andrian_kreye's picture
Editor-at-large of the German Daily Newspaper German Daily Newspaper, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Munich

Subjective Environment

Explanations tend to be at their most elegant, when science distills the meanderings of philosophy into fact. I was looking for explanations for an observation, when I came across the theory of "Umwelt" versus "Umfeld" (vaguely environment versus surroundings) by the Estonian biologist and forefather of biosemiotics Jakob von Uexküll. According to his definition "Umwelt" is the subjective environment as perceived and impacted by an organism, while "Umfeld" is the objective environment which encompasses and impacts all organisms in it's realm.

My observation had been a mere notion of the major difference between my native Europe and America, my adopted continent for a couple of decades. In Europe the present is perceived as the end point of history. In America the present is perceived as the beginning of the future. Philosophy or history, I hoped, would have an explanation for such a fundamental yet simple difference. Both can deliver parts of an explanation of course. The different paths the histories of ideas and the histories of the countries have taken just in the past 200 years are astounding.

Uexküll's definition of the subjective environment as published in his book Umwelt und Innnenwelt der Tiere (Environments and inner worlds of animals, published 1909 in the language of his German exile) puts both philosophy and history into perspective and context though. Distrusting theories he always wanted ideas to persist in nature. Putting his idea of the subjective environment to the test in the Indian Ocean, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. He observed simple creatures like sea anemones, sea urchins and crustaceans. His most famous example to explain his theory was the tick though. Here he found a creature whose perception and actions could be defined by three parameters each. Ticks perceive their surroundings by the directions of up and down, by warm and cold and the presence or absence of butyric acid. Their actions to survive and procreate are crawling, waiting and gripping.

This model lead him not only to define environment as a subjective notion. He found the perception of time for any organism as subjective as the perception of space, defined by the very perceptions and actions that create the organism's subjective environment. If subjective time is defined by the experiences and actions of an organism, the context of a continent's history with its myriads of parameters turns philosophy and history into mere factors in a complex environment of collective perception. Now there was an elegant explanation for a rather simple observation. Making it even more elegant is the notion that in the context of a continent's evolution geography, climate, food and culture will weigh in as factors of the perception of the subjective environment and time as well, making it impossible to prove or disprove the explanation scientifically. Having rendered philosophy to just one of many parameters it thus reduces its efforts to discredit Jakob von Uexküll's definition of the subjective environment to mere meanderings.