Uexküll, Jakob Johann von

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(b. Keblas, Estonia [now Estonian S.S.R.], 8 September 1864; d. Capri, Italy, 25 July 1944)


Uexküll was the third of four children born to Alexander von Uexküll, squire of Heimar and later mayor of Reval (now Tallinn, Estonian S.S.R.), who had traveled in the Ural Mountains as a young geologist and had maintained an interest in natural science. After attending the Domschule in Reval, Uexkücll studied zoology at the University of Dorpat (now Tartu, Estonian S.S.R.), where he was influenced by the writings of Karl Ernst von Baerand Johannes Müller, In 1888 he worked with Kühne at Heidelberg, his research dealing with muscle physiology. After a period of studying marine life at the Zoological Station in Naples, he worked in Paris with Marey, who taught him how to use cinematography to record physiological processes. From 1925 to 1936 he was director of the Institut für Umweltforschung at the University of Hamburg. He received an honorary Ph.D. from the University of Heidelberg in 1907 and from the University of Utrecht in 1936. Uexküll was director of the Hamburg zoological garden and aquarium, and was honorary professor at Hamburg from 1925 to 1944.

Uexküll is known for his Umweltlehre, which has stimulated important research in ethology by Konrad Lorenz and Nikolaas Tinbergen, among others. The theory is based on the assumption that, within its own subjective “self-world” (Umwelt), a living being perceives only that which its sense organs (receptors) convey to it and deals only with those factors that its locomotive organs (effectors) can affect. Accordingly, by means of its sensory and effector organs, each creature selects a certain portion of the objective (physical-chemical-biological) surroundings suitable to its species: this is its Umwelt. This selected subjective world surrounds every creature like a fixed sphere, although it is invisible to the observer.

Nevertheless, through knowledge of the anatomy and physiology of a creature’s sensory and effector organs, as well as of its specific needs, the observer can reconstruct its Umwelt as a unity composed of a perceptual world and an effector world. He can then analyze its behavior as a sequence of steps in a functional circle that comprises a perceptual sector and an effector sector. For example, in the functional circle model, the sensory organs of a hungry creature endow a previously neutral factor (object) in its external surroundings with definite optical, olfactory, and tactile characteristics. Together these characteristics bestow upon the object the meaning “food”: in effect, they give it a label. This label elicits behavior (an activity of the effector organs) that brings the animal into contact with the object-grasping, biting, chewing, swallowing-and thereby eliminates the characteristics, with the attendant “meaning label,” This process occurs either subjectively (through satiation) or objectively (through swallowing). At this point the function circle has been entirely traversed, and the creature’s behavior comes to a state of rest.

The concept of the functional circle anticipates many important notions that were subsequently formulated mathematically in cybernetics. The functional circle is, in fact, essentially a control loop,

in which the result is retroactive with the beginning and prescribes its direction.

Each Umwelt is governed by a particular time, which originates in the subject. The notion of a subjective proper time goes back to von Baer, although he did not introduce a term for the subjective unit of time. Since Uexküll this unit has been known as the “moment.” It may be defined as the period within which we experience all stimuli as simultaneous, independent of the objective time sequence. In Uexküll’s theory, the basic component of subjective space is called “place.” Every designation of a specific location yields a place in the space of the subjective world.

Although ethology has developed only the objective (physiological) aspect of the Umwelt theory, sociologists —especially those concerned with the sociology of knowledge-have profited from related insights in their study of subjective phenomena.


I. Original works. Uexküll’s earlier writings include “Im Kampf um die Tierseele,” in Ergebnisse der Physiologie (1902); Leitfaden in das Studium der experimentellen Biologie der Wassertiere (Wiesbaden, 1905); Umwelt und Innenwelt der Tiere (Berlin, 1909); Bausteiner zu einer biologischen Weltanschauung (Munich, 1913); “Biologische Briefe an eine Dame,” in Deutsche Rundschau (1919); Staatsbiologie (Berlin, 1920): Theoretische Biologie (Berlin, 1920). also in English, Theoretical Biology (London-New York. 1926); “Technische und mechanische Biologie,” in Ergebnisse der Physiologie, 20 (1922); and “Wie sehen wir Natur und wie sieht sie sich selber?” in Naturwissenschaften, 10 (1922).

Subsequent works are “Definition des Lebens und des Organismus,” in A. Bethe et al., eds., Handbuch der normalen und pathologischen Physiologie, I (Berlin. 1927). 1–26; “Die Einpassung.” ibid., 694–701; “Der Wirkraum,” in Pflügers Archiv für die gesamte Physiologie, 217 (1927). 72–87. written with H. Roesen; Die Lebenslehre (Potsdam. 1930); “Die Rolle des Subjekts in der Biologie,” in Naturwissenschaften, 19 (1931), 385–391; “Biologic oder Physiologie?” in Nova acta Leopoldina, 1 (1933), 276– 281; and Streifzüge durch die Umwelten von Tieren und Menschen—Bedeutungslehre (Berlin, 1934; repr. Hamburg, 1956), written with Georg Kriszat, also in English, Instinctive Behaviour (New York, 1957).

II. Secondary Literature. On Uexküll and his work, see Rudolf Burckhardt and Hubert Erhard, Geschichte der Zoologie, 2nd ed. (Berlin, 1921); Festschrift für Jakob von Uexküll (Berlin, 1924), published for his sixtieth birthday; F. Brock, in Sudhoffs Archiv für Geschichte der Medizin und der Naturwissenschaften. 27 (1934), with bibliography; and Gudrun Uexküll, Jakob von Uexküll. seine Welt und seine Umwelt (Hamburg, 1964).

T. von UexkÜll