During the Third German Congress of Philosophy (1950), was held in Bremen an important symposium on the theme of Environment. It was attended by some of the most famous philosophers of the time, but also by many eminent zoologists, physiologists, ethologists. The discussion focused not on the general concept of “environment”, but on the “revolutionary” theory of the acclaimed biologist Johan Jakob von Uexküll a few decades earlier. von Uexküll was of Estonian origin and of Germanic language and culture; he was scholar of marine zoology and a convinced experimenter, and a passionate reader of Kant’s philosophy also. In 1920 (and in a revised version in 1928) he published a comprehensive Theoretische Biologie, in which he gave full depth and completion to the ideas set out in an essay of 1909, entitled Umwelt und Innenwelt der Tiere. The great reverberation of this concept is rooted in the complex situation in which the so-called “life sciences” were at the beginning of the last century. Life sciences engaged the investigation of a singular and elusive object, moving between innovative laboratory experiments and philosophical reflection. Within the newly born biology, an intense debate was underway on the possibility of tracing vital phenomena to few simple physical and chemical laws, while at the same time vitalist and organicist theories were gaining strength, challenging the legitimacy of a rigid mechanism. von Uexküll’s position represented an original attempt to combine positivistic knowledge and philosophical spiritualism, and orbited around the idea that, since every living being is a subject (not a simple object) placed in relation with the outside (“its” outside), biology must deal with the existence of “individual environments” related to different animal subjects, and not with a single world, coinciding with that of the human being. Each animal – explains von Uexküll in his Theoretische Biologie – is an individual that, depending on the particular way in which it is constituted, selects certain stimuli from the general effects of the external world, to which it responds in a particular way. These response consists in certain effects on the world which, in turn, influences the stimuli. Thus “closed loop” can be called the functional circuit of the animal. On the basis of a certain “plan of construction” – the immaterial factor on which depend on the one hand the arrangement of the parts in the organic whole and on the other hand its mode of performance – the single biological subject observed is related to external elements through precise links, depending on the morphological characteristics and physiological processes of the living being.
The resulting dynamic structure the overall configuration of the life of the organism and the existential universe of the subject. This universe is therefore composed of stimuli and perceptions, which taken in their intimate connection form what von Uexküll calls “environment”: a closed system of relationships gathered around the individual living being, as expressed by the term “Umwelt“. von Uexküll’s ideas had a profound influence on the scientific and philosophical scene of the first half of the 20th century. This is demonstrated by the foundation, in Hamburg, of the Institut für Umweltforschung (which received important recognition from exponents of the biological and ethological science), and its reception in the philosophical sphere, in particular by the contemporary philosophical anthropology current (represented by Max Scheler, Helmuth Plessner and Arnold Gehlen). Also some of the most prominent thinkers of the time, such as Martin Heidegger and Ernst Cassirer, considered von Uexküll thought very important and fruitful. Between the fifties and sixties of the 20th century, many other philosophers and psychologists have referred to his work, emphasizing the originality and innovative power. In the second half of the Thirties, Subsequently, von Uexküll’s reflection turned to some theoretical aspects with the treatise Bedeutungslehre (1940). This work inaugurates a new reason of interest for von Uexküll’s thought. It will be followed by the work of authoritative contemporary semioticians, such as Thomas Sebeok.
For this issue of “Discipline Filosofiche” dedicated to the thought of Jakob von Uexküll we indicate, as simple suggestion, the following themes:
1) the elaboration of Kant’s philosophy in a biological direction;
2) its relationship to mechanistic and neo-vitalist conceptions;
3) assumptions and foundations of his idea of “Environment”;
4) the “subject”, biology and the other “sciences of life”;
5) the discussion of his ideas by scientists and philosophers of his time;
6) the reception of his ideas by contemporary scientists and philosophers;
7) the relationship of his conceptions to current ecological theories;
8) innovation and development of his ideas in semiotics.
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