The Life & Mind Seminar Network

Welt and Umwelt

Posted in General by mjsbeaton on August 10, 2007

We were discussing worlds and ‘Umwelts’ at the pub, after the talk. I said maybe living in an Umwelt is somehow less than living in a ‘world’. People weren’t sure.

I’ve spotted where I (recently) picked this up from: A. D. Smith (The Problem of Perception, 2002, p.102-3). Apparently Gadamer and Heidegger both use the Welt/Umwelt distinction. And more recently McDowell uses it, too, in his (non-standard) translation “world”/”environment”. And all these authors’ usages trace back to von Uexküll. And all three of McDowell, Gadamer and Heidegger trace back to Heidegger’s slant on the term where, apparently, an animal has a ‘mere’ environment, whereas we have an objective world: “Heidegger … states that animals are separated from us by an “abyss”, and even questions the propriety of speaking of an animal “Umwelt” at all, because of its suggestion of “Welt”” (Smith, p.103).

Does anybody know what von Uexküll would have made of this usage of his distiction? (Smith doesn’t say, he just says that Heidegger put his own slant on it!) Or have thoughts about it themselves?



6 Responses

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  1. Marieke Rohde said, on August 10, 2007 at 9:07 pm

    Hi Mike,

    I can only comment on your post with respect to Uexküll’s “Die Lebenslehre” (The study of Life?) from 1930 which I don’t think has been translated.

    There, Uexküll does not actually distinguish “Welt” and “Umwelt” but “Umgebung” and “Umwelt”. Both words are commonly translated as “environment”. He occasionally uses the world “Welt” as well, but it is certainly not central to his theory, and it seems to be used mostly in the context of the big and important term “Umwelt”, to specify particular aspects of the “Umwelt” (“Wirkwelt”, “Merkwelt” , “Tastwelt”,…). But it is of course possible that in his later work “Welt” becomes a more important concept.

    Now about the distinction between “Umwelt” and “Umgebung”: Umgebung is the mere physical and meaningless aspect of the environment, the one we as observers perceive and measure when we scientifically investigate animal or human behaviour. The Umwelt, however, is the subjective and meaningful aspect of the environment. Von Uexküll’s ideas about the Umwelt are very much in line with constructivist and autopoiesis theories, it is one of his key concerns to argue that animals have such an Umwelt and how it is constituted through their sensorimotor interactions with the world.

    In a nutshell, the distinction between “Umwelt” und “Umgebung” is analoguous to the distinction between the observer perspective and the subject perspective, and “Welt” is not a concept of importance.

  2. Miriam said, on August 10, 2007 at 11:09 pm

    If I remember it right then “world” (Welt) refers to the world that “contains” the particular environments (Umwelten) of the different species. Every species is and has its own Umwelt. His example in Streifzüge durch die Umwelten von Tieren und Menschen (1934) is the tick whose environment is characterised only by properties like “furryness”,”butanoic acid” and activities like falling down and sucking blood, etc. The environment of each species depends on its particular structural design (“Bauplan”). But tick-environment, dog- and human-environments are all part of a greater whole – the world (Welt). Also, Andy Clark alleged Uexküll’s notion in Being There comparing the tick’s Bauplan and Umwelt to a robot whose particular environment was constituted by avoiding obstacles and collecting empty cans in a MIT-lab.

  3. tomfroese said, on August 14, 2007 at 11:04 am

    Von Uexkuell makes the following distinctions in his Theoretische Biologie (1920):

    Erscheinungswelt: phenomenal world for the observing subject
    Umgebung: that part of our own Erscheinungswelt which surrounds the observed other subject
    Umwelt: that part of the observed Umgebung which we determine to be significant for the observed other subject (the aim of von Uexkuell’s Umweltforschung which he considers to be the proper task of biology)

    In the autopoietic tradition Umgebung is generally equivalent to “environment” and Umwelt to “world”. However, note that von Uexkuell’s distinctions appear to be more precise than those used in some of Varela’s writings, because it sometimes appears that Varela uses “world” to also mean the Erscheinungswelt for the other subject.

    This is a mistake according to von Uexkuell since only for us as observers are Umwelt and Erscheinungswelt identical. We have no access to another subject’s Erscheinungswelt; we can only reconstruct it indirectly by studying how its Umgebung appears to us and how it affects that other subject. That is why he prefers to refer to that which we determine to be significant for the other subject as its Umwelt, which is the other subject’s perspective as derived from our own observer perspective. It does not refer to the other subject’s perspective as such, which we could call the “phenomenal world”.

    By the way, when you read through Thompson’s recent book notice how he seems to have inverted the meanings of “environment” and “world” when compared to the rest of the autopoietic tradition. This is rather unfortunate, in particular because the notion of “world” in its original meaning seems more closely related to Husserl’s notion of “life world” and therefore could provide a nice continuity between life and mind.

  4. janetcoeEselpee said, on September 3, 2012 at 4:11 pm

    I am here as someone trying to grasp jargon being discussed, so forgive me if I miss the mark.

    If ‘erscheinungswelt is the “phenomenal world for the observing subject”, what is the term for the “phenomenal world” beyond that which the observing subject can perceive; the “big picture”? A term that encompasses all of the collective phenomena of all observers (i.e. all organisms)? My Erscheinungswelt would differ from other observers, so how do we label that beyond our own limitations?

    It seems naive to think that all species of animals (“an animal has a ‘mere’ environment, whereas [humans] have an objective world”) live umwelt except humans. I know my dog’s umgebung revolves around her concept of my umwelt.

    Brains of all species are evolved to objectively analyse data unconsciously. It is frequently human’s conscious thought patterns that interfere. How many people in a day give their ‘opinions about God, global warming, etc as though it was a fact? Animals with big frontal lobes in general live more subjective lives than other animals, that they are released from only with superior education. The egocentricity of the human species is so dangerous when combined with their technology.

  5. Aap Dromedaris said, on October 16, 2017 at 11:35 am

    Obviously living in a Welt is not “less” than living in an Umwelt – it is simply less rigid and less determined. Or rather, it is impossible to live objectively in a Welt, whereas objectivity is eminently within reach of an Umwelt; conversely, it is less authentic to live in an Umwelt than it is to live in a Welt.

    There are indeed animals that have an extensive Umwelt: pigs for instance are highly solitary animals, yet when they have to live in a crowded space, they accept it – it is not so much that they adapt, they just ARE their environment.

    For humans, the need for perfect objectivity drives us to an Umwelt-tly objectivity, which is part of our fundamental rationality. But for our Welt-tlyness, our selfhood, and, ultimately, our existential freedom, we need to go beyond the Umwelt and communicate our existence to a way of life in which a Welt-ed freedom is possible, and, quite likely, we will construct a Welt-ed freedom within that way of life.

    Communion brings us to a way of life that is Welt-ed freedom. Our need for sustenance brings us out of that way of life again and forces back towards a struggle for rationality and – ultimately – Umwelt-tly objectivity. But, in many ways, our communion is already part of our search for sustenance and also, in that way, the very precondition of our Welt-tly freedom. This is what many religions teach, and what is expressed, for instance, in the Roman Catholic tradition of the Eucharist. In fact, the prayer and blessing of the bread is in fact a unique OPPORTUNITY also both caused and enabled by our sustenance/communion, that is to say our struggle for rebirth and eternal life. Prayer is the expression of true faith in the very substances that sustain us.

    As is clear from the above, Welt is part of freedom, but freedom is only feasible and rational if we can incorporate it in our daily routine for survival and it is only in this way that the daily grind of our lives can become meaningful.

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