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a foray into the worlds of animals and humans

6 april 2012

I had never heard of Jakob von Uexküll till I ran across his book A Foray Into the Worlds of Animals and Humans on the new-book shelves of my university's science library last year. But then I started seeing and hearing his name almost everywhere. For an Estonian-born early-20th-century philosopher of animal psychology whose works languished out of print and largely untranslated for decades, he is a surprisingly influential thinker, and surprisingly "now." In the proleptic terms framed by Pierre Bayard, von Uexküll, in the 1930s, seems to have plagiarized liberally from 21st-century "animal studies." His work has found echoes in the thought of many people who have never heard of him.

Anyone who has a dog or a cat has probably thought in Uexküllesque ways without realizing it. Dogs have odor maps of the world which don't correspond to ours. Cats can see in the dark to a degree that makes us visually disabled in their nighttime presence. We somehow always think of our limited perceptions of the world as the ultimate objective reality. But why is our universe any more privileged than that of a cat?

Uexküll's concept of Umwelt – not in the everyday German sense synonymous with the English word "environment," but in the specialized sense of "the environment that matters to the way that a particular species perceives things," has been enormously interesting to 21st-century thinkers. As you might imagine, though, this notion of Umwelt went into eclipse for much of the mid-20th century. The dominant trend in animal and even human psychology during the decades after Uexküll's death was behaviorism (which Uexküll's translator Joseph O'Neil renders as "physiology"). In the behaviorist worldview, animals just respond to stimuli; they have no central personal attitude toward the world that allows them to relate to a universe and form a mental map of it for purposes of navigation or planning. To suggest that animals have a consciousness was to be animist, even mysticist; for extreme behaviorists, even to suggest that humans have such a consciousness was unacceptably metaphysical.

Von Uexküll is neither mystical nor metaphysical. He simply points out that everything we can observe about animal and human behavior, experimentally or ethologically, leads to these conclusions: that every species has its own cognitive map of the world; that these maps often don't overlap very much; and that within the boundaries of that sensory/psychological universe (the Umwelt), creatures construct homes, familiar routines, and purposeful behaviors. This is not because they have souls, but because working purposefully to do what they do is an excellent adaptational strategy for animals. Uexküll escapes mere animism by noting that if animals have consciousness, it's a pretty damn strange consciousness in our terms. His initial and most famous example is that of the tick who can't see and barely notices anything about the world except a few chemical and textural cues. Within that field of consciousness, however, a tick goes to town.

I was most intrigued, in reading the short title essay of "A Foray Into the Worlds of Animals and Humans," by Uexküll's ideas on "magic," occasioned by his discussion of "search." Even encountering the word "magic" would have made postwar scientists cringe, but Uexküll is no crank. He proceeds from a very familiar cognitive situation: why can you sometimes not find your car keys when they're lying in plain sight on a table? (Actually he uses the example of a pitcher of water, but car keys seem a good American analogy.) You can't find the keys because you always leave them on a hook, or on the dresser, or in your pants pockets, and you've looked in all those places with mounting existential alarm. You can't see them on the table because they're never on that table. The "search image" you bring to the task of finding them is so strong that it overrules direct sensory reality.

Animals have search images too, and when those images don't correspond to the data of their surroundings, they have magical experiences. Creatures, including humans, see things that aren't there, and don't see things in plain view, because their schemes for perceiving the Umwelt are so strong that they annul "reality." (Or even constitute reality, as when birthers can't see President Obama's birth certificate.)

Uexküll's notion of the magical is thought-provoking not just for ethology (where it aligns well cognitive approaches from Jane Goodall to Victoria Braithwaite), but for philosophy and for rhetoric. (And thus for "theory" in general, as allusive essays by Dorion Sagan and Geoffrey Winthrop-Young in the 2010 Minnesota translation of Uexküll make clear.) It's also helpful in dealing with everyday life. I strode over to my CD shelf the other day looking for my import box set of old Billie Holiday recordings. It wasn't there. I still haven't seen it a week later, despite being vaguely conscious of passing it every day. The problem is that it isn't on the CD shelf, and even though it has registered somehow as part of my environment, I don't have what Uexküll would call an "effect tone" for a set of CDs that isn't on the CD shelf. Some would term my inability to find Billie sheer stupidity, and others might see it as incipient dementia. I prefer to think of it as magic.

von Uexküll, Jakob. "A Foray Into the Worlds of Animals and Humans." [Streifzüge durch die Umwelten von Tieren und Menschen, 1934.] Translated by Joseph D. O'Neil. In A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans, With a Theory of Meaning. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.