Jakob von Uexküll (1864–1944)


Uexküll, Jakob Johann Baron von (1864–1944), non‐Darwinian Baltic German biologist and philosopher, who introduced an environmental theory (‘Umweltlehre’) into biology. This theory differed from the contemporary concepts in many ways: it denied the existence of objectivity in life and research, referred to individuals instead of collectives, allowed analyses without commitment on either Darwinism or creationism, and permitted physiologists, biologists, behaviourists and psychologists work with it. Uexküll did not present his environmental theory at the beginning of his career around 1890, but only in the 1920s, after a long odyssey between Darwinism, anti‐Semitic elusions, prebehaviouristic approaches and semicreationistic theses. When most of his ‘German’ colleagues in biology were involved in national socialistic crimes, Uexküll and most of his junior scholars refused to support race biology. However, after 1945, when evolutionary synthesis was introduced into life sciences, his outdated non‐Darwinian biophilosophy was deployed from biological discussions.

Key Concepts:

  • Uexküll's environmental theory was based on the idea of a supernatural power in nature, which worked as a explanation for the existence of life at all.

  • Below supernatural power, biologists were able to analyse human and animal living worlds. Every life and his reflexes were explainable by Uexküll's functional cycle.

  • The environmental theory was usable for biologists, physiologists, behaviourists or psychologists, either Darwinistic or not. However, Uexküll hoped to use it as a proof for his anti‐Darwinian ideology.

  • Uexküll's environmental theory was later used for explaining the behaviour of patients in psychosomatic medicine or in semiotic disputes and discussions over philosophy of sciences. It is in use even today, though most of his contemporary colleagues have fallen apart.

Keywords: environment; biology; Umweltlehre; neovitalismus/neovitalism; radical constructivism; Darwinism; physiology

Figure 1.

The functional cycle. Reproduced with permission from Uexküll (1921). © Springer.

Figure 2.

Uexküll as Professor at the University of Hamburg.

Reproduced with permission from Sudhoffs Archiv für die Geschichte der Medizin und der Naturwissenschaften 27, 1934, addendum to No. 3. © Sudhoffs Archiv.

Key writings by Uexküll:

Uexküll J (1905) Leitfaden in das Studium der experimentellen Biologie der Wassertiere. Wiesbaden: Bergmann.

Uexküll J (1909) Umwelt und Innenwelt der Tiere. Berlin: Julius Springer.

Uexküll J (1920) Staatsbiologie (Anatomie‐Physiologie‐Pathologie des Staates). Berlin: Paetel.

Uexküll J (1920) Theoretische Biologie. Berlin: Paetel.

Uexküll J (1921) Umwelt und Innenwelt der Tiere, 2nd edn. Berlin: Julius Springer.

Uexküll J (1934) Streifzüge durch die Umwelten von Menschen und Tieren (together with Wolfgang Kriszat). Berlin: Julius Springer.

Uexküll J (1936) Niegeschaute Welten. Die Umwelten meiner Freunde. Ein Erinnerungsbuch. Berlin: S. Fischer.

Uexküll J , Beer T and Bethe A (1899) Vorschläge zu einer objectivierenden nomenklatur in der physiologie des nervensystems. Zoologischer Anzeiger 22: 275–280. Reprinted in Centralblatt für Physiologie 13: 137–141.

Further Reading

Kull K (2001) Jakob von Uexküll . An Introduction Semiotica 134: 1–60.

Mildenberger F (2007) Umwelt als vision: Leben und Werk Jakob von Uexkülls. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner.

Pobojewskaja A (1993) Die Subjektlehre Jacob von Uexkülls Sudhoffs Archiv. Zeitschrift für Wissenschaftsgeschichte 77: 54–71.

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How to Cite close
Mildenberger, Florian G(Sep 2013) Jakob von Uexküll (1864–1944). In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0025068]