Broadly, these claims are first that all of Uexküll’s thought forms one coherent and indivisible whole and second that this whole and all its parts have a totalitarian logic or essence. They are certainly right that some of Uexküll’s personal views and published thoughts are totalitarian, and that this goes beyond his bio-fascist Staatsbiologie. However, they claim that “Uexküll’s biology is always political, his Umwelt theory always a worldview” and that if “one side is split away and carried forward, the other side does not simply wither from neglect but is implicitly carried along as well” (14, 230). If this were true, the wide-ranging use of Umwelt in biological research would have to bear traces of totalitarianism. The authors do not attempt to show such traces, nor do they make explicit what they might look like. This is problematic: When claiming that a whole area of scholarship is unknowingly importing totalitarian politics into their thought, the minimal due diligence would be to include a careful analysis of this research in your study to substantiate this claim. Conversely, if a study of contemporary papers employing the concept of Umwelt in biology or cognitive science found that they do not contain any noticeable totalitarian politics, this would show that Schnödl and Sprenger are wrong, because these papers have successfully separated the concept of Umwelt from Uexküll’s totalitarianism, his biology from his politics, etc. Having read some of the relevant research, it seems to me that this is indeed the case.

The central link between biology and politics in the Staatsbiologie relies on interpreting the nation state as a biological organism. This is an ancient trope that goes back at least to the Roman consul Agrippa Menenius Lanatus, but importantly it does not follow from Uexküll’s concept of Umwelt or his biological research. It is not a part of Uexküll’s biological views, but a totalitarian belief which he also held and chose to combine with them in theory of the state. If we reject the comparison between state and organism, the main link between Uexküll’s account of nature and any specific political thought is gone. It is true that Uexküll also talked about groups of humans as if they were species fit by the Plan of Nature into different environments, but nothing forces us to follow him in this point. Contrary to Schnödl and Sprenger’s suggestions, Uexküll’s thought is not one organic whole, but a loose and shifting combination of different ideas and influences that changes over time. They are adamant that no part can be simply removed from his work as a whole and used by itself, but they never make a convincing argument for why this should be so (and indeed the history of Uexküll’s reception seems to consist largely of examples of just this). They further claim that “Uexküll’s Umwelt theory cannot be separated from the problematic premises of its underlying holistic metaphysics” (229). Uexküll’s metaphysical commitments are not easy to pin down, and it’s not at all clear why they should be inseparable from the concept of Umwelt and how it functions as an account of animal experience and behavior. In general, the concept of Umwelt, influenced by Kant, can easily be separated from Uexküll’s holistic vision of Nature as a grand harmony, influenced by Goethe. Uexküll needed the latter as an account for the complex relationships between all the different parts of nature, because he rejected Darwinian evolution as an explanation. I see no reason why Umwelt could not function within a view of biology that is “dynamical” in the sense advocated by Di Paolo, and Schnödl and Sprenger, for all their insistence, do not provide one either.

Their account of Uexküll’s thought sometimes seems tailored to their own ends in ways that hinder clarity. They refer to his thought as a whole as “Umwelt theory”, which makes it harder to differentiate between Uexküll’s (different uses of the) term Umwelt and his many other ideas. Especially in the German edition, their choices of phrase often suggest that a strong connection between Uexküll and environmentalism is an original part of his biological thinking, rather than a historical connection drawn later and by others. Another case in which the terminology is potentially misleading occurs when they attribute to the “Umwelt theory” an “identitarian logic” (229). The term “identitarian” has risen to prominence in the 21st century as the name of a racist, far-right political movement in Europe, and although they no doubt share some views that Uexküll also held, ascribing an “identitarian logic” to his thought as a whole anachronistic and characterizes it as political and reactionary in a way that is not plausible for large parts of his theoretical biology. There is a long, meandering, and somewhat vague line that leads from the Umwelt of a tick to a bio-fascist account of the state in Uexküll’s intellectual biography, but there is no ‘logic’ embedded in the concept of Umwelt that implies it, nor a ‘germ’ contained within the idea of a functional cycle that inevitably buds into totalitarian thinking.

Schnödl and Sprenger are right to emphasize Uexküll’s totalitarian political views and their work on its historical context is immensely useful. However, their claim that Uexküll’s thought as a whole is a irredeemably totalitarian and that no part of it can be separated from the whole and made use of in a different system of ideas without importing also Uexküll’s reactionary political organicism is neither fully convincing as an interpretation of Uexküll as a thinker, nor does it seem to be borne out by the reality of existing appropriations of the concept of Umwelt in the life sciences. Instead of the narrow guardrails that Schnödl and Sprenger wish to impose, it seems likely that the future of Uexküll studies will look more like the vision we get from the volume edited by Köchy and Michelini: broad and varied, heterogeneous, moving along old and new trajectories that are not determined in advance. While a wide range of interpretations is a good thing and fertile grounds for productive discussions, this open vision for Uexküll studies also comes with concerns of its own. Perhaps the central issue in this regard is the question of what it means for Umwelt to be closed—or open. 

Ezequiel Di Paolo’s programmatic Afterword calls for a spirited reinterpretation of Uexküll’s thought and an appropriation of Umwelt in terms that are “dynamic” and “dialectical”, resulting in a view of Umwelt as open instead of closed. However, it is not entirely clear what exactly it means for Umwelt to be open or closed, what is philosophically at stake, and what kinds of arguments or evidence would be sufficient to establish the case either way. I believe that this question—What does it mean for Umwelt to be open or closed?—is absolutely crucial for Uexküll studies today. Not only do novel approaches to Uexküll’s work depend on an answer to this question, such as the recent attempts to use Umwelt as a conceptual connector for bridging a gap between ecological psychology and enactivism. Even our assessment of the historical reception of Uexküll’s thought, primarily by French and German philosophers in the 20th century, requires a clear answer to this question! Perhaps the central point in which Uexküll’s philosophical proponents took issue with his thought was the idea that human individuals each inhabit a closed Umwelt. So far, there is a danger that our perception of Uexküll’s reception will be skewed by distribution of expertise: since there are so many more Heidegger scholars than Uexküll scholars, it is no surprise that Heidegger’s critique of Uexküll tends to fall on sympathetic ears. And since Cassirer is a famous philosopher while Uexküll merely dabbled in philosophy written for a popular audience, we may be inclined to assume that Cassirer’s critique is compelling. But in creating their own ways of talking about the openness or closure of Umwelten, the philosophers who wrote about Uexküll made it difficult for us to see whether their arguments really connect with Uexküll’s original views and his reasons for holding them. By clarifying what it means for an Umwelt to be closed or open, we would not only allow new approaches to be more precise about where and how they part ways with Uexküll’s concepts, but we would also be providing clearer criteria for adjudicating historical debates. Both volumes discussed above are sure to play a key role in shaping Uexküll studies in the 2020s.

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